Everyone dreams of writing a novel, everyone dreams of directing a film sooner or later. It is our desire to create, to leave a mark that pushes us to imagine being able to tell others – to many others – something of ours, using the weapons of literature or cinema. Unfortunately, however, very few of us succeed, because for a film and a novel, even self-produced, we need hundreds of hours of work and a strong motivation. Easier, however, is the task of those who already know how to play the guitar or the piano. Even if he has a problem to solve: how to write a song?
Because it is true that the piece of music is more agile and quick to compose than a novel with hundreds of pages or a film for tens of minutes, but it is still a creative act that underlies some precise rules. And, if you are amateur players, those rules may never have been studied.
Now, if you want to create a memorable song, you probably aren’t in the right place at all: you need years of composition study, years of testing, trial and error, and the internet certainly can’t help you.
However, if you would simply like to dedicate a short song to your girlfriend or boyfriend, or even just put yourself to the test without any pretense, here you will find some advice on how to compose a piece of music. These are common sense suggestions, but they usually end up not thinking. We proceed.
1. Find your “hook” immediately
If you have ever tried to read interviews where great musicians explain how their songs are born, you certainly know that there is no single rule. Each has its own method. There are those who first spread the text and those who start from the music. There are those who draw inspiration from the sounds of the city and those from old symphonies.
To look deeper, however, we can identify some recurring features, from musician to musician. Many, for example, talk about hooks1. This English word can be translated in many ways (remember, for example, Hook – Captain Hook?), But we will opt for “hook”.
In short, many artists say that the first thing to do is find the “hook”. But what do they mean? To understand it, you need to pick up any pop or rock song. Choose the one you want, maybe your favorite one, and try to listen to it.
Done? Well, you may have noticed that in the progress of the song there are peaks, “strong” moments. Usually these are found inside the refrain, but there are songs that have their peak in the guitar riff or in the first words of the text. Here, that’s the hook.
Music or refrain
The hook in practice is that particular phrase, or that particular set of notes that remain imprinted in the listener. Doing some trivial examples, when you think about leaving you by Amedeo Minghi, what comes to mind? Almost certainly, “Trottolino amoroso and dudu dadadà”. That’s his hook.
Or when you think of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, think of the guitar solo immediately. Or with Radiohead’s No Surprises, don’t you think of the initial arpeggio?
In short, each song has its strong point, which remains fixed in mind, also because it is repeated within the song itself, or taken up in other forms. It is the leitmotiv of the piece, its common thread. Here: according to many, the first inspiration must be precisely this.
Think of a phrase that you want to be meaningful, and set it to music. Or find a tune and think about whether it is better to make it with words or with a musical instrument. You must like it and it must remain easily impressed. You don’t need it to be too original, as long as it’s catchy. From there we leave.
2. Build some lines around the hinge point
So, did you find this blessed hook? It may take some time, don’t think that everything comes within five minutes. Also because the first possible hooks that you have found could turn out, in the long run, rather weak. And the only one, in these cases, is to try and try again, and be patient.
But let’s say you already managed to find a satisfactory hook. Well, now we have to build around the whole song. First of all, however, we need to strengthen the hook, that is to make it part of something more organic, at least a strophe, an intro, a refrain.
Let’s say that your hook is a simple verse, perhaps in which you say the name of your beloved and some other words. Well, in that case the verse must become part of the refrain, and therefore that tune must be taken up and changed at the right point.
The outline verses, of course, will replicate the tone and rhythm of that hook, completing the round of chords or shooting it. And even at the text level, they will remain on the subject, developing the concept of departure better. In short, by trying different solutions and rejecting the less convincing ones, you will be able to build the chorus.
And if the hook is instrumental?
If you are better at playing than singing, you may have found your hook in a guitar riff, in an arpeggio or in a simple tune played on the keyboard. Even from there you can proceed in the same way, although of course you won’t use words.
The best rock songs, indeed, often have their hinges in the instruments. It is therefore a question of identifying how to expand that tune and above all with which instrument to execute it. Do you want a folk song, all done on guitar? Then just start with a few notes, then expand to the arpeggio and eventually switch to the corresponding agreements.
Do you want something more symphonic instead? Pull out your keyboard or rely on a program like GarageBand, which allows you to engrave the traces of different instruments and superimpose them together.
3. For the first experiments choose a consolidated structure
Now that you have created a piece of song, it is just a matter of completing the work. This should be the most technical part, where there is no need for particular inspiration but more than anything to stand at a table and sum up what you have set. But often, this is where everything is wrong.
The problem, the first few times you start composing a song, is that you want to overdo it. We want to try, right away, to be original, to write the piece that “will change the history of music”.
Instead, it would be better to be much more modest, to realize that you are an absolute newbie, and to be content with getting out of what you can do with this first experiment. There is always time to revolutionize the rock scene. The important thing now is to complete the mission.
For this reason our advice is to stay with your feet firmly planted on the ground and to rely on the example of millions of other songs. So, once you have your chorus, build a song around it that follows the typical pattern of pop and rock song.
But what is the typical scheme?
If you notice, you already know this scheme, because it is found in 90% (or maybe even 95%) of the songs you listen to every day.
We have already spoken of the refrain in part. It is the part of the song that is the most catchy and easily memorized, the one that comes after waiting for the verse and in which the instruments and the voice make themselves heard more strongly. It repeats itself essentially always equal to itself, even if you can change some words.
The stanza is instead the part of the song that prepares precisely for the refrain. The text, from one verse to another, must differ but the melody is the same. For this we must be careful that words (and accents) fit with rhythm and notes. Help yourself with a good dictionary of synonyms and antonyms.
But you already know these things. What you may not know is the bridge. Literally that word means “bridge”, and in fact has the function of connecting two repetitions of the refrain, without taking up the verse again. It is usually shorter than the latter and is sometimes only instrumental.
4. Record all your progress from time to time
Good or bad, at this point you will have roughly spread your song. Well, don’t wait to forget it, but write it down and register it right away, right now. One of the mistakes that beginners do most often, in fact, is to trust their memory too much.
Unfortunately, inspiration comes and goes, so too does intuition for that particular note or that particular word. We must fix everything before it flies away. And fortunately today we have the adequate means to not lose even an idea.
It is enough to use your own mobile phone. All smartphones have apps to write the text that just came to mind, but even more all phones have an app to record audio. Thanks to the integrated microphone you can in fact memorize every passage of your song.
Clear that the first recording will be coarse, unsatisfactory from the point of view of surrender, but this is not what counts. The important thing is to fix the idea. If you also know how to write the notes to the staff, once you have fixed the tune it will then be easy, at home, to transcribe it into music.
5. Set aside everything and review it after a long time
Now that the song is more or less complete, what needs to be done? Putting on the guitar, slinging under the window of the loved one and starting to strum? No, better not to do so. And not just because moonlight serenades have definitely gone out of fashion.
After working intensively on your song, the song will seem either incredibly beautiful, or incredibly ugly. It’s normal. Maybe it will be really beautiful or very ugly, but certainly you can’t say it right away. In every field, in fact, we tend to be the worst judges of our work.
Because of all the efforts and all the hopes placed in what we have composed, we risk in fact not being objective. This is why our last advice is to detach yourself as much as possible from your song, even to forget it.
Put it in a drawer and don’t think about it anymore for 2 or 3 weeks. Maybe bet an alarm on your mobile or write it on the calendar. After that time you can reopen the drawer or listen to the audio file again. At that point, the song will no longer be “your” song, but any song. And you can better see its strengths or weaknesses.
Only then can you make the necessary corrections, additions or rewritings. And really improve the piece.