How To Write A Song

The first thing about how to write a song is knowing that a song consists of four main elements: melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics. Otherwise, you would have instrumental music. An instrumental is a recording normally without any vocals, although it might include some inarticulate vocals, such as shouted backup vocals in a big band setting. I don’t play any instruments. At least, not well. I can read music and I get by overusing some basic chords, so an instrumental is not really in my realm.

But that should not matter since many songs use the same 4 chords because these two numbers are small, the crests of the sound waves will peak at the same place more often than they would if the ratio were say 15:8. So any two notes with an interval between them of a perfect fifth, will sound good together.

A simple melody may consist of a single musical phrase—just a few short notes and nothing more. More complex musical ideas may generate far more elaborate melodies, like those you hear in jazz, operatic arias, and progressive rock epics. Most melodic ideas come from either a chord progression or a scale, with one notable exception.

Yet it’s melodies—both instrumental melodies, like guitar riffs and bass lines, and vocal melodies—that typically serve as a song’s calling card. Let’s start by remembering the musical elements of a song.

Musical Elements Of A Song

  1. Melody
    • Pitch—The highness or lowness of a tone, depending on the frequency (rate of vibration)
    • Interval—The distance and relationship between two pitches.
    • Range—The distance between the lowest and highest tones of a melody, an instrument, or a voice.  (narrow,     medium or wide)
    • Shape—The direction a melody takes as it turns upward or downward, or remains static.
    • Phrase—As in language, a unit of meaning within a larger structure; thus, a melody may be divided into component phrases.
    • Cadence—A resting place in a musical phrase-musical punctuation.
    • Countermelody—An accompanying melody playing against the principal melody.
  2. Rhythm
    • Beat—Regular pulsation; a basic unit of length in musical time
    • Accent—Emphasis on a note, so that it is louder or longer than another
    • Tempo—The rate of speed or pace of the musical pulse. (grave, largo, adagio, andante, allegro, vivace)
    • Measure—A rhythmic group or unit that contains a fixed number of beats, divided on the musical staff by bar lines.
    • Meter—The grouping of beats into larger, regular patterns, notated as measures.
    • Upbeat—The last beat of a measure, a weak beat, which anticipates the downbeat, the first beat of the next measure.
    • Downbeat—The first beat of a measure, the strongest in any meter.
    • Syncopation—Deliberate upsetting of the meter or pulse through a temporary shifting of the accent to a weak beat, or an offbeat.
    • Polyrhythmic – The simultaneous use of several rhythmic patterns or meters.
    • Nonmetric—Music lacking a strong sense of beat or meter.
  3. Harmony
    • Chord — Simultaneous combination of tones (typically three or more) that constitute a single block of harmony.
    • Scale — A series of tones or pitches in ascending or descending order.
    • Tonality — The principal of organizing a work around a central tonic, or home pitch, based on a major or minor scale.
      • Tonic
      • Diatonic
      • Chromatic
      • Consonance
      • Dissonance
      • Drone
  4. Texture
    • Monophonic one voice/part presents a single melody.
    • Heterophonic: Two or more voices/parts elaborate on the same melody simultaneously.
    • Homophonic: principle melody and accompanying harmony.
    • Polyphonic: two or more melodies combine into a multi-voiced texture.
    • Shape—The direction a melody takes as it turns upward or downward, or remains static.
    • Phrase—As in language, a unit of meaning within a larger structure; thus, a melody may be divided into component phrases.
    • Cadence—A resting place in a musical phrase-musical punctuation.
    • Countermelody—An accompanying melody playing against the principal melody.
  5. Form
    • Repetition
    • Contrast
    • Variation
  6. Dynamics
    • Pianissimo, Piano, Mezzo-piano, Forte, Fortissimo
    • Crescendo—The dynamic effect of gradually growing louder
    • Decrescendo—The dynamic effect of gradually growing softer
    • Sforzando —A sudden stress or accent on a single note or chord.
  7. Timbre
    • Voices—The standard voice types are: (female) soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto; (male) tenor, baritone, and bass.
    • String family—Two types of instruments: bowed and plucked. (Violin, viola, cello, bass, harp and guitar)
    • Woodwind family—Instruments where breath is used to produce sound across a reed or hole. (Flute, piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, oboe, bass clarinet and saxophone).
    • Brass family—Trumpet, French horn, trombone and tuba.
    • Percussion family—Instruments that are played by striking their surface. (Drums, xylophone, chimes, triangle, etc…)
    • Keyboards—Instruments that are played by pressing keys that cause a hammer to strike a taught string. (Piano, harpsichord, and synthesizers).
    • Ensembles—Musical performing groups (instrumental, vocal and mixed)

Composing A Melody

A melody consists of two primary components: pitch and duration. In music theory, every note vibrates at its own distinct frequency, which determines its pitch—how “high” or “low” it sounds. Duration refers to how long a note is held. For instance, a quarter note is a note that lasts one-quarter the duration of a measure written in 4/4 time. Duration also refers to the length of breaks between notes.

