Have you ever wondered how to write a song with good lyrics and a good melody? Are you a budding songwriter? Have you wondered whether you should write the lyrics or music first? Writing a song is easy but writing a great song isn't. I've been lucky enough to work with some of the most successful songwriters in the world including Cathy Dennis, Wayne Hector, Alex Von Soos and (as an engineer) Andrew Lloyd Webber. In this article I am going to tell you about my experiences writing songs during my time signed to Universal Music as a songwriter. No two songs are written exactly the same way but most of the time they are written in a similar way. We now have a hit songwriting course at Garnish School of Sound which is designed to show you how hit songs are really written, from basic music theory to melody and lyric writing, idea generation and quality control, all delivered by a Number 1 hit songwriter with records sales topping 5 million. At the end of the course, you even get to co-write a song which will be pitched to major labels and publishers around the world. In pop music, most of the time a song is written with two writers - a backing track writer who would normally start with the chords, put in a bass and build the track up around that. The other writer is a top-line writer. Their job is to take care of the melody and lyrics.
A lot of the time the track writer would cross over into top line territory and contribute lyrical and melodic ideas and the top line writer would sometimes have a say on how the chords went. It's not often the top line writer would worry about the reverb on the snare drum or how fast the leslie is spinning! I was predominately a backing track writer, the person who wrote all the music and programmed the beats. I did often cross over into top line territory as I progressed and got more confident. I've delivered songwriting courses at degree level but don't think it's my forte really. I'd love to be a brilliant songwriter but i'm better at other things i'm not all that bothered about unfortunately. The feeling of finishing a song that you believe to be brilliant is just so much better than smashing it behind the decks at a top London club or hearing a song you've mixed or recorded on the radio. One issue that probably held me back is that whenever I try and sing anything, it sounds more like a fire in a pet shop than anything anyone would want to listen to. It was always a bit of a struggle trying to sing a backing vocal part down the talkback mic to the artist who was in the vocal booth. I was better off using my guitar to get across when I was hearing in my head! I certainly don't think i'm qualified to deliver the course at GSS, so we have Alex Von Soos on board who wrote All Saints' 'Black Coffee' amongst others contributing to his amazing 5 million record sales. A lot of the time the track writer would write a backing track or instrumental, sometimes it may have been already written like a big dance record which has already done well on the club circuit. The record that springs to mind now is Spiller - Groovejet 'If this Ain't Love'. The backing track did the rounds in the clubs and was very popular. A talented publishing A&R woman Ruth Rothwell at Universal Publishing asked Rob Davis to write a top-line to this backing track. He did and they ended up using the chorus. "Spiller was a backing track that was sent to me, and I wrote a whole top line to it, and they ended up using my chorus," explains Rob. "I think Sophie (Ellis-Bextor) wrote the verses herself." I'd imagine the splits were 33%, 33% and 33%. I don;t know this for sure and am not going to find out because it's not important for this article. It's pretty industry standard that the backing track writer gets 50% and whoever writes the top-line gets the other 50%. When i've written with an artist, usually it'll be with a top-line writer so we'd just split the publishing three ways - track (me) - 33.3%, top-line - 33.3% and artist - 33.3%. So if i've written the track and the top-line writer has written the... top-line, what is left for the artist to write? Well, not much! Cue the phrase - 'Add a word, get a third'! That happened a lot, it never bothered me because a third of something is much better than half of nothing!
So, on with how to write a song. Most of the time, once we have some nice chords together, the top-line writer tries out some melodies and sings along some 'dummy' lyrics until we have something. If this jamming process has gone brilliantly, you have your chorus chords, melody and lyrics nailed, but that is seldom the case. You may have your chords and something 'hooky' in the melody and the top-line writer is wondering why she's singing 'can't sit down'! So, you have a great chorus melody, leave the chords alone now in the chorus and stick with the melody as it's good and the most important element in the song. Now it time to have a think about the lyrical hook. What's the story? We'll have known who we're writing for days before we got together. We'll kind of subconsciously analyse the metering of the melody, sussing out the syllables and for how long they need to be, until out of the blue, out pops the lyrical hook! Great title, it fits perfectly with the metering of the melody and it's perfect for the artist! The whole process so far can take anything from a few minutes to a few hours. The difference between B-side and first single is not dictated by how long it took to come up with the idea. Occasionally, you may have the title of the song before you have your melody. I always found it extremely difficult to fit a melody to lyrics. Elton John works like this. Maybe he finds it difficult coming up with melodies if he doesn't have lyrics to inspire him. I'd like to ask him that but unfortunately I only ever worked with him as an assistant engineer at Air, many years before the thought of writing a song entered my head.
