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So you want to write a song

So you want to write a song, but you don't know where to start. You listen to the radio, hum along, maybe find bits and pieces of tunes running through your head, but you don't know much music theory (or any!), and trying to turn your five catchy notes into a whole song (that doesn't suck) looks hard.

This page is for you!

Incidentally, this guide was written for people who play Clan Lord, a multiplayer Macintosh game in which players can become "bards" and play music they've composed in the game. I'll be referring to some instruments and tools that Clan Lord bards use, but you certainly don't need to play Clan Lord to find this page useful.

Songs that Don't Suck

Now, I'm not going to kid you. This guide won't teach you how to write a masterpiece. You won't be competing with Mozart by following these rules. You might not even be competing with Coriakin. :-) But you'll be able to write songs that Don't Suck. And that's a good place to start! They'll sound nice. They might be pretty catchy. They'll probably be good enough to qualify you as a Clan Lord bard quester, if you want to be one. They may even be good enough to qualify you as a bard.

Okay, let's get started!

Stuff you'll need

There are a few things you should have handy in order to write songs.

A very little music theory: Chords

This is a very practical guide to writing a song that Doesn't Suck. We'll take just the tiniest sip of music theory. I'll be glossing over a lot of details, and skipping most of the technical terminology. If you're interested in more information, follow the links to other pages.

A chord is three or more notes played at the same time. Some combinations of notes sound especially good together, and have special names. There are all kinds of chords: major, minor, 7, 9, suspended, augmented, diminished... The names depend on the distances, or intervals, between the three notes in the chord. We won't get into that here, but you can read more about intervals if you like.

To write songs that Don't Suck, we'll be working with only the six standard chords in the key of C. (The "key of C" just means we're using an octave that starts with C, so we don't need to use any sharps or flats to build our chords. You can read more about scales elsewhere.) Those six chords are

Chord name Other name Notes in the chord
I C major CEG
ii D minor DFA
iiiE minor EGB
IV F major FAC
V G major GBD
vi A minor ACE

As you can see, three of those chords, I, IV, and V, are "major" chords, and are named using upper-case Roman numerals. Major chords sound solid, happy, and satisfying. A huge number of songs, especially in pop and rock, have been written using only those three chords. In rock music they're often called "power chords".

The other three chords, ii, iii, and vi, are "minor" chords, and are named using lower-case Roman numerals. Minor chords generally sound sad, restless, or dramatic.

If you'd like to know where the notes for each chord came from, or why some some of the chords are called major and others are minor, or why we're ignoring the chord that starts on B, you can learn more about chords.

Enough theory, get to the song already

There are lots of ways to go about writing a song. You can start with the chords and add a melody, or start with a melody and add chords that harmonize, or write both portions at the same time, or any combination. It's probably easiest for a new composer to write a song that Doesn't Suck by starting with the chords, so we'll do it that way.

Pick a chord progression

First you need a chord progression, which is just a list of the chords your song uses, in order. When we get to writing our melody, we'll be working in measures. A measure is four beats in our song, and each chord in our progression will cover one measure.

Start and end on C

Since we're in the key of C, the note C and the chord C major (or I) feel like home while we're listening to the song. Home is usually a good place to start the song, and it's almost always the right place to end. So right away, you know you want to start and end your song with the I chord.

Follow the path

All six of those chords above sound pretty good by themselves, but you can't string them together in just any order. Some of them will sound jarring after others. Luckily, there's a map to help, based on the one at Steve Mugglin's site:

[chord progression map]

The rules to remember here are

  1. You can jump from I to anywhere else.
  2. Once you're away from I, choose arrows to follow until you get back there.
  3. You can stay in one box as long as you like before moving on.
  4. If the same chord appears in two places, there's a "tunnel" connecting those two boxes, so you can go between them.

Organize measures in groups of 4 or 8

Songs that are built around sets of four or eight measures sound good, so you'll want to pick a chord progression that's organized in groups of 4 or 8. We'll call that group a phrase. For example, you could simply pick a sequence of four chords from the map, and repeat them over and over during your song. (It sounds boring now, but adding a melody will liven things up.) Or eight chords. Or make sure that every fourth chord in your progression is the same. Or that chords four and twelve are the same, and eight and sixteen are the same. Or whatever you like, keeping in mind that sets of 4 are good.

Since people are used to listening to songs in phrases of 4 or 8 measures, and the I chord feels like home, it's good to end your 4- or 8-measure phrase on I. IV and V are good, satisfying chords too (especially V), so they also work well to end a phrase, and help keep it from sounding like it's the end of the whole song.