Types of Melodies

A mere ten note melody will produce over 75 billion potential melodies of 13 notes within the octave! It’s going to take our composer a while to work his way through those. Successful melodies typically move in stepwise motion (up or down either a half-step or a whole step) with a few leaps (up or down any larger interval). They also often have a focal point—a high note in a melodic passage that anchors the rest of the melody line. Melodies can invoke emotion, this depends entirely on what interval the melody represents in this new chord:

1 (root): strong, hypnotic
2: dreamy, open
b3: sad
3: happy
4 (only in minor chords): dreamy, open
5: strong, hypnotic
b6: sad, tense
6: grand
b7: funky
7: dreamy

Bach’s melodies are characterized by:

  • Heavy use of stepwise motion (where notes only move by a whole-tone or a half-tone)
  • Occasional leaps of a third or more—often the most memorable parts of the melodies
  • Focal points—high or low notes that the music builds toward, which tends to create arc-shaped or V-shaped melodic contours in the sheet music.

Pop music usually recycles three main elements:

  • Tempos (120 bpm is particularly popular)
  • Chord progressions (like I – V – vi – IV)
  • Lyrical themes (love, heartbreak, personal liberation)

Color Melodies, i.e. melodies that sound pretty
Direction Melodies, i.e. melodies that go somewhere
Blends, i.e. melodies that use both color AND direction

Chord-based melodies: Some songwriters start their melody-writing process by writing a series of chord changes. They then compose melodies based on chord tones—the notes that make up each chord.

Scale-based melodies: Scale based melodies are comprised of notes within a particular scale or mode. For instance, a C major melody might only use the notes found in a C major scale (indicated by a key signature with no sharp or flat notes). Major and minor scales usually contain seven notes (some minor scales contain more), but you can compose a great melody using fewer notes. Pentatonic scales, which only have five notes, frequently appear in pop music production.

Monotone melodies: Technically, melodies can also be monotone rhythmic patterns. Some hip-hop vocal melodies fit this category, as do dance beats in some EDM songs. This doesn’t mean that every drum beat counts as a song’s melody, but if there aren’t any pitched sounds layered on top of it, a rhythmic pattern can serve as the melody for a section of a song.


Rhythm is a recurring movement of sound or speech. An example of rhythm is the rising and falling of someone’s voice. An example of rhythm is someone dancing in time with music. The patterned, recurring alternations of contrasting elements of sound or speech.

Many of the catchiest, most popular songs are memorable because of a rhythmic motif. In the simplest of terms, rhythm is the basic pattern or grid in which musical notes move and flow. The beat is the tempo that remains consistent throughout the piece. Melody adds to the quality of the song, whereas rhythm adds to the pace of the song. Rhythm is measured by time, whereas melody is measured by the notes. There are several notes in a given form of classical music.


Melody gives music soul, while rhythm blends the expression of harmony and dynamics with the tempo of the passage. All are necessary to create a recognizable pattern known as a “song.” Harmonies have two or more sounds played simultaneously, and the result should be sonically pleasing, and the sounds should complement one another. The main difference between harmonies and melodies is that a harmony builds upon an already existing melody, and a harmony needs a melody to exist.

We can synthesize the process of songwriting and its many musical components, from chord progressions to rhythmic hits and lyrics. When it comes to harmony we tend to evaluate it via a song’s chord progression.

What Is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is the cycle of chords that plays throughout a particular section of a song. Typically, songs written in 4/4 or 3/4 (the most common time signatures) will have one chord per measure, although two chords per measure is also quite common. It’s possible to have three or four chords per measure (or even more), but this technique is more commonly found when a song transitions to a new section.

The four main chord progressions used to make any music song are Roman numerals I, V, vi, and IV. What is this? The chord progression chords are always from the C major, G major, A minor, and F major melodic scales.

