The Elements Of A Song
Songs in hip-hop, rock, pop, country, and a variety of other genres and subgenres are all built from similar elements that are put together in different ways.
These elements include a song’s lyrics, theme, structure, chord progression, and more. As a songwriter you need to understand and use these components to write great music.
This chapter explains the elements of a song. The first one we’ll look at is the theme.
The theme of a song is the central topic being discussed throughout. It forms the story and meaning of your song.
The first thing you should do when writing a song is determine the theme. This is because the theme sets the direction of a song. As such, once you have determined the theme many other elements start to come together – like writing the lyrics and picking the key signature.
The more detail in a theme, the richer the song’s message will be. You might, for example, write a sad love song about the one who got away because of a mistake the singer made. Another theme could be an upbeat party anthem about how after going to a show you decided that you would be on the stage one day.
Pull up your music player and take a look at a few songs. Most of them will be between three and five minutes long, with a few exceptions on either side of that range.
This is because songs in most genres tend to follow a few similar structures, which then caps their length. Unless you wanted to write three verses that are each two minutes long or add in a long solo, it’s hard to extend songs much beyond the five minute mark with the popular structures used in today’s music.
Beyond structure, a song that’s too short leaves the audience wanting a lot more, which is generally not a good approach to songwriting. On the other hand, if the song is too long people tend to get bored.
For these reasons, we advise you to keep most of your songs in the three to five minute range.
Obviously there are exceptions to the three to five minute rule. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is considered one of the greatest songs of all time and it’s eight minutes long. This fun rock song by Capture is under two and a half minutes long but does not have much variation and is therefore the perfect length.
As we said above, songs in most genres will follow one of a few similar structures. As you’ve listened to music you might not have paid much attention to this, but everything from EDM to pop songs have similar layouts.
For example, it’s very common for a song to have the following opening structure: Introduction, verse, pre-chorus, chorus. In almost every popular genre you will find variations of this formula.
You’re pretty much free to experiment with structure in your songs. Maybe that means you’ll put the chorus first in one song, and maybe in another you’ll skip the third verse in favor of a longer bridge. It’s all acceptable, as long as the song flows and stays interesting.
This experimentation can even be taken to the extremes. Asking Alexandria rose to fame in the metalcore genre while breaking all the rules with song structure in their first album. This is the exception though, not the rule. At first it will be best for you to start with standard structures (we will explore these in a later chapter in the guide).
The chord progression is the series of chords underlying the melody and is responsible for creating harmony. If you’re new to songwriting it can seem very daunting to write chords, but it is actually quite simple.
The vast majority of songs repeat the same chords, with variations in the chorus, bridge, and verse. Not only are the same chords repeated throughout each song, you would be shocked at how many songs share the exact same chord progressions.
We have dedicated an entire chapter of this guide to chord progressions.
Lyrics are another sticking point for lot of new songwriters, and of all the elements of a song probably the trickiest to master – it’s not easy to consistently write meaningful lyrics!
The best advice we can give a beginner is to write from the heart. Write based on your experience and share your own feelings. Music is meant to convey meaning and this is one area where you don’t want to “fake it until you make it.”
We share lyric writing strategies in a couple of later chapters.
Once you have the lyrics down, writing a great melody is easier than you might think (you’ll find tips for writing melodies later in this guide).
Other Elements of a Song
There are a couple of other elements to keep in mind when writing a song:
The Scale: Your theme and the desired feel of the song will determine whether the scale is major or minor…but which key signature should it be written in?
As a general rule, songs tend to be written in keys near the top of the circle of fifths, with C and G major being two of the most common keys. We highly recommend sticking to either of these two keys, or their minor equivalents, for your first few songs.
Tempo: The genre of music you’re writing in will be the largest factor in determining how fast your song goes. After that it’ll be the mood your song is trying to convey (i.e. if it’s a sad song slow it down).
A Quick Task…
Take some time to listen to several songs you love. Each song will sound different, but they more than likely will have a few similarities.
Now that you’re familiar with the elements of a song, are you able to spot them?