As songwriters, we each have our own unique process to start and develop our songs. When we write a song, we begin with some type of inspiration or idea. These ideas typically fall into four big categories: melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics.
Although there are many other aspects of writing a song (such as arrangement and dynamics), having a deep understanding of these elements will give you a more knowledgeable and controlled approach to your songwriting. Let’s explore these four approaches to writing a song so you can start to have control over them in your own writing.
The melody is the succession of pitches (pitch and rhythm) typically performed by a vocal or a lead instrument. It’s what a listener usually recalls most easily.
Because it’s the most memorable aspect of a song, a well-written melody is very important in songwriting. A strong melody can have the power to engage a listener, evoke certain emotions, change the feel of the song, and much more. It’s very common for a song to start with a melodic idea.
The harmony in a song is another term for the chord progression. The harmony accompanies the melody in your music. A well-written harmony can greatly enhance the pre-written melody of a song.
The writing of your harmony gives you control over many elements of a song. The energy, speed, and emotion can all be affected by the song’s harmony. It’s also very common for a song to start with a harmonic idea.
Pro tip: Try recording a melody and play different chords over it.
The rhythm is the placement of sounds in time. The rhythm can refer to the timing of a pitch, such as in your melody or harmony, or to a non-pitched instrument, such as your drums and percussion (sometimes referred to as part of your rhythm section).
A well-written, catchy rhythm is a crucial part of writing a memorable song – just think of the drums in the intro to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
The word lyric is of Greek origin, translating to “sing to the lyre.” The lyrics are the words in your song, whether spoken or sung. The lyrics paint the picture of your song, setting the scene and telling your story. Whereas a well-written melody has the power to grab your listener’s attention, a well-written lyric has the power to keep their attention there.
A great lyric can make a song timeless, so it’s no wonder how, for example, John Lennon’s “Imagine” is still such a powerful song.
Pro tip: Try writing four different songs, each one of them starting with a different song approach, and see what you come up with. Notice which approach works best for you.
With a little experience, songwriters learn which approaches they’re strongest in. Many choose to work with co-writers who complement their strengths, and end up with better songs as a result. Join SongwriterLink for free to get matched up with exactly the kind of co-writers you’re looking for, anywhere in the world.
Joe Capalbo is an intern for SongwriterLink.