Chapter 2. Songwriting Basics

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Chapter 2. Songwriting Basics

Strong songwriting is what makes music great. It is what all compelling music, whether it's performed by Johnny Cash or Slayer, has in common. From some doe-eyed waif plaintively singing her poems while strumming an acoustic guitar to grating industrial thrash, if it's got a following, it's probably got a melody, a hook, and a chorus.

Here's what makes a great song, and here's how to write them.

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Song Structure

In my book on filmmaking , $30 Film School , I talk about the three-act format that is common in most movie screenwriting . The gist of that format is this: Most successful films (commercially successful, or even just successfully reaching an audience in a profound emotional way) have a story that is based on a very structured format. The format is basically three acts: one short, one long and one short. The hero and his problem are introduced in act one. He spends act two trying to solve the problem. He repeatedly fails. At the end of act two or the beginning of act three, he passes a life test that gives him strength and courage. This is redemption , which enables him to finally pass the test.

While there are spectacular exceptions, most movies follow a very close variation of this formula.

All Western pop songs, from Bach through Marilyn Manson and beyond, often have remarkably similar structures. It's a three-part structure and actually shares something in common with all storytelling. It seems that, either through conditioning or something innate (probably a little of both), we want to experience linear art in three parts , whether it's a pop song or a movie.

Three-part songwriting structure usually goes something like this:








This is also called "ABABC" song format (more accurately it would be called ABABCBB). The letters here do not represent the notes; they represent the sections. A stands for the verse , (the main body of the songthe part that usually tells the story); B is the chorus ( also called the refrain the repeated part that usually has the strongest melody); and C is the bridge (also sometimes called the mid dle eight because it's usually eight measures and comes in the middle of the song). Sometimes the bridge is also called the break , probably because it breaks the monotony once you are used to the verse and chorus. The name of the song is often found in the lyrics of the chorus.

Basically, a well-written song in any genre strives for a good balance between setting up a welcome familiarity through repetition and simultaneously breaking it. This is done (often in the break/bridge/middle eight) by introducing an unfamiliar element.



A measure , or bar , is a short unit of music, the smallest amount of music that can really be perceived as a recognizable song segment. In rock and roll it's usually four beats . A beat is the shortest undivided unit of measurement of time in music. Listen to a rock song, and your foot will automatically want to tap along with the rhythm ("along with the beat "). When you've tapped your foot four times, that's a measure in 4/4 time, which is most rock music. There are other time signatures , like 3/4, or waltz time, and 2/4, or march time.

The first half of "Smile And Spank" (on the CD) is in waltz time.

Also, "Ice Cream" by Sarah McLachlan is a waltz. "Sky is Falling" by Queens of the Stone Age is in 6/8, which is sort of a double-time waltz.


On the CD-ROM, listen to the song "Faded" by the band Beauty's Confusion [1.] . It is ABABC(BB) structure (if you take the pre-chorus and the chorus as one. A few pages up we'll talk about what a pre-chorus is.).

[1.] Skip from Beauty's Confusion also helped me with a few of the song examples in this chapter and in Chapter 4 , " Effects ." Generally, if the song being referenced is over 10 years old, I added it. If it is less than 10 years old, Skip suggested it.

It's: A B A B C D C C (where A is the verse, B the pre-chorus, C the chorus, and D the bridge).

On the CD-ROM, listen to my song, "Li'l 25 . " It is classic ABABC(BB) structure, except for two variations: First, the middle eightfrom 3:04 (three minutes and four seconds) to 3:36 in the songis instrumental rather than having vocals. (Actually it does have some singing , but it is not a melody, and is electronically altered to the point that it might as well be a sound effect.) A middle eight break can have lyrics or not. Either way, it's just a departure from the parts of the song already established.

An outro is exactly what it sounds likethe opposite of an intro . It's a part after the song proper is over. The (BB) part of the outro is the same chords and melody as the chorus, but the feel is very different. The drum machine has stopped at that point, the tempo is slower, the guitar chords are arpeggiated (plucked as individual cascading notes, an arpeggio) rather than strummed, and the overall feel is dreamy rather than drivinga good choice for a song for a dead friend.