Here are a few chord progressions you might want to listen to or use.

Time for a melody

Now that you have a chord progression, write it out in your music program and listen to it a couple of times. If you're lucky, you'll find yourself humming notes along with it. Congratulations, that's your melody! If not, don't worry, there are easy guidelines for writing melodies that Don't Suck, too.

Work in measures

A measure is four beats in the song. To make things a little more interesting, though, you can work with half-beats. In Melody Assistant, a beat is a quarter note, and a half-beat is an eighth note. In mTooth, a beat is note length 4, and half-beats are note length 2.

The first beat of each measure is the most important. It's often just a little bit louder, or longer, or otherwise emphasized. The other beats, and anything that happens on the half-beats, are less important.

Organize your melody by picking note lengths that add up to four beats (eight half-beats) for each measure. It's okay to have an occasional melody note extend from one four-beat measure to the next, or to put emphasis on the half-beats instead of the main beats, but if you do that too often, your song will sound chaotic.

Use notes from your chords

Each chord in your progression matches up with one measure in your song. To make sure that your melody doesn't clash with your chords, pick notes from the chords for each measure to use in your melody for that measure. You can also use those same notes in another octave. For example, if your first chord is I, or C major, use only the notes C, E, and G in your melody.

Don't jump around too much

A melody will sound more, well, melodic if it doesn't jump all over the place. Most of the time, you want to keep the distance from one note to the next to two steps (letter names) or less, for instance from C to E. Using notes in different octaves can help keep your melody from leaping from place to place.

On the other hand, your song will be boring if you always just run up and down the letters (the scale) one at a time. Bigger jumps are like spice: you want some, but not too much.

Repeat things sometimes

To help make your song sound organized, repeat things sometimes, maybe with a little variation. For instance, you might use the same pattern of note lengths several places, or use the same pattern of note pitches with a different chord (if you have C C E G in a measure with a I chord, use F F A C in a measure with a IV chord). A sequence that gets repeated several times in the song is called a theme. It's especially good if this repetition follows and strengthens the organization in 4- or 8-measure phrases you've already got with your chords.

Start and end on C

Like we said above, C feels like home. It's a good place to start, and an excellent place to end.

Putting it all together

Now you've got chords, and you've got a melody that goes with them. The next step is to put it all together and see how it fits.

Keep the melody and chords separate

You don't want your melody line to get mixed in with the chord line, especially if you're going to be playing them both on one instrument (such as a guitar, gitor, or harp). To help keep them separate, you can move your chords up or down an octave until their notes don't overlap the melody.

However, sometimes you don't want to shift the whole chord an octave, or the instrument doesn't have the range to play it that low or high. In that case, you can shift the octave of just one or two notes of the chord. That's called an inversion. Inversions make a chord sound less solid, though, so don't use one for the last chord in your song.

Just like you don't want your melody to jump around, it's best if your chords don't bounce all over the place either. It often sounds good to keep one of the notes the same when you switch chords. For instance, if you're going from I (CEG) to IV (FAC), you might want to invert one of them so that both chords can use the same C note without sounding completely different in pitch.

All's well that ends

A good song needs a good ending. You already know that you want to end on C, with the I (C major) chord, which is a big first step. Making the last C note long, or adding more notes (in different octaves) to the ending I chord, will give your song a solid, satisfying ending, too. Other choices might be to repeat the last measure more slowly, to make a dramatic ending by jumping up or down an octave, to fade out, or to extend or repeat the last chord.

A Complete Example

Right, so we've had 2000 words of advice. How about a concrete example?


I have the ears, and I have both Melody Assistant and mTooth. I know my menu of six chords, so I'm ready to pick a chord progression. Let's see... I'll go with the fourth one in the list up above, I - vi - IV - V. Although I'm keeping each chord for a whole measure, I decided to split them into two half notes instead of one whole note (mostly because mTooth can't easily write whole notes). On a musical staff, it looks like this:

[staff with chords]

In mTooth format, it's


(You can learn more about reading music on a staff or read documentation for mTooth format if you like.)

And it sounds like this:

There's my phrase. This will be a very short song, so I'll repeat that phrase twice, and then pick four chords that let me end with I... how about I - IV - V - I. That uses a lot of the same chords as my main phrase, so it'll sound like it belongs in the song, while still letting me end with a good solid I chord. Notice that my total is now 12 measures, a multiple of 4. It would be even better if I added four more measures to bring it to 16, a multiple of 8, but I don't want this example to get that long.


