"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 13. The Elements of Compostiion

Dick Goodwin is a composer and arranger who lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and has been on the staff of Kerrville Songwriter's School for many years. The following discussion of the musical elements of songwriting is taken from his lectures and demonstrations.

Melody (Pitch)

1. Try starting your melody on each possible scale degree. Most writers have a tendency to begin in the same way or to repeat the things that have worked in the past. Listen to songs with this question in mind. Check the songs currently in the top twenty in your favorite place on the dial.

2. Try each possible opening interval or group of intervals. Try the upward movement and the downward use of each interval or intervals. Try out the intervals that make up the chord or chords and alternatively try intervals that challenge the chord or take another approach even if this causes you to question the chords you have. The objective is to write strong melodies that are harmonized in a satisfying way. Don't be limited to melodies that are written to accommodate the chord progression.

3. Invert all or part of your melodic figure. This is also a good way to find melody ideas for other sections of the song. Use "mirror writing" by using your existing melody ideas to write sections of the melody either backwards or upside down.

4. Derive melodic materials by assigning notes to phone numbers or the letters of someone's name. There are many examples of this even in classical music. The name of Bach was often set in music, the "h" was treated as an A since it is the note above G. Find other chance combinations that can give you a new direction, lottery tickets, a deck of cards. "I was having a bowl of alphabet soup the other day and your name came up."

5. Add or cut out certain pitches for pleasing combinations. Once you have a new idea, let the "editor" of your ear go to work on it. This is especially helpful when you have developed an approach to harmonizing your melody. You can let the chords do some of the work of the melody and leave out some notes, and conversely you can help the chords in their effect by tailoring your melody.

6. Try your melody ideas in different scales like major or minor. Explore the possibilities of different modes and scales like pentatonics, etc. This technique might help to delineate between verse and chorus and bridge, by changing modes in mid song.

7. Can you use "accidental notes." These are the notes outside the scale -those in the cracks. Sometimes these can be derived by changing a minor chord to a major, as in changing the A minor chord in the key of C to an A major. This can give the song a much more interesting harmonic foundation.

"Blue" notes can give another profound effect. These "blue" notes are derived by flatting the third, fifth and seventh scale degrees. In the key of C these notes would be E-flat, G-flat, and B-flat.

Another way to discover these elements is to explore the area of borrowed chords. Take any chord or scale degree in the song and pretend that it is the new key. Use chords in the new key and see what their relationship is to the chords already in use. What unexpected "accidental" notes does this process suggest?

Melody - (Rhythm)

1. Move a melodic figure backwards or forwards in time in the measure. Anticipate, or wait to sing the phrase, giving a different rhythmic emphasis to the phrase. Sometimes a song will use two different phrasings of the same words.

2. Elongate or shorten certain values. Usually this will have to be consistent with the conversational sense of the phrase, but there is often wide latitude to experiment. Consider the difference if the Rolling Stones's sang, "I can't get no satisfaction" as straight eighth notes.


1. Consider at random other scale degrees of root movement. The most common are up a fourth, or up a fifth, or down to the six minor. What about up to the second, or down to the seventh? It may be that some of these places are best visited on the way to somewhere else.

2. Try the strong progressions. One step to anywhere, up two, up four, down 3, down 2, including chromatic (half step) motion.

3. What else is possible? (up 5?, up 3?)

4. Alter chord types. A major chord can become a minor chord, or a seventh chord, etc. Try inversions of the chord. Try added notes like a flatted 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, etc.

5. Let the harmony be controlled by stepwise bass. Using inversions here gives infinite possibilities for fresh harmonies. Again find notes in chords from related keys to make interesting sense out of the bass progression.

6. Let the harmony be determined by a thumb line. In this case, with both hands on the keyboard, the thumbs explore the middle ground between the two hands and the rest of the fingers change to make the best use of the notes suggested by the thumbs. Often this will be stepwise movement in either direction but there are numerous possibilities.

7. Is your harmonic rhythm logical? Does there seem to be an appropriate number of rhythmic beats per chord. Is there a satisfying balance of these rhythmic elements in the different sections of the song. For instance the verses might be more harmonically "busy" than the choruses.

The bridge might depart from patterns created in verses and choruses. In a bridge it might me acceptable to "go off on a tangent", or find a new path to or back from a different harmonic place. Also, if there is a point in the song where things come to a momentary halt, this is likely to come at the beginning or at the end of the bridge.


