Songwriting Take-Home Test: Learn How to Write Better Songs
We songwriters are craftsmen with words and music. As such, we use certain tools to get the job done. Knowing what these tools are called and what they’re used for not only helps us but helps us share observations, discoveries, and new tricks of the trade with other songwriters and interested laypersons. If you know what you’re doing but don’t know what it’s called, it's worth the effort to find out; you’ll more than likely discover that somebody did it before you, and even better. We can only hide behind our “innocence” for so long. As to the opinion, “If I know what I’m doing the magic will go away…”
“The knowledge of something doesn’t make it less beautiful.” Richard P. Feynman
The following is a “test” of your songwriting knowledge; what things are called and how you use them. (I’ve had fun with some of the more ridiculous answers, so don’t think I’m talking down to anyone.) As I said earlier, I think it’s important to know how you do what you do, what things are called, and how to communicate these with others. There’s no real grade given at the end, and the correct answer(s) are at the bottom of the page. Have fun!
1. A chord (triad) is made up of which three notes?
a. major, minor, diminished
b. 1st, 2nd, 3rd
c. root, third, seventh
d. root, third, fifth
2. A minor chord is a major chord with:
a sad sound
lowered (flatted) third
a record deal!
3. The song form most used during the Great American Songbook period was:
d. ballad form
4. Name three important principles of great narrative songwriting
a. verse, chorus, bridge
b. Expectation, Surprise, Inevitability
c. economy, metaphor, tag
d. commercialism, shock value, product placement
a. is a literary principle not used in songwriting
b. is a comparison using like or as
c. are the chords under the melody
d. minimizes or downplays the importance of a given situation
a. is a change of key
b. can happen anywhere in the song
c. won’t make you any money
d. can go to a lower key
7. A singer’s relationship to the audience from the most objective to the most intimate point of view is:
a. in a taped interview, live on stage, in a magazine article
b. Third Person, First Person, Second Person, Direct Address
c. a story song, a song about his/her life, a song written by someone else
8. The basic “Country Bridge” song form is:
a. AABA with repeated B section
b. verse, chorus, bridge, post chorus
c. chorus first
d. a song about a bridge in West Virginia
9. Every component in a song should:
a. be easy to understand
b. reveal more information as it proceeds
c. support the intended emotion
d. be at least 3 1/2 minutes long
10. Which is an alliterative song title?
a. She Was
b. Don’t Leave the Light On
c. I’ll Remember You
d. Debbie Doesn’t Do Dallas
11. Single-syllable words like quit, plan, hurt, don’t, stop, etc., can show:
a. the title of the song
c. rigidity, honesty, toughness, and restlessness
12. Multi-syllable words like solitude, forgiveness, beautiful, landscape, etc., can show:
a. the title of the song
b. compassion, tenderness, and tranquility
c. first-person point of view
d. all the above
13. Prosody is:
a. the appropriate relationship between elements
b. a musical genre
c. another term for writer’s block
d. a made up word
14. Form Follows:
a. the money
b. the song intro
d. the Fortunate
15. Tips for starting a narrative song:
a. begin with the end in mind
b. begin with place
c. begin with action
d. begin with details smaller to larger
16. The 1, 4, 5 chords in the key of C are:
a. the most common
b. Three Chords & the Truth
c. C, dm, G
d. C, F, G
17. The naturally occurring chord types (Diatonic) in a major key are:
a. G, Em, C, D
b. 1, 4, 5 (major), 2, 3, 6 (minor), 7 (half-diminished)
