Songwriting Part 1: Write What You Know, in which we discussed writing about characters, situations and feelings that you understand.
Songwriting Part 2: Write What You Like, in which we discussed writing about those things that motivate you, and using a style that you personally like.
Songwriting Part 3: Characterization, in which we discussed writing about characters other than yourself, and making them believable.
You might think that it's strange that I waited until now to mention anything about music theory in a discussion of songwriting, but that was done deliberately, for a couple of reasons. First, you may already know music theory. You may be musician who has simply never tried writing your own compositions before. Second, a good bit of what is taught in theory is known intuitively by anybody who feels the drive to compose.
A lot of people think that you can write songs... very good, chart-topping songs... without knowing music theory. And it's true, you can. BUT... art is the deliberate communication of emotion; as an artist, your goal should be to place a feeling directly into the heart of your listener. While you can do that intuitively, or by stumbling around, a good foundation in music theory allows you to do this consciously and deliberately. It provides you with better tools. At worst it gives you a better vocabulary; at best, it is the difference between whittling and woodworking.
While I'm fond of saying "there are no rules in music", the plain fact is there are. People -- at least people sharing a common culture -- react to specific sounds and sequences of sounds, rhythms and tempos in very specific ways. You, as a songwriter, can use those rules to your advantage. When I say "there are no rules", I simply mean that no rule is sacrosanct. All can be broken to achieve an effect. But unless you're aware of the rules themselves, you can't know what effect breaking them will have.
So you set out to learn some theory. This can be approached in a number of ways. One is very boring and academic. That's how I learned it, to start, and some people thrive on it. I personally found it to be a pain in the butt. I much preferred Trigonometry. As a result I promptly forgot most of it. Fortunately I have a day job that doesn't require it. But I can still tell a hemidemisemiquaver from a minim and know more specialized Italian words than I ever use in conversation. Today's theory is perhaps less of the terminology and more of the technicalities, but some things don't change.
I'm not teaching theory here. I'm just writing some thoughts about theory... the portions that I think are most important to beginning songwriters, and why they're important. You don't have to learn everything about theory, but there are some very basic things that every songwriter should know. (most of the links I provide here are to Wikipedia, because as a reference it ain't half bad. If people have their preferred links to on-line theory lessons, it would be great if they shared them in the comments, below)
1. Learn to read sheet music. Please, please do this, for your own sake. It's not hard. If you're not a pianist, at a minimum learn to read both the tabulature for your instrument and a "lead sheet" (typically a treble clef with a melody, and chord names or tabs above). If you're a keyboard player, do not neglect your left hand, and learn your chords so you can improvise around a lead sheet. To read music, you're going to necessarily learn some of the stuff below, but you wouldn't believe the benefit of learning this simple thing. It can be the difference between being able to concisely share and remember your music, and not.
If there's one thing at all that surprises me the most about meeting other musicians, it's how many of them can't read music.
2. Learn scales. The concept of a scale is pretty easy to visualize using a piano keyboard:
Imagine that a piano keyboard is a old rope bridge, and there are planks across it on which you can step. They form the bridge. Now imagine that some of the planks are missing. Obviously you can only step on the planks that are there. When you first cross the bridge you have to be very careful not to miss your step and wind up in the river below. But with a great deal of practice walking across the bridge in both directions, it becomes second-nature. You eventually get to the point where you can run across the bridge in the dark without conscious thought.That's very basically how a scale works. There is a pattern of notes that you're allowed to use. This pattern of notes is very specific. When you build chords, you build them using those notes. The purpose of learning the scales isn't just so you can play the scale, it's so you are used to stepping on the right planks, as it were, when you construct chords and harmonies. We call those occasions when you don't step on the right planks, "accidentals". In music, as on the bridge, they can be disastrous, or they can simply add excitement. Most accidentals - despite the name - are deliberate.
A scale generally corresponds to the "key" of the music. So if someone says "this is in the key of D Major", and you know your D Major scale, you should at least be in the neighborhood (you'll also need the chord progression to play along... more on that next).
The thing about scales, and keys, is this: They help you to determine the mood of a song. You might have heard a "melancholy" song before. It can make you slightly sad, and without knowing about minor scales you're left to wonder why. The Blues has it's own scale, and its own moods, and not all Blues is sad. Sticking to the key makes the song sound "right".
3. Learn about chords. Sometimes all you have to describe your music is a lead sheet. At the minimum it's a lyric sheet and some chord names. So it's important to be able to describe those chords. The name of a chord is in a way like a molecular formula: it tells you exactly how to construct that chord. Now, if you don't know your chords, you can't do that. You can either learn a boatload of chords individually, or you can learn how they're made so you don't have to. So learn how to construct chords. This means you already know your scales, and you know something about intervals. Then if you see Em7add9, you know what to play. (you also know what you can substitute for it)
But it's more than knowing how to play or write chords. There's choosing them. For that you need to know about chord progression. And once you know about chord progression, vary that ever so slightly with alternate chords and phrasings. Your lyrics and melody are intended to impart a message and take you to a particular place, intellectually and emotionally. Your chord progression provides the emotional milestones along the way. There are rules to this, and people are accustomed to certain progressions. Whether you stick with that or vary it depends in part on how comfortable (or uncomfortable) you want to make your listener. Your chord progression can make your song sound tense, or incomplete, or just bad. But if you want them to feel tense, or to be left hanging, it's nice to know how to do it.
4. Learn time signatures, note values, and rhythm. Obviously, this is basic to reading music, but these factors determine the difference between a waltz and a rhumba. This is important to the mood, the style, even the "ethnicity" of your song. For instance,
in the 1962 musical, The Music Man, "Seventy Six Trombones is in 4/4 time (it's a march). "Goodnight My Someone" is the same tune, in 3/4 time (it's a love song dressed up as a lullaby). What a difference!It doesn't have to be constant throughout a piece, and often you'll see one measure that has its own time signatures. You can change them up during the song for effect. For instance, if you're an American, writing about your Cuban lover, you might stick to 4/4 time in the verses, saving the Latin beat for the chorus.
Jonathan Coulton's Creepy Doll is a pretty good example of a song that changes up the rhythm... he has separate rhythms for the verses, chorus, and bridge.Combining a "sweet" 3/4 time signature with a "sad" minor key might give you something just a bit creepier still.
5. Learn how to transpose. In a sense, this is another way of saying "learn your damned scales!" Transposing is just playing the same song, or part of the same song, in a different key. But it's valuable, not only to be able to play with other instruments that are tuned to a different key, but to communicate progression or movement in a song. Often when a song seems to "step up to the next level", that's literally what's happening... it's being stepped up to a different key. It can make a big difference in the song, so learn to do that. Transposition is a big reason why chord progressions are written with Roman numerals... so you can describe the progression universally, independent of the key.
Anyway... those are some basic musical concepts you should be able to wrap your head around. I'm OK on piano with most of this, but not on guitar. So when I'm writing for guitar it goes one of two ways... either I stumble around looking for the chords I'd like to use; or I write the song on piano first, then cry in pain when I discover the contortions I have to go through to produce those chords on a guitar, then transpose to something less onerous, then simplify to make it workable. Both methods make for a less-than-satisfactory result. I should get off my butt and apply what I know about music theory to guitar.