Most people don’t hear the different elements of a song when listening for the first time; they just like the sound of it or they don’t.
There’s no point of trying to deconstruct a song when all you want to do is dance?
Songwriters – on the other hand – should always try to really ‘hear’ a song; i.e. figure out ‘how it works’. Learning about the choices other songwriters make, makes you a better songwriter. Ask yourself, how was this song created, how is it arranged and why is it arranged in this way.
At the simplest level; as a songwriter you should be able to hear the melody, the harmony and the rhythm of the song you are listening to.
What is melody?
Technically a melody is just a sequence of notes; notes that repeat the same pitch or go up and down in pitch. The listener hears the melody as a self contained-musical-phrase; i.e. they hear a tune.
In addition to the changes of pitch a notes will be played with a rhythm and a particular timbre; some notes will be held longer than others and the sound of the notes will depend on where they are on the scale (i.e. low or high) and what instrument is used to play them, e.g. a singer or an oboe or a violin.
When a melody is combined with words in a song this is called the ‘topline’. Some songwriters exclusively write the topline. They are presented with a chord progression and / or a beat and they work from that to create a melody and words.
In the context of modern dance music this can cause issues when several writers are sent the same track; as in this article, ‘Behind the music: Why topline melody writing creates disputes between artists and songwriters’.
What is harmony?
Harmony is the accompanying notes that support and blend with the melody. In songwriting the harmony is provided by the chords (and in the context of a band the bass part). The chords sit behind the melody.
They are arranged to create verses, choruses, bridge and so on. The simplest chord consists of three notes played together; in music jargon this is called a triad.
What is the rhythm of a song?
The beat is the the regularly repeating pulse of the song – the rhythm that you tap your feet to. Your heart has a beat; though if it’s healthy it doesn’t makes some heart beats louder or softer than others in a rhythmic pattern. When considering the beat of a song; it is common to emphasise certain beats in a consistent and predictable way.
The beats in a song have a pattern which can be described by the term ‘metre’. Metre provides a way to codify or describe the beat in a way that other people can replicate it. You have probably heard the phrase, ‘this song is in 4/4’ – meaning it has 4 beats to the bar. The beats are organised into short phrases called bars; and in this case there are 4 beats in each of those bars.
In addition to the number of beats per bar, it is common for some of these beats to be emphasised; so when there are 4 beats to the bar – the first and third beats stand out. This emphasis creates an attractive rhythm that is used on practically the entire history of rock and pop music.
What about tempo and key?
Why did I not include tempo and key in my list? Two reasons. First I like to keep things as simple as possible; I get easily overloaded maybe you do to. Second, you can change both the tempo and the key of a song and it’s still the same song; just slower or faster and played in a different key.
You could say, that’s the same for all of the elements – however – I regard some as more important than others. Would The Girl from Ipanema be the same song if you changed the beat? Would it be the same if you changed the chords and/or the melody? Maybe your answers would be different from mine. However, for the purposes of this course I’ve chosen, melody, harmony and beat as the three most important elements of a song. They are crucial to learning how to write songs.