1. Experiment with different meters 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, 12/8, hemiola, etc. Hemiola usually refers to time values in the relationship of 3 to 2, as in three half notes instead of two dotted half notes. Brahms' Symphony no. 2 is an example of the use of this rhythmic device. In the music of Motown there are examples of quarter note triplets used for a similar effect. (insert here an example of hemiola in notation)

2. Try different "feels" or "grooves". See how a waltz differs from a bolero, a shuffle, a polka, and so on.

3. Listen for the differences between short and long articulations (staccato vs. legato etc.). One way to differentiate verse and chorus is by having shorter note values in one and longer in the other. A chorus is more likely to have plainer more slogan-like phrases which are repeated.

4. Shift the tempo up or down. See how phrasing is affected. Is there still time to breathe? If the song is a lot slower, does it need a more rhythmic expression of the phrasing? As the tempo increases, does the pulse of the meter change?


1. Boom-chuck, this is a familiar alternating left hand, right hand piano style similar to the pick-strum "Carter Family" style of guitar, also known as the "church lick." In more rock oriented songs, the boom-chuck often becomes boom-pa chuck-a, boom-pa chuck-a, ala Buddy Holly.

2. Pedal points. Sustaining bass lines through the phrase. This also impacts on harmony, and can create some interesting suspensions and other kinds of tensions.

3. Breaks (G.P. the grand pause), and holds (fermata). Sometimes it takes courage to resist the impulse to fill up the song with continuous sound.

4. Bass alone, is a device which often begins an arrangement of a song but can be effective at any point.


Dynamics is the use of the range of loud and soft. Notice how seasoned performers take advantage of the dramatic impli-cations of volume. It gives a performer a chance to make the most of his or her ability to generate energy but requires a subtlety and sensitivity to the audience.

On a musical score these dynamic considerations are designated by the terms; -subito (softer), f (forte or loud) or p (piano or soft), cresc. (getting louder), dim. (getting softer), etc.

Song Form

Analyze tunes to learn standard practices and write at least one song in each of the following forms: verse/chorus, aaba, abac, ababcb, 12 or 16 bar blues, etc. Make special note of bridges that you hear and notice how many ways writers have found to break up the expected patterns and keep things interesting.

Timbre (Often related to texture)

1. Vary instrumental combinations (particularly backup fills, snare vs. rim, etc. This is especially important to distinguish between verses and choruses and to allow the song to build from a more sparse beginning to reach a peak of energy at a later point in the song.

2. With the guitar, there are many options for whether to strum or to pick on the individual strings, or to snap, slap, thump, or drum on the strings. Many effects are produced by the right hand and others by the left or by both in combination. The string will produce a noticeably different sound depending upon whether you strike it with your fingernail, or with a flat pick, a finger pick (steel or brass), or with the bare skin of your finger.

There are also dampening effects which can be achieved by using the heel of the right hand, or the extra fingers of the left hand. Also picking up the fingers of a chord, or just releasing some of the pressure which gives a good clear note to the fretted string and letting the finger tips dampen the strings. This produces an effect similar to lifting the sustain pedal of a piano.

A solo guitar player will have a harder time differentiating between rhythm and lead playing than would two guitarists or a guitar and bass. Guitar tunings can suggest a different sound and use other resonances and timbre.

3. Remember that tessitura has dramatic tension-release implications. Different voices have different qualities and as you explore the range of your own voice or write for other voices you will become aware of the dramatic effects of stretching or reaching for higher notes or coming down for those low notes.

Special care needs to be taken so that singers are not discouraged from singing or wanting to sing your song. But again, to use "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" as an example, Bill Medley's first notes make a very dramatic beginning for the song, almost unbelievably low. This is even more impressive later in the song as Bobby Hatfield wails up into the higher reaches. Not all songs can expect to be produced with anywhere near that wide a range.

Check Some Other Things

Are you getting all you can from melodic curves or peaks or from a carefully prepared dramatic climax in the song? Are there considerations in the area of melismatic vs. syllabic repeated notes? Melismatic means more that one tone is sung for a given syllable. As in "I am calling you-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo."

Is there a different word rhythm or chord rhythm that gives a clear distinction to a new section in the form? Does the chorus lift? Are sections prepared for or set up? Is there anything that might help to set the song apart from what has been done before while still making the song stronger?

Don't feel that you have to tackle all of these principles at once. Take them on one at a time and experiment until you feel you understand the effect of each consideration.

"Leadbelly", was Huddie Ledbetter, writer of "Irene Goodnight", "The Midnight Special", and "Rock Island Line". He was a legendary, self-taught twelve-string guitarist and songwriter.

When he was asked to explain how he learned to play the way he did he said, "First, you have to learn to tap with both feet."

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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