When it comes to reading music, understanding time signatures is essential to understanding musical notation and the rhythm of a piece of sheet music.

What Are Time Signatures in Music?

Time signatures, or meter signatures, indicate how many beats are in each measure of a piece of music, as well as which note value is counted as a beat. Time signatures are located at the beginning of the staff (a set of five lines used to dictate each note’s pitch), after the clef and key signature.

Western music contains twelve distinct pitches, each of which is repeated over the course of many octaves. But most music does not utilize all twelve of these pitches within a single section. Typically only seven of the twelve pitches a regularly used within a section of music. We identify which seven notes are available by indicating a key and notating that key with a key signature.

Some insight into how the Beatles songs are made up of mixed time signatures. e.g. Two Of Us Most of it’s in 4/4, but with the odd bar of 2/4 and 3/4 dropped in.

  1. India
    • More comprehensively, swara-graam (scale) is the practical concept of Indian music comprising seven + five= twelve most useful musical pitches. The Indian music is based on melody or single notes played in a specific order. The Western music, on the contrary, is based on harmony that uses tonic progression and counterpoint abundantly. Western music has a standardized written notation meaning you have to play exactly as it is written.
  2. Phrygian Scale
    • The Spanish Gypsy Scale is a common name for the Phrygian Dominant Scale (a.k.a. Spanish Phrygian, Spanish Major and, less often, Freygish or Ahava Rabboh Scale, which is Hebrew for the Jewish Scale). Phrygian scale or mode is used a lot in flamenco and Spanish guitar music for playing solos or improvisation. It is the third mode of the major scale, meaning it has the same notes, although the sequence starts from the third note. Even though the phrygian scale is a mode of the major scale, it’s actually a type of minor scale. This is because the 3rd note is an interval of a minor 3rd above the tonic. As well as the minor 3rd it also has a minor 6th, 7th and a minor 2nd (the only other mode to have a flattened 2nd is the locrian mode). Salsa, on the other hand, instead of playing diatonic chords (which in the Phyrgian are Minor, Major, Major, minor, diminished, Major, minor) playing parallel major cords (all major chords).
  3. Egypt
    • The suspended pentatonic scale, also known as Egyptian scale is actually the second mode of the major pentatonic scale. The interval pattern is tonic (1) – Second (2) – Fourth (4) – Fifth (5) and minor seventh (b7). This scale is designed to be played over 7sus2 and 9sus2 chords.
  4. Arabia
    • In music, the double harmonic major scale is a scale whose gaps may sound unfamiliar to Western listeners. This is also known as Mayamalavagowla, Bhairav Raga, Byzantine scale, Arabic (Hijaz Kar), and Gypsy major. E is traditionally the home tone for the Beyati Mode, which is a very common mode in Arabic music. Although, of course, with the needs of modern music transposing to other notes to start the mode is common.
  5. China
    • Traditional Chinese music uses a different scale system. Instead of the diatonic (eight-note) scale used in Western music (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C), Chinese music uses only a five-note (pentatonic) scale.
  6. Turkey
    • In Turkish music theory, the octave is divided into 53 equal intervals known as commas (koma), specifically the Holdrian comma. Each whole tone is an interval equivalent to nine commas.
  7. African
    • Most African melodies are based on a “limited number of pitches” – four, five, six or seven note scales and are normally short and simple, often expanded by repetition and improvisation. The pitch in African drumming is largely determined by the tuning of the drums. African music is isometric. The music is either 6/8 or 2/4. Usually using the 4/4 time signature common in Western music, afrobeats commonly features a 3–2 or 2–3 rhythm called a clave.
  8. Brazilian
    1. Brazilian music most often uses a 2/4 or 2/2 time signature (also known as cut time). Brazilian music is a unique blend of European harmony and melody, African rhythms along with Native American culture. It’s a country with many unique music genres, including samba, bossa nova and axe – plus a knack of taking other genres such as pop, funk and rap and giving them a Brazilian makeover.

Best Riffs Ever

A riff is never a melody, it can be a hook in a piece or in a song, but the melody is what glues the piece together. In more musical terms : A riff doesn’t go anywhere – It’s an isolated thing of it’s own. In contrast to that, a melody can do whatever it wants.

Taylor Swift has a reputation for catchy hooks. Her most most recognizable are perhaps: Shake It Off, I Knew You Were Trouble, Bad Blood, Blank Space, and We Are Never Getting Back Together.

