I remember being a kid listening to my favorite bands of the day and wondering, “how do they do that?” It seemed totally amazing to me that someone could take an instrument and create this piece of music that made me have so many strong feelings be it happiness, anger, joy, and write these words that seemed to speak to me.
I still have that same feeling sometimes when I hear great new bands, except now I understand after my many years of studying music, writing music and performing it in front of people there is more to it then just writing for writing’s sake.
I used to sit on the edge of my bed as a teenager dreaming of writing a good song, trying to come up with something that sounded good and that would make people want to listen to my music. I had no concept or idea what I was doing; I just knew what I liked. That method of working works for some people but not for me. I had to learn why a song has appeal, why it was easy to sing, why the lyrics related to people, why the beat just made me want to jump up and dance. I had to get into the guts of my favorite songs and come up with a plan. Twenty years of digging, application and testing later, I think I finally have some answers, although not a panacea, a starting point for those of you wishing to write your own rock songs.
In the next few minutes I will run through my preferred method for coming up with songs and how I constructed Fear Zero’s song “Are You There” (although I have written songs many different ways and as many different ways as I have written songs, there are dozens of other ways to be sure). I will go through an approach that you can follow too, and hopefully you will come up with some good stuff that I can be inspired by.
To start with, you are going to need to have a basic knowledge of music and be able to play a chordal instrument (I guess Sting would argue but then again, he does play piano, guitar and other instruments) which will give you the best overall picture harmonically of what you have going on within your song. I will not go into the above suggestion as it would be beyond the scope of this article, but needless to say, there are many great music books and instructors available to help you gain the basic knowledge and chordal/theoretical vocabulary to enable you to become proficient enough to compose on your instrument of choice.
Okay, you are sitting with your guitar in front of a blank page, tape recorder or Pro Tools ready to go. Now what? Well, some would say you need a concept, a direction to get an idea on how the music will affect your lyrics and vice versa. That way can definitely work, but I prefer writing music first and having that suggest the concept to me later.
There are many ways to start a song. You can start with a drumbeat that you come up with that you can’t get out of your head (if you have a drum machine or program). Something like this or your song can start with a chorus or my favorite, your song can start with a guitar riff that you have come up with that you think sounds cool.
When writing a guitar riff intro, my way is the same as heroes of mine such as Eddie Van Halen or Chris Cornell. I jam, jam, jam until I either stumble upon something I like or I try to have a recorder ready at the side of my bed for when I wake up. I find a substantial amount of ideas come to me in a semi sleepy state and this enables me to just roll over, click and hum the riff into the recorder and later listen and laugh or listen and go, “Cool, I want to develop that!” The one thing I can say about this subject is, if you want the riff to be catchy, have a repeating rhythm or melody idea within it that will stick with the listener. If you are more of the “art” school, completely ignore that and just come up with any idea you deem original.
Once we have that main riff, we can start to see whether this will be just an intro, or maybe we can sing a melody over it and turn it into a verse, or maybe it will be a chorus. I usually determine this by the length of the section/feel. As I wrote earlier, the song I am going to use as an example is Fear Zero’s latest single, “Are You There” a mid tempo ballad in the pop rock style.
Here is the riff I first came up with when writing this song.
When I wrote this, I liked the sound of it because of the nice contour in the melody and I liked the way the chords complemented each other. It reminded me of something; I couldn’t place my finger on it but now after time I realize it was this song. Not that the entire riff sounded like that but I find a small section of the main riff to “Are You There” sounds like the instrumental tag at the end of the chorus at 1:15 in “Burden in My Hand”.
Melody For Verse
Once I had that riff I thought about what it made me feel; what images it conjured up to me visually. That period took a while, but eventually I focused on the concept of redemption, going back to your past and trying to right some wrongs.
I began humming melodies over it, searching for something that would sing easily but that had some arc, meaning a high point, not too many low points. When I went to music school, I remember learning about classical melody. There was a checklist they had for whether your melody was a winner or not. It probably doesn’t necessarily translate to the pop music idiom, as so much of pop music is based on things other than the song such as the image of the artist etc., but I have always strived for some of those classical ideals with the melodies in my music. Just for your interest, here are the finer points of writing melody for classical/jazz music:
- Try for one high point per sentence (melody). A melodic line should build and decay, not sustain one intensity throughout;
- Avoid too many repeated notes;
- Avoid too many low points;
- Melodic rhythm should activate weakness (this means it should be harmonically/rhythmically more adventurous near the end of the phrase);
- Notes approached by leap are usually best left by step in the opposite direction.
I know not all of these apply to writing a rock song, but there are some you should definitely try out. For me the first three are essential with the melodies I try to write although the rules can always be bent.
Melody/Chords For Chorus
The choruses in many rock songs take the melody to a higher point and have more repetition melodically than the verse. There are many tricks to this. You can take whatever key you are in and just move up a minor third and voila, you have a lift harmonically which will bring out the chorus. Some songs that do this are “Rocking In The Free World” by Neil Young , “Working For The Weekend” by Loverboy, “Misery Business” by Paramore, and many more.
A song can stay in the same key but have the melody do the jump, taking the singer into a more exciting part of his or her range such as “Second Chance” by Shinedown, “The Fixer” by Pearl Jam, “Learn To Fly” by Foo Fighters. In pop rock music, the chorus has to be the punctuation point on your song.