Now I need to pick notes for each measure, using note lengths that total eight half-beats (eight eighth notes) and pitches that are found in my chords. I want to keep my melody from jumping around too much, but also give it some interest. Here's what I came up with for the first four measures:

[double staff with melody and chords]

In mTooth format, just the melody is

Listen to the melody and chords together:

Notice that sometimes I used notes from octaves other than the ones shown in those chords, for example the C in the first measure. The first beat of each measure is often a long one, and the melody doesn't jump too chaotically. I also repeated the first measure's pattern of note lengths in the third measure, and the second measure's pattern of note pitches in the fourth measure.

For the second time through my I - vi - IV - V chord progression, I'm going to repeat this melody for the first three measures, then change it a little in the last one. Normally I'd do something a little fancier, but in a piece this short I don't want to wander around too much with lots of variations, because I'm not going to have much time to get back home.

The last four measures are a little trickier. I'm changing the chord progression to I - IV - V - I for the ending, so it's a little more important to keep some of the other features the same, or it'll sound like we suddenly jumped into another song. On the other hand, I do want it to sound somewhat different. I'll do that by keeping pattern of note lengths, but changing the pitches.

Put it all together, and you get

[12 measures of melody and chords]

In mTooth format, it's

[gec]8/c8[=gec]8/C=G[ec\a]8=A/ce[=ec\a]8=Ap4[/c=af]8f8[/c=af]8FA[/d=bg]8GB [/d=bg]8/D=G
[gec]8e8 [gec]8G/C  [c=af]8/Cc=f[/c=af]8Ap4 [/d=bg]8g8[/d=bg]8BG[gec]8EG   [gec]8/c8
The song so far:

Wrapping up

The melody and chord lines are pretty well separated here, but I think I'd like to keep them a bit more distinct in measures 3 and 4, 7 and 8. I'll do that by dropping the chords by an octave. But then in measure 8, I'm going to invert the V chord by moving the bottom note (G) up one octave, to make it sound just a little different from the V chord in measure 4, as well as a little more similar to the I chord that follows it in measure 9. See how the G stays the same from measure 8 to measure 9 now, and the other two notes only move by one?

To make my ending stronger, I'll lengthen the first notes in the measure, and add some more notes (choosing from C, E, and G in other octaves) to the final chord. After all that, my final song is

[final song]

[gec]8/c8[=gec]8/C=G[ec\a]8=A/ce[=ec\a]8=Ap4[c\af]8=f8[c\af]8=FA[d\bg]8=GB [d\bg]8/D=G
[gec]8e8 [gec]8G/C  [c=af]8/Cc=f[/c=af]8Ap4 [/d=bg]8g8[/d=bg]8BG[gec]8e8   [gec]8g8
The final song:

This isn't a masterwork, certainly. It could be a bit longer, have a bit more variety perhaps, and not end quite so abruptly. But it Doesn't Suck.

What next?

Now that you can write songs that Don't Suck, where do you go from here? The short answer is to take some of the rules above, and carefully break them.


Here are some good sites I've found to explore theory and composition in more depth.

Music Theory

musictheory.net has a good multimedia introduction to reading musical notation: the staff, clefs, note lengths, time signatures, dots and ties, scales, and so on.

Olav Torvund's Musical Theory for Guitarists has lots about theory and chord progressions, not just for guitarists. If you do happen to play guitar, it's got even more.

Steve Mugglin's Musical Theory for Songwriters is where that handy chord map came from, and it has some other useful information too.

Coriakin's School of Music has an assortment of treatises, case studies, and advice.

Dansm's Guitar Chord Theory has a lot of lists of chords, including a good summary of chords in the different minor modes.


How to Write a Round, by Poesy, is a straightforward guide a lot like this one. A round would be a great song that Doesn't Suck to write using these rules and hers.

Amy Bauer's Guidelines for Melodic Composition can get technical at times, but has some good, simple rules.

Gems of Compositional Wisdom has good, practical advice about dramatic shape and listeners' perceptions, although it's also written for more serious composers than I am.

Alan Belkin's Practical Guide to Music Composition is an online book that also discusses musical flow.


Melody Assistant shareware music editor for Mac or Windows
mTooth, freeware OS X-only application to play music in a text format or convert MIDI 0
MIDIGraphy shareware MIDI editor for Mac OS 9 or Classic

Other Stuff

Clan Lord
The Clan Lord Bards' Guild