The most important thing is that we have our chorus, everything else now is just filling in the gaps, accommodating, justifying and making sense of the chorus. The next job is verse one. The chords are usually similar, if not identical to the chorus but there's no need to agonise over the melody over the top even half as much as the chorus. In fact, you don't want the verse melody to be anywhere near as hooky in a similar way as the chorus or you'll be in danger of taking away the impact of the chorus. It can be hooky as long as it's doing something different - if the chorus is long and floaty (a few long lush sustained notes) then perhaps the verse should be choppier (short staccato notes but more of them) to give the two sections some light and shade. Once you have your verse melody, you should be singing away some dummy lyrics. If you're lucky, some of the dummy lyrics you've been singing will actually end up on the record. The lyrics in the first verse should be setting up the story for the whole song, they should be the first stepping stones leading the way to the chorus. Again, most find it easier to fit the words to the melody than the other way round.
Next up, the bridge (or pre chorus if you're in America). In pop music a big musical change is usually in order. Usually, you'd want to alter chords as well as the melody. It's tough to stick with the same chords and really change the song just with the melody. Perhaps start to think about backing vocal parts (or background vocals if you're in America) to beef things up a bit, but not too much as again, you don't want to take anything away from the chorus which is about to hit in a matter of seconds! How to get into the chorus, how to set it up so the chorus hits the listener on the head when it arrives, make sure the change on the downbeat of the chorus works with the last chord of the bridge. All things to consider when you're writing your bridge!
Now you have your V1, B1 and C1. The audience now know what the the song is about and it’s now time to write the second verse. Melodically, it’s the same as V1 so we now just have to write the lyrics. Ideally you’d want a progression of the storyline but sometimes the lyrics aren’t suited to writing in a linear fashion and you just expand on the general vibe of what you’ve already written. Next up, the second bridge (B2) the melody has already been written, it may be nice to twist it up a bit, but if we feel the melody worked particularly well first time round, then it’s probably silly to try and fix something that’s not broken. There should be something different lyrically, it all depends on the story of course. Sometimes there’s an element of contradiction or twist in the second bridge.
Now the meat and potatoes of the song is written, let’s have a tinker with the arrangement, let’s see what we can do for the intro and outro, let’s tinker around, listen again and again patting ourselves on the back and procrastinate for as long as possible, but in the back of our minds we know that sooner rather than later we’ll need to write another section to set up the final chorus and provide relief from what’s gone on before: the middle 8 (or bridge in America). We need to figure out a musical change out of the chorus, a whole new melody and lyrics. We’ve said everything but now we need to think of something else to say. Who invented middle eights for crying out loud? Is there a rapper in the band? Does anyone fancy doing a talky bit? That’s always a good get out! All joking aside, they can really lift a song if the writer does a good job. Also, it’s worth knowing that middle eights don’t have to be eight bars long and they usually appear towards the end of the song and not the middle!
Verse (USA = Verse)
Bridge (USA = Pre-chorus)
Chorus (USA = Chorus)
Middle 8 (USA = Bridge)
I think the Americans got the terminology right on this occasion, their way makes much more sense.
What I have written is a rough guide on the formula on how to write a song, although there are only 12 notes, no two songs are the same and if all songs were similar, we'd live in a boring world! I'd say 95% of the writers i've worked with write songs this way.
If you 'd like to know more, we have a six week hit songwriting course and we're honoured to have No. 1 hit song writer Alex Von Soos at the helm!
Here are his top 10 hit songwriting tips:
1. The backing track,no matter how innovative, sounds like it belongs to a/the genre
2. The chorus/main hook has a feeling of inevitability
3. The overall feel of the track is not too pretty/cheesy/trite
4. All the melody parts are fun to sing and have the right weight
5. The backing track feels vibey even without the singing and the sounds are tastefully chosen
6. The lyrics are original and contain some memorable lines and no cringeworthy lines
7. There is contrast between the sections and build within them
8. The total combination of melody, lyrics and track paints a coherent emotional picture that is neither too bright nor too dark
9. The chords by themselves convey a strong feeling of tension and release
10. The song contains many highlights like hooks and riffs