Written by Dave Celentano.
Songwriting is a fun and rewarding process that’s not as hard as one might think and here I’ll share with you a few ways that work for me. One of the most popular is to use chords from a particular key. Let’s take the key of C major for example, which includes the chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and an ugly sounding B diminished, which we won’t use for obvious reasons.
Notice there are three major chords and three minor chords in the key of C major. Major chords tend to be happy and uplifting, while minor chords are sad and melancholy. This provides tonal flexibility and many options to our palette. Experiment and play around with these chords on your guitar trying different combinations, and you’re bound to strike gold.
Getting Started with Major Chords
Having a hard time getting started? Let’s begin with C, F, and G chords (all majors) and play them in this order: C-G-F-C or in any order that sounds good to your ear. Once you’ve established some chords that sound good together, try different strums, fingerpicking, and syncopated rhythms while repeating the four-bar progression to hear what unfolds (this is where the inspiration comes in). Usually something interesting pops out and this is the nugget to work with. Songwriting should be a natural and relaxed process that isn’t forced, so if nothing inspires you, that’s okay. Put it down and come back to it later.
The Minor Chord
Including minor chords provides contrast and spice (like Yin and Yang) and opens up your options. Let’s add an ‘A minor’ chord to the previous three chords and play around by mixing them up in different orders. A couple good sounding combinations are: C-G-Am-F and Am-C-G-F. Starting off with a minor chord lends a somber vibe to a song so let’s focus on the second progression while absorbing the blue mood. Check out these sorrowful tunes, all commencing with a minor chord: B.B King’s ‘The Thrill is Gone’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, and Joan Baez’s ‘Diamonds and Rust’.
Finding a Vocal Melody
Once you’ve got a solid set of chords sounding good together try to hear vocal melodies that lyrics can be written and sung to over the chord progression. Finding a good melody is key to songwriting, so this should be done before the lyrics. Play through the chords and hum melodies over them. Pick out notes in the chords as you’re playing them and see if that inspires any ideas. Hint: most melodies are derived from notes in the chords. It’s a treasure hunt and the chord tones are clues.
Check out this example: choosing one melody note per chord, let’s extract a simple melody from the chords C-G-F-C. From the C chord play the ‘C’ note on the B string – 1st fret, G chord play the ‘B’ note on B string – open, F chord play ‘A’ note on G string – 2nd fret, and C chord play ‘G’ note on G string – open. This melody descends slowly in pitch, sounds great over the chords, and they’re all chord tones from their respective chords. Pretty cool! Another option would be to find an ascending melody from notes contained in the same chords or even more than one melody note per chord. Other notes from the parent key can be used as well to help smooth out your melody but start out simple as in this example to get familiar with the process.
At this point, don’t worry about details like what the other instruments will play (this comes later). Some of the most memorable songs can be performed with one vocalist and acoustic guitar. It’s your responsibility as a songwriter to come up with a chord progression, vocal melody and lyrics - the genesis that other instruments can build their respective parts from.
The choices are only limited to your musical imagination. Start exploring and improve your songwriting today!