About a week ago an idea for a new song popped in my head. I started writing and came up with a verse pretty quickly, and the chorus followed shortly afterwards. As I love talking about music and creative processes and such, and I’m never sure how I write songs when people ask me about it, I decided to take notes about this last one, and explain how I did it. This is by no means the only way to do it. Or, for that matter, the only way I do it.
This should be easy to understand even if you don’t know music theory, as I don’t really use a whole lot when I write (I don’t know all that much myself, anyway). Also, I’ll try to explain the concepts I do use.
The spark for this song was a title and a topic. The title was “Who are you?” and the topic was the feeling of not knowing someone anymore after they change or we discover something about them we didn’t know.
Just minutes after the spark came, a melody popped in my head. Note that I wasn’t thinking about any scales or chords or anything like that. A melody popped in my head and I just needed to write it down before I forgot it.
The first thing I did was to figure out in which time signature the melody was (it’s in 6/8). A bit more on that below if you don’t know music theory. Once I found out it’s in 6/8, I went to http://music-explorer.org and found the notes for the melody, then wrote down the following (at the time I couldn’t notate it properly):
1 2 3 4 5 6 A E A B 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 B A B C 1 2 3 4 5 6 B A A E
This is a simple visual representation of the melody. The letters are notes, and the numbers are used to count the beat. This is how it sounds:
If you don’t know music theory
If you have no idea what the 6/8 above means, listen to the drums and see how you can count together with the drums, in groups of 6. You should be able to count four groups of 6, and each group should feel like a short phrase, as in it makes sense as a group. If you tried to count in, say, 4, each group of 4 would be random notes, and wouldn’t naturally follow the music.
Look at my made-up graphical representation while you listen to the music and see if you can make sense of it. See how in the last group of 6, the second and fourth notes are not aligned exactly with a number! That happens in the music, too.
If you don’t know music theory: what are chords?
A chord is three (or more) notes played at the same time. Often, one starts with a melody and then adds chords to it. The chords have to have common notes with the melody they accompany.
If you want to try some things, go to http://music-explorer.org, type the chord into the “Highlight chord” box, and press Enter.
If you do know music theory
For some songs I try to write more intuitively, more “from the gut”. This is one of those. In these cases I don’t try to find the key or the scale I’m using, and I don’t think of which chord is the I, or the iii, or whatever. I just try several things until I find something I like.
Adding chords to the verse
As we can see in the visual representation I made, the first notes are A, E, and B. Now, which chords contain at least some of those notes? I tried a couple, and I decided that I liked Aadd9 (which is made of the notes A, B, C#, and E). Because the second bar (the second measure for you Americans; if you don’t know music theory, I mean the second group of 6 beats) doesn’t have any notes, I kept the chord.
For the third bar I liked how Cmaj7 (which is made of the notes C, E, G, and B) sounded. That matches B and C, but not A. That’s fine. For the last bar I only matched E because I went with Cadd11 (I had the impression that I’d like the chord to be another kind of C, and I liked how Cadd11 sounded there; Cadd11 is made of the notes C, E, F, and G).
This is the end result, playing the chords once in the beginning of each bar:
Rhythm and groove
The rhythm of the guitar and the drums was just a placeholder. I wanted the rhythm to be a bit more sophisticated than that. Long story short, after playing a bit with it I ended up with this version:
If you listen closely you’ll hear that in the last bar I added a variant of the Cadd11: it’s Cadd11/E.
Adding a bass line
After I got the guitar chords, I added a bass line. For each bar we know the chord being played, and we know which notes it contains. So, the bass plays one or more notes from the chord (could be the melody, too, but I usually pick from the chord notes).
The first two bars have Aadd9, and in this case I kept it simple and only played A (the root note, ie. the one that gives the chord its name). In the third, the chord is Cmaj7 and I decided to play C, again the root. In the last, the chord is Cadd11, and I decided to play F and E (the 11th and the major 3rd respectively).
Note how the melody, guitar, and bass don’t always play at the same time. Instead, they “weave” the song together.
For the chorus I did something similar: started with the melody, added some chords I liked (by looking at the notes in the melody), then decided the rhythm for the guitar and the drums, and finally I added a bass line. I don’t always work in this order, but it worked for me for this song.
I ended up with the chords Cm7 (comprised of C, D#, G, and A#), C#maj7 (comprised of C#, E#, G#, and C), and Am (comprised of A, C, and E).
Final version (verse + chorus)
This is not the whole song because I’m going to add something more: most likely some kind of outro, a bridge, or maybe space for a guitar solo. But the final version of verse and chorus plus the repetitions I expect to have in the final version are here:
I hope this was useful and easy enough to understand! If you have questions, you can contact me on Mastodon (email@example.com), where I post a song every Monday, with a short explanation of something interesting to notice when you listen to it.