Thursday, April 21, 2011

Songwriting 101

I've always had a great curiosity about songwriting and why some people seem to be able to write catchy songs so easily and quickly. Is it their musical background that enables them, or is it an inside scoop on the mechanics of songs themselves? One of the most prolific songwriters of our lifetime is Dolly Parton. Parton has published more than 3,000 songs that have been recorded by a diverse number of singers. I recently heard Adele interviewed on Q and she said that when she met Dolly Parton, Dolly told her that she had written “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” in the same day.

I myself had many years of piano and theory training. I started lessons when I was 7 years old and continued until the end of my first year of college. I received my certificate for Royal Conservatory Grade 8 Piano and Grade 2 Theory which has made me uniquely qualified to, you guessed it, play classical music. I also took a full year of Grade 9 in college and then quit because I had the worst. teacher. ever. and for some reason the college wouldn't let me take lessons without getting a grade from said teacher, and it was seriously affecting my GPA. There's not much demand for classical piano players these days and somehow I could never master the free and easy stylings of praise & worship or modern music. But if you're looking for someone to sight-read a sonatina then I'm your girl!

I don't remember ever being taught how to write a song, so my knowledge has come from cultural osmosis. Some songs themselves allude to the process of songwriting. Metric's “On the Sly” talks about the “twelve bar blues”, something I never encountered in my classical training. In Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” one of the verses actually describes the chording of the verse: "it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift".

Back in the '90's, Sarah McLaughlin was sued by Darryl Neudorf for failing to give him a songwriting credit on her album, Touch. When the lawsuit went to court, witnesses gave a breakdown of the parts of the song and how they influenced the final structure. A lot of people are familiar with the basic format of most songs:


and so on. But a big part of what draws people to specific songs is the “hook”, which is described in Wikipedia,

"One definition of a hook is "a musical or lyrical phrase that stands out and is easily remembered". Definitions typically include some of the following: that a hook is repetitive, attention-grabbing, memorable, easy to dance to, and has commercial potential and lyrics. A hook has been defined as a "part of a song, sometimes the title or key lyric line, that keeps recurring". Alternatively, the term has been defined as
the foundation of commercial songwriting, particularly hit-single writing", which varies in length from the repetition of "one note or a series of notes...[to] a lyric phrase, full lines, or an entire verse. The hook is 'what you're selling'. Though a hook can be something as insubstantial as a 'sound' (such as da doo ron ron), "ideally should contain one or more of the following: (a) a driving, danceable rhythm; (b) a melody that stays in people's minds; (c) a lyric that furthers the dramatic action, or defines a person or place.
It is hard to define what features make a hook appealing to listeners. While some melodic hooks include skips of a third or more to make the line more interesting, a hook can be equally catchy by employing rhythmic syncopation or other devices."

Then there are those artists who choose to, as I like to say, “rip-off”, other musicians, under the guise of paying homage; or in some cases, deny the similarities entirely, claiming they wrote the music themselves and had never heard or were influenced by previous songs. I think they might just be lazy or trying to cash in on someone else's known hit.  Some good examples of this are:

Daft Punk > Kanye West (although hip hop does have a long tradition of "sampling")

I'd like to point out that the copycats in this list deny that they plagiarized the original music.

One thing that I've always wondered is whether we (humanity) will ever run out of melodies. People have been writing music and playing instruments since the days of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:21), how can they all be original? There are only so many variations available.

I suppose if I want to know the mechanics of songwriting, I should just ask my cousin, who is a talented musician himself and in the business. Maybe he could give me a few pointers on how to make my fortune by writing a hit single.

UPDATED August 26, 2012: I recently found this website that shows the similarities between popular songs.  Check it out -

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout out - I haven't written a hit single (yet!) but I sit 10 feet from a #1 song writer every day, so who knows! Maybe it'll rub off eventually.

    You are right about running out of melodies. Assuming the average recognizable melody (or hook) consists of 5 notes ("Long and Winding Road" for example) then there are only 248,832 possible permutations of a 12-tone scale.

    Of those, the majority sound stupid.