Listen on the CD-ROM to the song "I Loved You; Then I Died," which I wrote with my old band, Bomb. This is a slightly less straight example of the ABABC(BB) structure.

First there's an introguitar and drum noise suggesting the chord progression of the verse.

Then the verse, the part with "I met you in the graveyard, by the light of the moon ."

Then another verse.

Then the chorus, which is simply the words "I loved you; then I died" twice.

Then a Post-Chorus . This is the instrumental part after the chorus. It first occurs from 1:39 to 1:50.

The one verse, then a chorus, then the post-chorus, with a variation (rhythmic stops). This segues into the middle eight (actually a middle sixteen)the instrumental section from 2:51 to 3:06.

The outro is actually the reprised verse (A) section with a different feel. It's the part including the lyrics "I'd kill a million in every city for you" [2.] and the heavy instrumental part right before that. Then this part is topped off by a repeat of the post-chorus, and crashes on a harmonically unresolved note at the end, leaving the listener feeling intentionally unsettled.

[2.] This is also an homage to the Beatles, referencing their song "Michelle" in the words and rhythm of the line "I want you I want you I want you." This is also a good example of Fair Use. It's only enough to refer to the song without infringing on it.

My faux-disco song, "Rock Your Body," on the CD-ROM (yes, that is me singing, believe it or notcheck out the Web is classic ABABC(BB) structure. The verse is:

Rock your body

To the rhythm of the night

Move your body

Rhythmic delight

Rock your body

Music is your master


Move it faster

The chorus is basically Jason Hawks going "Oh yeah, uh huh, oooooh girl, shake it," etc. This is a minimal song chord-wise, because the verse and the chorus have the same music. The only difference is that the chorus has a sitar sample. The middle eight is the rhythmic breakdown with backwards singing from 2:08 to 2:23.

None of the instruments on this piece are real; they are all samples generated within a program called Fruity Loops (see Chapter 12, "Software Recording").


S.P.Q.A.: Songwriting as a Lyric Delivery System

By Michael Woody

How to Write Effective Songs

Cut the crap. Get to the point. Make it and get out of the way. Anything else is conceit, which is fine in small doses as long as "the messenger" isn't pretending to be "the message." We're not selling colas here.

In that spirit, I wrote the song "S.P.Q.A." which translates , roughly , as "(to the) Senate and Public of America."

In keeping with the meaning of the title, which is explained somewhere on the CDROM, "S.P.Q.A." was conceived as an ongoing public diatribe over a few simple chords with no significant changes in the hope that anyone who knew how to hold an instrument could master the song in five minutes and then sing or rant their own diatribes over it. You're welcome to give it a go. I'm collecting variations, so send links to your downloadable MP3s to

The overall phrasing for "S.P.Q.A." was designed to fit a specific lyrical meter, and all variations of my lyrics tend to maintain the original meter, but other lyrics could just as easily inspire different phrasing or even time signatures as long as the music complements the words. The point here is (to beat a dead metaphor) that the music is the engine propelling the song and the lyrics are the direction it's going. Whether it's a bumpy ride or not is up to the performers. Whether it's a worthy destination or not is up to the lyricist. The music is only a vehicle for delivering the lyrics, so it hardly matters if it's not the latest model full of state-of-the-art gadgetry. If it starts strong and keeps going at a steady pace, then you're bound to make it to the end with everyone on board. Only the audience can decide if the journey was worth taking. So do the best you can, with what you've got, with a sense purpose.

End of tortured analogy.

The music has to be varied enough to be interesting alone, typically during an intro, a solo, or a break, and not monotonous under what may be pages of lyrics. "S.P.Q.A." uses seven chords over eight beats, subdivided into two related four-beat patterns; one ascending and one descending, in semitones, from A Major. This gives plenty of room to play with how to drop in the lyrics. Conveniently, all of those chords together use all 12 tones, which means just about any melody can be worked into the song if you hit it with a big enough hammer .

