How to Write a Song Even If You Don’t Know Music Theory
About This Event
Maybe you have taught yourself how to sing, play the drums (that’s me!), or are just starting out your musical journey yet have a passion for songwriting. You don’t need notation chops to create a melody.
Step One: Lyrics and Rhythm
Musicians who have read sheet music for years might find figuring out harmonies, good song structure, and rhythmic vocal patterns natural because of years dedicated to their craft. You can develop good lyricism through constant practice.
While there are many “fallbacks” for a tune like writing about teen love, partying, or even physical attraction, try to focus on writing songs that mean something to you personally. Even if you are writing about a topic that you have not personally experienced like your girlfriend walking out on you, you can still apply the emotions you have experienced like sadness and loss to this theme.
The Importance of Rhyme
Work on different rhyme schemes. Count out the syllables of each line. In general, you want the lines to remain similar in terms of syllables and a rhythmic parallelism in the lines. Be ready to drop or add words, or find synonyms for overused words.
Vocal patterns are easy to determine. For example, the phrase “I eat food” has three syllables and a much different vocal pattern than “Frederica loves her pet poodle”. You can figure out the number of syllables by clapping your hands to the rhythm of the line:
I – EAT – FOOD
CLAP – CLAP – CLAP
What you want to do is line up similar vocal patterns. Group “I eat food” with “Soup is good” and “Frederica loves her pet poodle” with “But I love mac and noodles”. (Can you sense the beginning of a corny jingle here? But I digress.)
As you grow more advanced in your writing, you can experiment with rhyming and rhythm, but for right now, practice the basics.
Exercise: Simple Syllables
Grab a newspaper or view today’s headlines on your smartphone. Choose a handful of headlines for this exercise.
- Create a lyric using one headline from your list
- Count the number of syllables in that lyric
- Say the words several times out loud
- Listen to the rhythmic pattern of the line
- Write a new lyric from scratch that works well with the first lyric
I loved him and his super red motorcycle (13 syllables)
He was so very very cool (9 syllables, no rhyme, dissimilar vocal rhythm)
Hot and sweaty on his Harley (8 syllables)
I was his when he kissed me (7 syllables, partial rhyme, similar vocal rhythm)
Note: “Kissed” will probably be sung as a single syllable even though it is two syllables, so we count it as one.
In the first example, there was clearly no attempt at trying to rhyme the lines or adhere to any sort of rhyming scheme. In the second example, the lines rhyme better, the same message is conveyed, and the syllables are close in number. There was also an attempt to keep the line singable. “Super red motorcycle” is much harder to sing than “Harley”.
Step 2: Melody
For thousands of years, before a single note was put to paper, musicians learned through improvisation and copying others. Developing your ear training skills is key to writing a convincing melody without knowing any music theory. Instead of learning the rules about which notes work together you’re going to find aural inspiration and then experiment to find which notes let you re-create the particular characteristics you want in your songs.
Exercise 1: Listen and Learn
In this exercise you are going to listen to several songs and identify key characteristics of each tune. You will use your active listening skills to explore the distinctive characteristics of each song.
Play the example.
Use your ears to identify the melody in the verses and chorus. Sing or hum it back.
Listen for the hook, the most memorable line or tune from the song.
Write down at least five musical characteristics that you notice like rhythm, word choice, vocal range, harmonies, instrumentals, etc.
Exercise 2: Copy Cat
In this exercise you are going to use some of the key characteristics that you learned earlier and your original lyrics to imitate a musical style.
- Select two different musical styles from any of these categories: Pop, Hip-Hop, Country/Folk, Dance/Electronica, Classical, Rock
- Using your notes from Exercise 1, try to improvise your lyrics in two different styles, accompanied or unaccompanied
- Experiment with your lyrics, voice, and melody
Record your results
Listen to your recording and notice similarities and differences between your improvisation and the original examples
You can continue this exercise as follows:
When you are done, choose three Top 40 artists in your chosen genre
Listen to their examples
Improvise your song in the style of each of these artists
Keep working on developing your listening skills. You don’t need the abstract rules of music theory and stuffy terminology to be knowledgeable and skilful in analysing and appreciating songs in a sophisticated way. By learning exactly what makes a good song sound good you will be able to apply these principles to your own melody making without worrying about theory and notation.
Step 3: Harmony
You can use ear training and listening skills to develop good harmonies for your song. Practice listening to a variety of chord progressions online or with your friends. You will find that you will naturally gravitate towards certain harmonic sequences. If you already play an instrument, you will find that even if you don’t know how to write down a tune, you definitely know how to create a tune simply using your excellent aural skills.
Exercise: Autochord fun
There are many interesting websites to help you develop your harmonic skills, even without any music theory knowledge! For this exercise you will use a simple tool called Autochord to develop your aural skills.
Check out the Autochord website and try this exercise:
- Experiment with different presets like cliché, grunge, or simple
- Start with simple keys like C, F, D, or G
- If you play an instrument, try to play the chord progressions by ear
- Improvise a simple melody over the chord structure
- Once you are comfortable with the chord progressions, try to improvise a popular chord progression under your lyrics
- Pair up with a friend for more harmonizing fun!
Step Four: Record
After going through the steps above you should feel equipped to create your first songs, writing lyrics, deciding rhythms, adding melodies in an appropriate style, and harmonising those rhythms with the help of well-known progressions or autochord-like tools.
The final step is to record! Don’t be intimidated, just think of it as the “demo” recording for your song. Polished production can wait. For now just capture the ideas you’ve come up with and keep moving forwards in your song-writing journey.