The three elements of a great song.
I am both a singer-songwriter and the leader of a blues-rock band. When I pick up my guitar to write, I find my songs usually fitting into one of these categories. The singer-songwriter type songs are usually quieter, tell a great story and make you think a little harder. Songs I write for the band tend to be about energy, groove, and rock ‘n’ roll. While it may sound like there is a big difference between a simple acoustic song and a loud headbanger, they share the same three fundamental elements.
The progression is the underlying chords that make the backdrop of the song. A great progression is important to establish the tone quality, key (major or minor) and overall emotions of the song. In the case of a rock song it could also be the underlying groove, usually from the rhythm section, that carries throughout the song. Is it sad, is it happy, are you tapping your toes or bobbing your head? The progression serves the other elements of the song and can provide paths for the melody and lyrics to follow. It can also introduce tension and in turn provide release when the time is right.
A great melody is usually the first thing anyone hears and remembers from your song. It is also the first thing that pops in my head when I’m writing a song. Sometimes it comes with lyrics and other times I hear just the notes. Either way the melody should always come from your gut and from a feeling you have, that’s what makes it so memorable. Don’t create a melody from a series of notes solely picked according to music theory.
The most important thing about writing a great melody is keeping it simple. Use as few notes as possible, try to keep it within one octave range and make sure the timing between each note is right. Even a punchy two-note chorus to a rock song is a melody. A simple melody is easier to weave in and out of the progression and makes it easier to produce the tone and emotion. Dissonance in the melody can leave you on the edge of your seat feeling uneasy about where things will go but leads to a great sense of comfort when it is resolved. For that matter, all great hooks have great melodies.
For many songs the lyrics are the most crucial element because they are the way we actually communicate the details of the story. So I try to get every phrase, word, syllable and letter just right. However, sometimes for rock songs it doesn’t matter what you say just how you say them. Is it with attitude, swagger, confidence, charm or sorrow? Because the lyrics are so important, they are also the trickiest to finish. I find it hard to make the lyrics fit just right so that they don’t compromise the melody. So, the keys to making great lyrics go hand in hand with making a great melody. Be as detailed as possible while using the fewest words you can. Creating simple imagery is better than being vague. Make sure it is simple and you have the right phrasing. Don’t cram too many lyrics into a line or stretch out the melody because you have too few. Finally, every word is as important as the other. You can have the greatest hook ever but if you don’t set it up properly it loses its luster.
Each of these three elements can be the focal point of a song but they must all support each other or the song falls apart. For instance, don’t get lazy or complacent with the lyrics just because you have a great melody. Or, don’t forget to use your progression to play with the listeners emotions or your hook won’t hit as hard. Next week I’ll talk about the whole writing process and how I make everything fit together, from the inspiration to the final product.