c. Major, minor, diminished, augmented
d. too hard to play for most people
18. The capo moved up each fret increases the key by:
a. making it easier to play
b. a whole-step
c. a half-step
d. an octave
19. The key to writing an interesting melody is to lead the ear in a path that is both:
a. pleasant and to some degree unexpected
b. repetitious and repetitious
c. major and minor
d. commercial and ambiguous
20. The melody and the underlying chord choices are determined by the:
a. mood created by the lyric
d. length of the song
21. Name 4 places you’re most likely to find the song title:
a. beginning of the song, end of the song, bridge, tag
b. end of verse1, end of choruses, turnaround, instrumental
c. end of verses 1 & 2, release, top of the chorus, end of the chorus
d the front of the cd, middle of the bridge, on a t-shirt, on a BMI statement
22. Economy in songwriting can best be defined as:
a. spending as little time as possible writing the song
b. spending as little money as possible on the demo
c. the maximum development of the minimum of material
d. keeping the song within three minutes or less
23. Different song sections (verses, choruses, post-choruses, bridges, tags, etc.) should:
a. do different things
c. tell a story
d. sound like other songs
24. When writing the BIG IDEA (love, life, death, universal peace etc.) it’s best to:
a. use a large font
b. concentrate on description and details
c. use the narrative form
d. use AABA form most often
25. The most stable rhyme type is:
c. no rhyme
26. One way to emphasize a great lyric line is to:
a. type it in bold
b. use all capital letters
c. use an even number of syllables
d. contrast it with a mediocre line
27. You probably don’t need to write a bridge if:
a. your song tells a story with beginning, middle, and end
b. your song is under 3 minutes but feels complete
c. you wrote one already
d. your friends say it’s fine the way it is
28. What are some interesting ways to write a tag?
a. work the song title into the tag
b. as an extended section of its own
c. repeat line one/verse one with different harmony
d. add a fresh line before reinstating the title
29. What is the difference between an instrumental section and a solo section?
a. an instrumental section is music that is pre-conceived by the song writer, while the solo section is music improvised by a soloist(s)
b. an instrumental section is played by one instrument only
c. a solo section can be repeated while an instrumental section can not d. there is no difference
30. What is a Nonce form?
a. AABA with a repeated B section
b. verse/chorus without a bridge
c. a form invented by the writer for just one song that doesn’t exist else where.
d. three or more Nonce’s
1. (d.) root, third, fifth
Chords are built by starting on each scale degree of a major or minor scale and adding every other note from the scale up to three notes (triads).
Example: Key: C (Major)
Scale: C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (8)
Chord Spelling: CEG DFA EGB FAC GBD ACE BDF (same as 1)
These three notes are the root, third, and fifth of each chord.
2. (c.) lowered (flatted) third
(Example): CEG (C Major) / C(Eb)G (C minor)
3. (a.) AABA
During the decades from the turn of the century to early 1950 America’s greatest musical innovators wrote most of their songs in the AABA form. This form was ideal for expressing the intimacies of love-the most popular topic of The Golden Era of Songwriting. AABA form is not the go-to for songs that tell stories, but songs which “savor the moment.”
The first two melodically identical A sections are contrasted with an 8-bar bridge or “middle-eight” before returning to the final A section or “release”. The song title most often shows up at the end of each A section and not in the bridge.
4. (b.) Expectation, Surprise, Inevitability
Expectation, Surprise & Inevitability is a powerful principle underlying good storytelling. Setting up an expectation and later delaying, (or denying), the fulfillment of that expectation can result in surprise, that, nonetheless, seems inevitable.
5. (d.) minimizes or downplays the importance of a given situation
Understatement is likely to evoke a strong, believable, and cathartic response from the listener.
Consider the following example:
Each time I see a crowd of peopleLike a fool I stop and stare,It’s really not the proper thing to doBut Maybe You’ll Be ThereI go out walking after midnight Along a lonely thoroughfareIt’s not the time or place to look for youBut Maybe You’ll Be There
Someday if all my prayers are answered, I’ll hear a footstep on the stairWith anxious heart I’ll hurry to the door And Maybe You’ll Be There
(J, Dorsey, R. Blume)
6. (a.) is a change of key (b.) can happen anywhere in the song (d.) can go to a lower key
The chord progression 57 - 1 is the strongest way to establish a (new) key center.
So, go to the new key’s 57 chord, then resolve to 1:
Once Modulation takes place it can:
Continue in the new key
Return to the original key
7. (b.) Third Person, First Person, Second Person, Direct Address
The singer acts as a storyteller who simply directs the audience’s attention to an objective world neither the singer nor the audience is a part of. Pronouns: he, she, it, they, him, her, them, his, its, their, hers, theirs
Instead of being separate from the action (as in Third Person Narrative), the singer participates, speaking directly to the audience about other people and events. Pronouns: I, we, me, us, my, our, mine, ours
This very interesting POV has all the qualities of a narrative, but uses “you” from Direct Address-but not “I”. The intimacy of Second Person comes from its suggestion of Direct Address. The universal feeling it creates forces us to say, “This character could easily be me.” Leaving the narrative mode, you can use Second Person POV as a substitute for “I”; sometimes referred to as Internal Monologue.
The singer (I) is talking to some second person (you) or the audience.This is the most intimate narrative perspective. Pronouns: you, your, yours
8. (a.) AABA with repeated B section
Listen to these examples:
Without a Song (Willie Nelson “Without a Song”)
(Intro) AABA (Solo) / B / Release
I Just Got Started Loving You (James Otto)
(Intro) AABA (Solo) B / Release / Tag / (Outro)
Hold My Hand (Brandy Clark)
(Intro) AABA / Bridge / B / Release / Tag
9. (c.) support the intended emotion
Even in the sounds of the words themselves-aside from their meaning-we can hear what we might imagine to be anger or joy or melancholy. One’s use of timbre must be consistent with the emotional context: sound appropriate to the subject. You don’t sing a baby to sleep with a lullaby that goes “ack-ack-ack”!
