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Songwriting Take-Home Test #2: Learn How to Write Better Songs

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

Songwriting "Test"

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

   four notes

   lowered (flatted) third

   a record deal!

 

3. The song form most used during the Great American Songbook period was:

a. AABA

b. verse/chorus

c. Bridge

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

 

5. Understatement:

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

 

6. Modulation:

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

b. rhyme

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

c. Function

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

b. publisher

c. co-writer

d. length of the song

 

 

Answers:

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 people
Like a fool I stop and stare,
It’s really not the proper thing to do
But Maybe You’ll Be There

I go out walking after midnight
Along a lonely thoroughfare
It’s not the time or place to look for you
But Maybe You’ll Be There

Someday if all my prayers are answered, I’ll hear a footstep on the stair
With anxious heart I’ll hurry to the door
And Maybe You’ll Be There

(J, Dorsey, R. Blume)

…yeah, maybe

 

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

  • Modulate again


7. (b.) Third Person, First Person, Second Person, Direct Address

Third Person

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

First Person

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

Second Person

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.

Direct Address

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

 

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.


For more ways to impress your songwriting friends with your deep knowledge of the songwriting craft, enroll in The Fine Art of Songwriting:

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