The bar-to-chord foundation sequence is:

1-A, 2-A#, 3-B, 4-C, 5-A, 6-G#, 7-G, 8-F#

with all chords being major. Acceptable sequence variations between verses are limited to:

1-A, 2-A#, 3-B, 4-C, 5-A, 6-G#, 7-G, 8-G#

1-A, 2-A#, 3-B, 4-A#, 5-A, 6-G#, 7-G, 8-F#

1-A, 2-A#, 3-B, 4-A#, 5-A, 6-G#, 7-G, 8-G#

Anything else and the pattern changes beyond tolerance into a different pattern and becomes a different song entirely. That would be a musical vanity here since this song exists as a lyric delivery system. Besides stirring up the chords occasionally to keep the performers interested in playing the music, there is only enough musical variation to keep the listeners' attention focused on the words but not enough to redirect it to the music behind the words. There are good reasons why this distinction is of concern, not the least of which is to purposefully maintain listener interest in the point of the song: the words.

If your song isn't about anything, then feel free to indulge in gimmickry, just like the pros do.

A sure way to kill a song you're writing is to be the only one who can play it. This is not as certain a way as being the only one who hears it. That's an entirely different problem requiring unique solutions for us all.

Repetitive music can be given interest by adding some or all of these suggestions:

Use variations in instrumental density. Unless you're a Flipper clone, don't play everything at the same volume at the same time all the time. Even Flipper didn't do it all the time. Musical statements come in phrases so make sure they have sufficient time and space for a complete breath . Lyrics have to sink in. In "S.P.Q.A.," the music drops out at the end of verse four for an a capella (without instruments) break ( "No chemical dumps next door to the White House") into the bridge giving such a breath before it launches into a full band sound that recedes for the fifth verse.

Use variations of instrumental dynamics. The patented Soft/Loud/Soft=Verse/ Chorus/Verse system popularized by Kurt Cobain is but one elegant illustration. As long as it serves the lyrics, then anything goes, right? Add periodic rhythmic embellishments and fills. Or, have nothing but embellishments and fills. At least make the decision to use them or not. In "S.P.Q.A.," the snare , the toms, most of the guitars, and the bass all add simple fills over their basic rhythms in various combinations at various times to compensate for the repetitive vocal meter.

If you must go this far, try variations in rhythmic density but not in the basic rhythm itself. More than new chords, a different rhythm signals a significant change in a song. The a capella break in "S.P.Q.A." also demonstrates this idea when the band drops out.

Resist repeating lyrics over repeating beats unless you're making a point. The "to the White House" Bridge and the "There's more important things than peace , you know" Chorus in "S.P.Q.A." are examples of this idea.

Provide potent lyrics in the first place, so it matters less how polished their performance is. If punk proved one thing, it proved that, no matter how raw, the right words over a great hook with sustained energy could change the world.

Include sonic novelties: harmonies, clever rhymes, affected vocal styles, odd mouth sounds, recorded sound effects, and so forth. Use sparingly and pointedly or risk becoming a one-joke novelty act like Spike Jones or Bobby McFerrin.

Create the densest possible sound that works and then, as a temporal sculptor, take away certain parts at certain times to provide dynamic/dramatic ebb and flow.

This is all just snack food for thoughtto whet your appetite. I'm not offering suggestions regarding which musical seeds you should sow as much as I'm offering compositional scraps to your compositional compost heap.

Michael Woody

See the SPQA folder on the CD.


On the CD-ROM, listen to my song, "Roach Gurl." This is (intro) ABABCC form. That breaks down as:






Bridge as outro

The intro is the rhythmic guitar and drum noise that begins the song. The verse is the "Every single cockroach " partthe first singing you hear. The chorus is:

"I don't want what you've got anymore

You looked so good walking out my door

I don't want what you've got anymore

You shed a lot of sadness on my floor."

The bridge-as-outro is the ending part, with only the words, "You bled on my floor," repeated over and over. In ABABCC form, you go to the bridge but never return to the verse or chorus. I also did this on the Bomb song, "All My References Are Dead."


On the CD-ROM, listen to my song, "Golden Gate Bridge." This is (intro) ABCABC form. That breaks down as:

Intro (guitar hook at the beginning)

A part

B part

C part

Intro hook

A part

B part

C part

This is totally symmetrical, and there really isn't a verse or chorus. But it still works.