I decided the former would be the route I would take. In this case, “Are You There” is in E major during the verse (E mixo. mode with a borrowed b6 major chord at the end of the phrase technically), so when I segue to my new chorus key, I go to G major which adds a lift. I had my chords for the chorus, which were as follows:
C G D Em C D Emaj
Another thing that will add life to your chorus is to speed up the amount of changes per measure, meaning play more chords per bar then in other sections of the song. In the verse of “Are You There,” the first chord lasts a bar and the second bar has two chords. In the chorus there are two chords in every bar, and that adds momentum to that part of the song, helping it come alive.
I started humming melodies over that and then luckily was able to come up with one that had a repeating rhythm that was easy to fit words into. This part of the process is a bit mysterious but really, if you just sit and play the chords over and over humming things, you will eventually stumble across something that could work as a chorus. Try to follow some of the guidelines I laid out earlier. One other thing I look at is, if my verse has long held notes and a bit of a long melody, I try to use shorter phrases in the chorus. If my verse has shorter choppier phrasing I try to hold notes longer. You want to have that juxtaposition to keep the interest of the listener.
Changing your vocal phrasing between sections is a good thing. It keeps the listener engaged. “I Stay Away” by Alice In Chains, “Sex Is On Fire” by Kings Of Leon, “The Fixer” by Pearl Jam and many other songs use this premise. Songs that repeat something too often become boring fast.
So I got my chorus melody/rhythm together for “Are You There” and as I was humming, the words “Are You There” came to me. It was at this point that I had to start thinking about the dreaded topic of lyrics.
The topic of lyric writing is always a touchy one. Some say lyrics really don’t matter and that as long as you have a great melody, the song will be fine. This really depends on whether you want a song that has some sort of staying power though. Rhymes help make the song have a consistency that will allow the listener to quickly grab the hook phrase, which, in the business of music means $. This however may not apply to you if you are writing purely for fun or to make art as I said before. I prefer to have rhymes be a part of my writing as I do enjoy the challenge of saying something within such a rigid structure and trying to say something in my own way.
The first order of business I find is to get down on paper what you are trying to say. Does the music you wrote have a certain mood that it evokes? Sad like say Metallica’s “Unforgiven”, happy such as Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”, angry like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins? It should be giving you a direction to go in. That being said, there have been lyrics written with music that seems to be the polar opposite of the mood being evoked by the music and that can work by way of the irony involved.
I start by brainstorming for ideas. Put yourself in the singer’s shoes and start writing to see where that takes you. What happened, where did it happen, how is the situation going to be resolved or can it? There are many great lyric writing books if you are stumped for ideas that can get you jump started on this topic; The Craft Of Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis is one I have used in the past as well as other titles by Eric Beall and Pat Pattison.
After writing down how the singer is feeling about the situation, I try to put some phrases together, fitting them in with the melodies I have already written. Sometimes this works great, and other times you have to alter your phrases and decide if the lyric is so good you have to change the melody idea or vice versa.
After I wrap up a chorus (if I do this first), I try to lay out the back-story in the verse. The verse needs to more fully explain the plot, give details. The first few lines are particularly important and should give you a direction that pushes toward the payoff in the chorus.
A song does not have to have a bridge although many rock songs do such as Bryan Adams “Summer Of 69” or “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. Solos are sometimes seen as passe but hey, if you have something you can say on your instrument without just noodling for the sake of noodling, I think a nice thematic solo can only add to a song’s appeal.
For “Are You There” I decided on a solo going to a short bridge and utilized another key change to lift the bridge/solo to a new height. I re-used the modulation idea from the verse to the chorus (raising the key up a 3rd) by taking the key up from G in the chorus to Bb for the solo.
Eb F Dm Eb Dm Cm Ab Fsus4 F Gsus4 G C
This can be a tricky thing to do unless you either have a respectable understanding of intermediate theory and/or a lot of time on your hands to experiment! Following the solo, I needed to get back to the original key of the chorus and I did so by utilizing an Fsus4 to F major chord followed by a Gsus4 to G major chord which lead me back to the first chord of the chorus, C major.
Sus4 chords to major on the same root are a great way to quickly modulate and sound great no matter where you put them. If you have a 2.5 or 3 octave vocal range, I would recommend staying in the new key to add life to the third chorus. To surprise the listener, I added a fourth section to the song by singing a new melody over the chorus chords and elaborating lyrically on the idea the song is trying to evoke.
When writing pop music (I have written many styles including classical, country, blues and jazz) I always try to wrap up a tune with a repeating phrase or some hook that imprints the song in the listener’s mind that will hopefully stay with them for a while. In “Are You There,” after the chorus repeats 2 times I came up with the repeating phrase of “Are You There” and also used an old blues technique known as ‘call and response’.
Of course, many songs just repeat the initial chorus over and over or even have a solo tag at the end or maybe even go double time to raise the action level to a fever pitch. Whatever you do, make it something the listener can look forward to. A producer friend of mine calls those parts “gifts for the listener.”
Well, hopefully you got a few ideas out of this; it was a lot of fun to write. I can safely say that through my many years of performing music, practicing music, learning about music, etc. that writing a good song has and will continue to be the most fun/challenging process to me of any facet of the music business. Best of luck!