How To Write A Whole Song From A Single Idea

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One of the complaints I hear from a lot of musicians that aren’t yet songwriters is that they’ll have these little flickers of ideas, maybe a catchy melodic phrase or a particular lyric, a cool riff or even a certain chord progression, but they have no idea how to turn it into a song. Or maybe they were able to throw together a couple of chords with some lyrics and a melody, but are stuck with a verse or verse fragment, and think they just have to wait for inspiration to strike again in the same key before they’ll have a chorus.

This flawed way of thinking can really hold back the artist inside each of us. So, today, I wanted to address some core principles about building a song out of single idea, and then walk you through exactly how to do it step by step.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are four main fundamental things you’re creating when you write a song that you need to consciously consider: the lyrics, melody, harmony/chords, and rhythm. Everything else is fluff; instrumentation, ornamentation and production extras that rely upon the framework provided by the original song underneath.

Now, your plan of attack in creating this new song of yours is going to depend very much on the initial idea. If you come up with a particular lyric, I would just focus on the lyrics and write a poem with some sort of refrain to turn into a song. Once I had the lyrics, I would say them over and over, trying to get the feel of the natural rhythmic cadences and tonal inflections of the words, because that will give me a better sense for how a melody will fit in there, and as I get a melody, I’ll be able to use my competent understanding of arpeggio/chord-note-based-melodies to figure out chords, which I may change subtly here and there to create greater expression, or perhaps something less expected or obvious (if I feel the chords are too boring/predictable, that is).

I’ll use something of a reverse process if I start with a chord progression or riff. I’ll get into a groove, allow the natural rhythmic beats and accents to flow through me and start scatting until I find a melodic hook that I can build upon and try different lyrics until I find something that just feels right. That gives me a better idea of what the song is meant to be about, and so I’ll build upon that foundation, usually allowing the journey that the melody is taking to dictate the necessary direction of the chorus and the bridge.

If it’s a melodic hook floating around in my mind first, I’ll usually try to pin it down to a key and some chords, allowing the natural rhythm of the melody to dictate the groove/rhythmic feel. And then I’ll keep trying to fit some word or phrase to it until I have something that feels just right and I’ll lock it down.

1) Start with your inspiration/idea.

So, after my recent Beatles article, I was intrigued by that Em-A-C-G chord progression with the chromatic descending sequence in Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby.

Screenshot2019 05 21at13.39.09 1920w

It’s one I’ve never personally used in a song, and I thought I’d like to try and do something with it.

(Side note: learning to play new songs that do something iconic or interesting can be an amazing source for song inspiration.)

So I started playing through them and fiddling around until I came up with a strumming pattern/groove.

2) Make it your own.

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As you can see, there’s a descending sequence from the D-note in the Em7-chord, down to C-sharp, down to C-natural, down to B. And because there’s also a B-note in the Em7-chord, the pattern is cyclical. Now, I created a two-bar rhythmic pattern with a variation the second time that helps drive a repeatwith a small crescendo on the first beat of bar one, which builds on that cyclical feeling. I also made the A-chord an A7-chord instead, so I could maintain that high G-note as a pedal tone, giving a greater sense of continuity despite the obvious non-diatonicism.

Once I had my groove, I started muddling around with a melody, na-na-na, da-da-da, la-la-la, etc.

3) Begin to flesh it out.

Screenshot2019 05 21at13.42.18 1920w

This is what I came up with. As you can see, the melody notes that just naturally came out are: G, A, B, D and E, the notes of the G-major pentatonic/E-minor pentatonic scales. As I’ve mentioned before, the pentatonic scales are naturally 35-40% more melodic than the full major or minor because they cut out the clashy semitones. It also makes a lot of sense because my C-note is shifting between C and C-sharp, and the pentatonic scale avoids the melodic trouble that comes with that. Doesn’t mean that I won’t use them later, but it’s a great little starting point.

You can also see how, rhythmically, my repeated eighth-note patterns anticipate the beginning of the 1st and 3rd bar in different ways, like I did with the strumming. The pickup to the 1st bar presents a solid motif/idea and lets it hang open so the downbeat has space to really come down hard in the guitar on beat one. I mimic that with the pickup to bar three, but it’s delayed, my melody stays down a third, and I redirect and extend the melodic idea, resolving to another anticipation, except this time on the G-chord. This further orients us in the key of G, but also adds to the 4-bar feel by changing the way the 1st beat of bar three is emphasized.

Now that I had that, I wanted to extend it to sixteen bars and see if I could get enough interesting variation out of it to make a solid verse.

4) Make more of the same with intentional changes.

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So the verse format that I’ve followed here is essentially the AABA format we were talking about last time, the one that the Beatles used quite regularly, especially in the early days. Notice that I never actually repeat the first line perfectly. I vary it both times in different ways. And it’s worth comparing it to the third (or “B”) line, which, even though the chords don’t change, still constitutes a more significant melodic difference, enough to make it seem like a separate idea. This is because the shape of the melody changes, it draws direction attention to the C-sharp-note, and the repeated 3-beat motif (even though it’s taken directly from the A section) fundamentally alters the rhythmic resolution of the line.

Now at this point, even though I could build a chorus as the logical, musical extension of the verse here, because I still have no idea what the song is going to be about lyrically, I don’t want to go any further harmonically or melodically until I at least know for certain my lyrical direction. So, like I said before, now I will play around with some words, trying to nail something down to those first four notes. I’m happy with the succinct-yet-powerful potential that that motif has, and nailing down the right first four notes (and by extension the first line), is really going to make or break the song.

5) Adding another dimension to really solidify what you’ve got.

So, because I’ve still got the Beatles on my mind, I thought about similar things that they’ve done, like Yesterday, or Help! And think maybe I should use a four-syllable word, like anybody or everybody. Or perhaps a short setting phrase, like when I was young, or five years ago, or last December. Or maybe even a whole question or statement, like what if I stay? Or where have you gone? Or it’s not too late. And I really get myself into the groove, just playing it over and over again and trying different little lines until something fits with the melody and general feel of the chords.

And suddenly, I have a line that fits like a jigsaw piece: Where did you go?

And with two or three attempts, the rest of the line reveals itself: and why’d you leave me all- lonesome?

And just like that, I have a first line and a general direction that is beginning to fit together. The chords aren’t exactly happy or stable, and the music should tell the story every bit as much as the lyrics.

Now, I’m sure some of you are frustrated, wondering why or how that line was better than any of the two-dozen other beginnings I went through before I found it. And ultimately, it’s a “fit” thing. It’s not a square-peg-in-a-round-hole thing, because they were all the right amount of syllables, but none of them fit properly. The jigsaw simile was actually a pretty accurate one. They might have looked good on paper, but only by trying to physically put that piece into the puzzle could I tell that it wasn’t right. Maybe it was the tone, or the inflection of the words clashing with the melody, or the vowels and consonants just shaping my mouth in a way that made it harder to sing. It’s really a trial-and-error thing.

And so I continue along that same path, fitting my words to my melody and chords. And end up with this:

Where did you go?
And why’d you leave me all- lonesome?
I didn’t mean it, you know.
But now you’re playing with me, loved one.
I’m lo-o-ost
Without your loving in my soul, loving in my soul.
But I know
That tomorrow you’ll be coming home.

It mightn’t be the most poetic thing in the world, but the words fit really seamlessly with the rest of the song so far, and it still gives me a lot of places to go with it. It has a lot of potential to grow. And the most awesome part is: I now have a really specific lyrical pattern to copy, so I can write two more verses to the same pattern.

6) Milk it for all its worth.

A few years ago
I was a-living all alone, hon’.
Some people like that, I know,
But they’re just playing like it’s all fun.
I was lo-o-ost
Without your loving in my soul, loving in my soul.
But behold,
Oh, you found me and we made a home.

What do I know?
Without your loving I am no-one.
I should have told you, I know,
Instead of playing like it’s all fun.
I’m lo-o-ost
And truly nothing on my own, nothing on my own.
So, come home,
And I will love you like you’ve never known.

And just like that, I have three verses. And you can see the ways in which I borrowed lyrical ideas back and forth to increase the continuity and poetry between verses as the story unfolds. I repeated certain themes and rhymes in the second verse, but shifted them in the third, or vice-versa.

I also shifted the tone in the third verse to take more personal responsibility of the relationship problem on my own shoulders. This shifting of burden could be one of two things; legitimate or imagined. Either I’ve been in denial about the problem all along and just sort of shrugging off my own responsibility, and now I’m really fessing up to the problem, or I’m getting legitimately dejected and depressed because you haven’t come back yet and I’m beginning to self-blame. But I imagine I would pull the accompaniment right back to single chord strums for that verse to really highlight the stark reality of the situation for the listener.

Now, theoretically, I could just have the song be three verses like that with maybe an instrumental interlude between verses two and three, and leave it at that. I do think that the verses are solid enough that it would work. But that wouldn’t show you how to come up with a chorus then, would it? So, I do want some other section, a chorus or bridge after the second verse, to add more space between verses two and three. And maybe a guitar solo too.

And so I want a nice contrasting section, but because of the tenor of this particular song, and where the lyrics and melody have taken me, I’m not sure an appropriately contrasting section could be a chorus. Oh, sure, I could write one. But again, jigsaw puzzle. I don’t think it would really fit. It would be like saying, oh, the jigsaw picture is nice and everything, but the rectangular shape isn’t good enough for radio, let’s just tinker with until we force it into a heart-shape. Do you catch my drift?

We need a “and nothing else compares” line (from Coldplay’s Clocks) that repeats 8 times and builds to a great crescendo or guitar solo or something. And I think, based on the general up-down-up-down roller coaster that my melody has been thus far, something a little more stable, with a little more rise is needed. Something like this:

7) Contrast without losing your tone.

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I ditched the 7th in the E-minor-chord, ditched the non-diatonic chord, ditched the more complicated rhythm, and added some palm-muting/staccato to the straight strumming. I couldn’t do the one-liner over and over, but I did repeat it every other line. After this, I’d have a guitar solo, then pull everything back for the final verse, repeat the final line, maybe throw the bridge chords in as an outro, and done.

Obviously, if I felt the song called for it, I could keep coming up with different sections for it. But I honestly don’t feel like it needs it. And I’d also rather you learned to feel out the jigsaw pieces of your song, really nail down that tight creative inspiration, that just write ill-fitting choruses for radio play. You’ve got to start with your heart, because if you feel it, your audience will too.

For those of you who feel like it’s not a full song, I will say that Paul McCartney commented about his collaborative process with John Lennon was that they must have had over 300 songwriting sessions together, and not once did they sit down and not come away within 3 or 4 hours with a song they were happy with. Every time, they were able to figure their way together to a finished song. He said that having someone else’s take on a creative work can be one of the best things for finding a way to finish it.

This one seems done and dusted to me, but perhaps if I were co-writing, my collaborator would suggest a direction I hadn’t thought of that we’d both be happy with. Maybe. For now I’m happy with this one. And hopefully, for you, talking through my process as I did it has helped you think about it in a more solveable way.

The Best Selling Singles of All Time

Seeing as we are here talking about what makes a great single, we want to talk about what some of the best selling singles out there are. Here we are talking about some of the most popular music in the whole music industry, and this applies to both modern music and older music as well. 

  1. White Christmas – White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, but the most successful version of it was sung by none other than Bing Crosby. This is the number one all time best selling song in history, having sold over 52 million copies around the world. What is interesting to note is that this Christmas song was actually written by a man of Jewish descent. This song also helped solidify Bing Crosby as one of the most successful Christmas song performers of all time. Another interesting fact is that Bing Crosby’s rendition of Silent Night is also in the top ten best selling songs of all time. This is officially the most successful individual track in the world. 
  2. Shape of You – Ed Sheeran is of course a legend as far as the music industry is concerned. In January 2017, Sheeran, Johnny Daid, and Steve Mac wrote this song, which was generally just performed by Ed Sheeran. In fact, this is the number two best selling song of all time, having sold over 42 million copies worldwide. Shape of You won the Best Pop Solo Performance Grammy Award during the 60th Annual Grammy Awards. Music fans across the world hold a special place in their hearts for this song, and it’s the song that officially brought the music career of Ed Sheeran to the next level. 
  3. Despacito – Coming in at number three on the list of the all time best selling songs, Despacito quickly became a crowd favorite cross the world. This song was written and performed by two pop and rap legends, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. Despacito, in Spanish, means slowly or soft, and it was first very popular in Latin America before it took over the charts in North America. This is officially the number one most successful and popular Latin pop song in all of history. This is a hit song that will go down in history.
  4. Candle in the Wind – The fourth best selling single of all time is Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, which was co-written by Bernie Taupin in 1997. Since its initial release, this song has sold more than 33 million copied worldwide. 
  5. In the Summertime – In 1970, Raymond Dorset of Mungo Jerry wrote what would be the fifth best selling single of all time, In the Summertime. This song took just 10 minutes to write and has sold over 31 million copies worldwide. This debut single is one of the highest acclaimed songs by this British Band. 

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