10. (b.) Don’t Leave the Light On (d.) Debbie Doesn’t Do Dallas
11. (c.) rigidity, honesty, toughness, and restlessness
12. (b.) compassion, tenderness, and tranquility
13. (a.) the appropriate relationship between elements
14. (c.) Function
Gestalt (German for shape): a unified concept or work, when taken as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts...a meaningful assortment of oppositions; light and dark, fast and slow, serious and comic.
Things that do things differently should look different; as in verses, choruses, bridges, post-choruses, etc.
15. (a.) begin with the end in mind
(b.) begin with place
(c.) begin with action
(d.) introduce details smaller to larger
16. (d.) C, F, G (See Answer 1)
17. (b.) 1, 4, 5 (major), 2, 3, 6 (minor), 7 (half-diminished) (See Answer 1)
18. (c). a half-step
19. (a.) pleasant and to some degree unexpected
20. (a.) mood created by the lyric
21. (c.) end of verses 1 & 2, release, top of the chorus, end of the chorus
In a typical AABA structure the title most often appears at the end of verse 1 (A), end of verse 2 (A), not in the bridge (B), and in the release (A). Songs with verse/chorus structures the title most often appears at the top and/or end of the chorus.
22. (c.) the maximum development of the minimum of material
“Elegance is making something as simple as possible, but not simpler.”–Einstein
23. (a.) do different things
Simply put, song intros are different from verses-are different from choruses-are different from turnarounds-are different from bridges-are different from-etc., and should do different things in different ways:
Contrasting melodic rhythms in different sections
Contrasting melodic range
Contrasting rhyme scheme
Different chord changes
How fast the chords change (Harmonic Rhythm)
Section length (not always)
24. (b.) concentrate on description and details
Restraint matters when harnessing something of size. The mind tends to “shrink” when faced with large topics like death, fate, world peace, etc., wanting, instead, to make sense of smaller, controllable, and connected parts. So, let the BIG IDEA emerge through an accumulation of specific details. See:
Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning? (AlanJackson)
In My Town (S. Leslie, C. Peterson)
Where Do You Start? (J. Mandel, A. & M. Bergman)
25. (a.) Perfect
Perfect rhyme with its resultant feeling of stability and arrival works the same way tonic-functioning chords work in harmony (1, 6-). Perfect Rhyme tends to make a statement sound truer as in adages: “Where God Guides, He Provides,” "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” "Little strokes fell great oaks.”
26. (d.) contrast it with a mediocre line:
But I'll be all right, I'm just missing you,
And this is me kissing you, XX's and OO’s,
In a Letter From Home
Where can I surrender? I’m tired of bein’ free.
I want love to come and make a prisoner out of me.
Now those were some good times, but lately they don't seem to last,
I guess I'm not nearly as strong as a drink in your glass.
And as to be expected, a few miles down the road,
My “really nothing’s wrong here” went up in smoke.
Mother tells the ladies at the bridge club every day,
Of the rising price of tranquilizers she has to pay.
27. (a.) your song tells a story with beginning, middle, and end
(b.) your song is under 3 minutes but feels complete
28. All of the above
(a.) work the song title into the tag
(b.) as an extended section of its own
(c.) repeat line one/verse one with different harmony
(d.) add a fresh line before reinstating the title
29. (a.) an instrumental section is music that is pre-conceived by the song-writer, while the solo section is music improvised by a soloist(s)
30. (c) a form invented by the writer for just one song that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
The solution to the composer's problem is provided by the words themselves. The composer is just as much an author as the man who writes the words. He expresses the story in his medium (melody/chord progression) as the lyricist expresses the story in his.
About the Author
Steve Leslie is a multiple BMI Award Winner, former Adjunct Professor of Songwriting at Belmont University, Nashville, TN, and in 2013 was one of four internationally selected candidates considered for the Chair of the Songwriting Department, Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA.
Whether you're a beginner songwriter or an experienced songwriter ready to hone your craft, artists can always learn more about getting musical ideas into a refined songwriting process and become successful songwriters. Check out our course from Grammy-winning songwriter Steve Leslie, The Fine Art of Songwriting, at the link below!
The Fine Art of Songwriting
Join Grammy-Award Winning Songwriter, and renowned songwriting instructor, Steve Leslie as he shares his songwriting process that has resulted in recordings by artists such as George Strait, Darius Rucker, Mark Chestnut, Kenny Rogers, Rhonda Vincent, Ricky Skaggs, Darryl Worley, and others!