(Links below open new windows.)
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.
There are a few things you should have handy in order to write songs.
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.
- Ears that work. With apologies to Deaf readers, I just don't
think I can explain how to write a song that sounds good without being
able to hear it. Beethoven did it, and you're welcome to try, but it
probably won't be the most fulfilling hobby you could choose.
- Some way to keep track of what notes you're putting where. I'm a
big fan of Melody
Assistant, a shareware program for Mac and Windows that lets you
drop notes on a musical staff with your mouse. You can also use
mTooth, which lets you either write the notes
in its own specialized text notation (the one used by the Clan Lord game)
or convert a MIDI 0 file (like that
exported by Melody Assistant) to the format it wants. Those are the two
methods I'll be talking about here, but you can use another program if you
want, or musical staff paper, or just a sheet of plain paper.
- Some way to listen to your song in progress. Melody Assistant and
mTooth both play the songs you're writing. If you play piano or guitar,
you can use that instead. If you have a few very good friends
who are expert sight-singers, that'll work.
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
||Notes in the chord
|I ||C major ||C||E||G
|ii ||D minor ||D||F||A
|iii||E minor ||E||G||B
|IV ||F major ||F||A||C
|V ||G major ||G||B||D
|vi ||A minor ||A||C||E
As you can see, three of those chords, I, IV, and V, are "major" chords, and
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.
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.
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:
The rules to remember here are
- You can jump from I to anywhere else.
- Once you're away from I, choose arrows to follow until you get back
- You can stay in one box as long as you like before moving on.
- 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.
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.
- I - I - IV - I
- I - V - I - V
- I - I - IV - IV - I - IV - V - I
- I - vi - IV - V
- I - iii - vi - ii - ii - V - I - V
- I - IV - ii - V - I - ii - V - I
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
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.
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
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
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
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:
In mTooth format, it's
learn more about reading music on a staff or
read documentation for mTooth format if you like.)
And it sounds like this: