February 22, 2011
Breaking Down The Songwriting Elements
"Breaking Down The Elements"
By: David Randle
Songwriting is a skill and an expressive art form. A song usually comes from inspiration, however, if we intend to
expand our command of the skill set, we need to at least minimally, be aware of the elements that make up a song,
and then learn to control those elements as a part of our self-expression. I won’t go into ridiculous dictionary
definitions of the words song or songwriting, but will defer to the determinations of The Library Of Congress with
regards to what constitutes a song, and for our purposes, we will be talking about vocal music as opposed to
The first element is the lyrics. They are the essential element of communications in the song, telling the story or
presenting a philosophical position. The Library Of Congress will assign a copyright to lyrics alone, so if you
have some great lyrics that you have yet to have set to music, they are a candidate for copyright submission. If
you are an amazing lyricist, don’t let anyone tell you that you are not a songwriter. It’s just that in order to
have a completed song, you will need to learn the other elements, or team up with a writer who is more dominant on
those other elements.
The second element is melody. Music is very different from poetry, and while a prominent part of its expression is
in the lyrics, those words ride on the melody and derive an enormous amount of emotion from the shape, contour and
rhythm of the melody. Not to mention that speaking the words as poetry allows for one pulse per syllable, while
melody can give a single syllable an entire array of notes to express that singular word partial. Additionally,
having second and third verses that repeat the melody, but with an entirely different cast of lyrical characters,
enriches the melody with alternative expressions of meaning sharing the same phrase. Master melody writers are few
and far between, so if you’re great at writing melodies, work on your lyric writing or partner up and let your
Elton John find its Bernie Taupin.
The third element is harmonic progression or more commonly, the chord progression. While this element is extremely
important in defining the function of the melodic phrases, it is the only element that doesn’t stand alone as far
as copyright eligibility is concerned. You can’t copyright a progression. If you could, the original writers of the
I-vi-IV-V, or I-IV-V-IV, or I-V-vi-IV, progressions would be our songwriting partners on all the great songs
written to those progressions over the years, as well as 8-bar, 12-bar, and 16-bar blues progressions, and many
other chord groupings. There is an intimate dance that happens between the melody note and the chord. Often the
melody note sung over a chord is a member of that chord’s tones (a harmonic tone) but many times it’s not (a
non-harmonic tone.) One of the amazing opportunities for creative expression is to notice that melody notes occur
in more than one chord. The note “C” for example can be sung as the root note of a C major chord, as the third of
an Am chord, or as the fifth of an F major chord. When you begin to entertain chord extensions, substitutions,
parallel major and minor keys, secondary dominant and sub-dominant chords, the level of creative harmonizing of an
existing melody can be exhilarating. A great lyric sung to a superb melody over emotional and rhythmic changes
makes for a great song.
As a final comment, even though it is not a criterion for copyright of a song, I would like to add song structure
and form as an element. It is so important for the ultimate presentation of the song. If you allow me, I’d like to
think of lyrics, melody, and chords as the ingredients of a cake, where after thorough and inspired mixing, you’ve
achieved an amazing bowl of cake dough. Depending on whether you bake it in a cupcake tin, a flat cake pan, a tall
round pan, a rectangular or oblong pan, you get an entirely different experience of your amazing cake.
Work hard to gain mastery over these elements, and you’ll write songs that you and many others love. If you are
looking for instruction, coaching, or training for your songwriting, please contact My Songwriting
David Randle is a lifelong guitarist and songwriter, with a highly developed knack for producing and arranging. He
spends a great deal of time mentoring and coaching aspiring music artists and songwriters to rise to the pinnacle
of their abilities. Music definitely is a language we all can understand.
Known as both My Songwriting Coach and the Guitar Lesson Expert, you can find articles throughout the web on The
Songwriting Blog and Music Lesson Expert.