Famous riffs you might know:

  • “The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
  • “The Kinks: You Really Got Me
  • “David Bowie: Rebel Rebel
  • “Neil Young And Crazy Horse: Cinnamon Girl
  • “Led Zeppelin: Whole Lotta Love
  • “Deep Purple: Smoke On The Water
  • “My Girl” – The Temptations
  • “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple
  • “Rebel Rebel” – David Bowie
  • “Mannish Boy” – Muddy Waters
  • “When I Come Around” – Green Day
  • “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – The Rolling Stones


Song structure. Most songs contain some combination of the following elements: an intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a bridge, instrumental solos, and a coda or outro. A well-established song structure is: verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus/ bridge/ chorus. Many hit pop songs use this structure.  This is known as an ABABCB structure, where A is the verse, B is the chorus and C is the bridge.

Popular songs will sometimes start with a very specific event or example and move on to a big a conclusion in the chorus. In Sour Olivia Rodrigo starts:

Brown guilty eyes and little white lies
Yeah, I played dumb but I always knew
That you’d talk to her, maybe did even worse
I kept quiet so I could keep you

And then concludes with:

Guess you didn’t cheat
But you’re still a traitor

Structure Of A Song

  1. Intros and outros in music -Intros serve to present themes that the song develops, both musical and lyrical. They give your audience an early taste of what’s coming and orient their ears to the sonic world that will unfold over the course of the song. Outros provide a resolution to the sonic journey the audience just experienced.
    • Intro. Like the beginning of a film or novel, you should catch the listener’s attention. However, do this without overwhelming them. That is why most song intros are typically slower and more low-key. The goal is to establish the rhythm, tempo, and melody of the song, and introduce the singer or singers’ voices.
    • Outro. This is the end of the song. An outro should signal clearly to the listener that the song is coming to an end. This can be done in a number of ways, but typically is achieved by doing the reverse of the intro—in other words, slowing down. More often than not, the outro is usually a repeat of the chorus with a slow fade-out.
  2. Verse. The verse of a song is a chance to tell a story. Lyrically speaking, this is where the story actually develops and advances. In most songs, the chorus and pre-chorus generally use the same lyrics each time, so the verse is your chance to get your message across. It might be helpful to split the story you want to tell in two and think about how the second verse can build on the first. Some songwriters use the second verse as an opportunity to change or subvert the meaning of the chorus, or even the entire song with different lyrics. It’s a chance to be creative and explore the different emotions you’re trying to bring out in your listener. Check out our writing category to help you tell your story.
  3. Pre-chorus. Although optional, a pre-chorus helps to heighten the impact of the chorus. A pre-chorus usually contains a chord progression from either the verse or the chorus, building upon that familiarity. It’s another chance to experiment—a pre-chorus can utilize different harmonies, for example, or break the pattern of the song.
  4. Chorus. The chorus is the culmination of all the big ideas in your song. This is often why the title of the song also appears in the chorus. It’s a summary of what the entire song is about. The chorus typically also contains the hook—the catchiest part of the song. Choruses should serve as the climax to the song. The verses and pre-chorus both serve to build up to this one moment; therefore the chorus should reflect that release of tension.
  5. Bridge. The bridge typically happens only once towards the end of a song, usually between the second and third chorus. It’s a change of pace in the song—it stands out both lyrically and musically. The point is to jolt the listener out of her reverie and remind her that there’s more to this song than just repetition. This can be achieved through something like switching to a relative key in the same key signature (for example, from A-Minor to C-Major) or through something like a guitar solo.

As with any creative form, there are exceptions to the rule. These successful variations have worked for many musical artists across different time periods and genres.

No chorus

AABA or Verse / Verse / Bridge / Verse

In this type of song structure, one of the main elements of a song—the chorus—is missing. To make up for this, each verse typically either begins or ends with a refrain: a line or few lines that repeat throughout the song. (This is usually the title of the song.) This song structure is common in the work of artists like Billy Joel and The Beatles. For example, in The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” (1965), the refrain is the song title.

No bridge

AAA or Verse / Verse / Verse

man learning how to write a song
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

This structure is not often used because it involves so much repetition. Similarly to the AABA structure, this structure also relies on the use of a refrain to keep things interesting and to help give the song focus. A famous example of this structure is Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975). Dylan uses different melody variations in the verses to keep things from becoming too repetitive.

This essay is heavily inspired by a collection of Songwriting classes at MaterClass

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