The elements of music for songwriting

How to apply the basic components of music to writing songs

Musicologists have argued for ages as to how many elements of music there are.

Some claim there are 5 main elements of music, some 7, some 10, and others even more.

This debate isn’t really useful for us songwriters and most of the time it is blurred by semantics.

For instance, in the 9 elements of music, we’ll be getting into below, Tempo and Rhythm are treated as two different elements. Some people group them as one.

Lyrics, on the other hand, are a very common element in Pop, Rock, and Metal music, but not present in instrumental music.

Does it really make a difference for songwriters?

Not at all.

What we want to do is write better songs!

In this lesson I show you how to write your first song because getting started and actually writing songs, no matter how crappy your first songs are, is the first, and most important step toward writing great songs.

In today’s lesson, we’ll go deeper into each musical element of your songs.

This will improve your songwriting because, once you are aware of each element, you can single out that element of music separately and see if there’s anything in that specific element that can be improved to make your song better.

Some of these elements, especially the first two, are also a good place where to start writing your song.

What are music elements?

There is more than one thing working when you listen to a song. Each of these is an element that, when combined, produces music.
Some elements, such as melody, can be found in any piece of music. Other components could be missing. An instrumental song, for example, lacks lyrics, whereas a song sung a cappella lacks harmony.

    1. Melody

While all the elements of music will determine the quality of your song, the melody is usually the one that makes it or breaks it.

And while I always suggest music theory for guitar players and songwriters, from experience, the trick to learning to come up with as many catchy tunes as you want is to actually practice coming up with tunes over and over again.

Train yourself by writing different phrases of words – not necessarily parts of lyrics for a song, and they don’t really need to make sense – and singing different melodies with those words.

Some of your melodies will sound lame and bland, even embarrassing – and that’s great.

This is all part of a learnig process, and from the melodies that aren’t melodic, you’re unconsciously learning what not to do to be able to write a catchy melody.

Your goal here is not to become good at singing. If you’re not a singer, you won’t be singing the songs yourself – you’re just learning how to create them by coming up with catchy tunes.

     2. Harmony

Whether you’re doing it consciously or not, the notes of the melodies you come up with are derived from a scale, usually the major scale or the minor scale.

Each note of the scale being used can be harmonized by a chord\s.

In this lesson on chord progressions I explain some of the basic theory behind harmonizing scales.

The study of harmony can reach very advanced levels, which may be far from your reach as a songwriter right now.

This is not a problem.

You can harmonize your melodies either by using the most basic theoretical aspects of harmony, or just your ear – and match the chords with the notes.

Then, as soon as you learn a new concept related to harmony in music theory (for instance, chord substitutions or borrowed chords), apply it by writing a song with it – or improve on this element in a song you’ve already written.

Keep in mind that for a song to be great, it doesn’t have to be complex.

Your main aim in songwriting is to express yourself, and the goal of learning the study of harmony should be to have more options you can use in your songs, not necessarily to make them more complex.

Note: Since I started with melody as the first element, I’m talking about “harmonizing melodies.”

However, you can also write songs by coming up with the chords first and then singing a matching tune over them.

    3. Rhythm

This element of music is concerned with the duration of notes and chords in relation to each other.

In this lesson I explain the basics of rhythm and guitar strumming as well as show you some ways you can get creative with writing your own rhythms.

If your melody or chord progression sounds pretty boring, try altering the rhythm.

For instance, this 2-bar melody:

Tabs created with Guitar Pro

Shares exactly the same notes with this 2 bar melody

But since I altered the duration of the notes, they sound quite different, with the second melody sounding more interesting and melodic since it combines notes of a different duration.

    4. Tempo

Tempo refers to the speed of the beat.

If I had to change the tempo of any of the two melodies above, I wouldn’t be increasing or decreasing the duration of each individual note in relation to each other, but the speed of the entire melody.

Though the tempo may change at any part of your song, if you’re a beginner in songwriting, I suggest you stick to a single tempo for an entire song.

    5. Timbre

A note of exactly the same pitch and loudness will sound different if it’s coming from a guitar or from a piano.

This difference is referred to as timbre or tone color.

The same instrument can also use different phrasing techniques to get a different sound from the same note.

By manipulating this element in a song you can even change the genre of music of the song.

    6. Dynamics

This element of music is concerned with the loudness of your notes and chords.

You’re probably familiar with the terms piano (soft) and forte (loud). These terms, together with others like pianissimo and fortissimo, indicate at what volume the notes below which they are written should be played.

For instance, when arriving at a part of the song you want to sound more exciting, you may also start increasing how hard you hit the strings of your guitar or the keys of your piano.

    7. Texture

This musical element is concerned with the individual number of lines of melody and their relationship with each other.

A monophonic texture was common in Renaissance music and it’s one where you just have one line of melody and no harmony.

It’s unlikely to encounter this kind of texture in modern songwriting.

A homophonic texture is one where you have the main melody, backed by chords.

Though unlike in a monophonic texture, you have two or more notes sounding at the same time, it is very clear which line of notes forms the melody and is usually accompanied by block chords and less complex harmonies.

This kind of texture is very common in Rock, Pop and singer-songwriter music, and if you’re a beginner in songwriting, it’s the one you should aim for.

A polyphonic texture is one where two or more melodies, independent of each other, are heard at the same time.

Though a lot of modern songwriting uses homophonic texture, you can find polyphonic textures in more intricate forms of songwriting such as in Neo-Classical Heavy Metal and Progressive Rock.

    8. Form

This musical element is related to the structure of your song.

The following are some different sections you commonly find in song. Which of these sections you include in your songs, and their sequence make the form of the song.

Intro: This is usually instrumental and sets the key and mood of the song. In Rock and Heavy metal music the intro is most of the time a guitar riff.

Verse: This is the equivalent of a poetic stanza in music.

During the verses the lyrics change but keep the same melody

Pre-chorus: This is usually a two phrase verse that connects the main verse to the chorus.

Chorus: The chorus is repeated at least once during the song and is usually a catchy and repetitive tune – the one the listener keeps humming after he stops listening to the song.

Bridge: During the bridge the melodic and lyrical patterns of the song change and provide contrast.

Solo: The solo, usually provided by the guitar in Rock and Metal music as well as by other instruments like the keyboard and, in Pop music, the saxophone.

It’s the time when one musician playing the song shines.

Unless you’re also the person who will be playing the solo, it’s not expected from you, the songwriter, to come up with it.

Outro: As the name suggests, this is the last part of the song and is used to avoid the song ending up abruptly. Your goal with the outro is to provide closure for the song.

    9. Lyrics

The lyrics are the words to your songs.

I believe the secret to writing great lyrics is to carry a notepad on you and try to think them up every time you’re doing something that doesn’t require much of your concentration – or if you have that sudden flash of inspiration.

I come up with lyrics in my head all the time – but write down only the ones that make sense.

Using the elements of music

While it’s good to know the music theory behind these elements of songwriting, I suggest that you start using them straight away (that is, if you have already written songs. if you haven’t ever written a song, you should start doing so right away. Fear of writing your first song is also a form of songwriter’s block, something you should immediately get rid of)

Go back to the songs you’ve written and find the one you like the least.

While you listen to that song, think of each element of music separately and see which ones need to be improved to make your song better.

This way, you will not just improve a song you’ve written, but have also started training yourself to see the elements of music both together as well as separately.

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