Another form I like a lot is ABABAB. Some would argue with me on this, but I don't really think every song needs a bridge. On the CD-ROM, listen to the song, "Promise," that I recorded with Bomb. This is (hook, intro) ABABAB form. That breaks down as:

Hookvocal line "You're not my friend!" (Which is basically counting off the songthe rhythm is like the "one, two, three, four!" a lot of people use to start a song.)

Intro, which is "There's nothing in my heart today," sung four times over just drums.

The verse begins: "Well, Tony's in the tombs, with someone else's wife.

I'm just looking in the mirror, trying to get a life."

The chorus is the descending music with "and she cried" sung over it four times.

Then another verse, another chorus, and we're done.


There are actually one-part songs that are compelling to listen to. Basically, they work on the premise of "Find a place that makes you feel good, and stay there." One of my favorite bands, Flipper, does this a lot. Check out their one-part masterpieces, "Sacrifice" and "Fucked Up Once Again."

Check out Michael Woody's sidebar, "S.P.Q.A.: Songwriting as a Lyric Delivery System," and the associated folder on the CD-ROMSongs/SPQA. Here he offers several lyrics for the same song and the option to make your own song. Instant tune: Just add lyrics!

Hook Me

Hip Hop, Trip Hop, Nu-Metal, and Rap Metal often have very rudimentary melodies, but they usually do have them. And they can be great songs without much melody. And the melodies are sometimes even borrowed from the public domain, like in Korn's song, "Shoots and Ladders." This song has virtually no melody, almost no chord changes, and the lyrics are mostly borrowed from nursery rhymes. But it works as a strong song because the sing-song rhythm of these nursery rhymes are strong hooks, and are ingrained in us from a very early age.


Some of the hooks in the song "Shoots and Ladders" (and a lot of other pop songs, including a lot of what Perry Farrell sings in Jane's Addiction) are even variations on what sociologists call "The Natural Children's Song." The Natural Children's Song is the "na na na na na na" melody/rhythm that children of all cultures seem to use to taunt each other. People who study this stuff suggest that since, even in isolated cultures with no contact with other cultures, children use this melody to play games and to make fun of each other, that we are born with this song in our heart. (This is old information. There really are no cultures with no contact with other cultures left. Everyone in the world drinks Pepsi these days.)

I've mentioned hooks several times now. Even in music where there is often not a lot of melody (and in most music with strong melodies), there will be a hook . A hook is an identifiable part of a song that is catchy or memorable. It's a part to "hook" youlike a fish or a junkie. You get hooked on it and can't get away. You want to hear it again. In some songs, the only hook is the chorus. In other songs (and usually stronger songs with killer songwriting), there is a chorus and a hook. It doesn't even have to have much or any melody. It can be a sound effect, like the motorcycle revving at the beginning of Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls," the bottle breaking at the start of Minor Threat's 53-second opus, "Bottled Violence"; or a vocal hook like the "You gotta keep 'em separated" line in "Come Out and Play" by The Offspring. That's not the chorus the chorus is the part that begins "Hey, man you talking back to me" and ends "Hey, come out and play." While the chorus includes the "You gotta keep 'em separated" part, that part is really an extra thing to wrap your memory around: It's the hook.

An argument could even be made for the conversation at the beginning of (and throughout) Black Flag's "Slip It In."

Mac Davis even wrote the hit song, "Baby, Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me," in response to his label pressuring him to write a song with a hook.


In life, like in songwriting, people are attracted to two things: The familiar and the new. Give them a bit of both.

The hook is sometimes the first thing in the song. When it is, it's the thing that makes your ear instantly go "Oh. It's that song." Like the cash register loop at the beginning of Pink Floyd's "Money." [3.] (Also, this loop sets up the rhythm, which is in 7/8. It's a pretty complicated loop actually. The song also switches to a sort of syncopated 4/4 for the guitar solo.)

[3.] Pink Floyd was one of the first bands to use loops. And they used them in the 60s, when you had to do them by splicing tape. Back then, only huge corporations owned computers, and they cost millions of dollars and weren't nearly powerful enough to edit music on.

But not always. In my song mentioned earlier, "Li'l 25," I would say that the hook is the answering machine sample of that friend, Eddy (Sky) Caranza, at 4:48 in the song. He was terminally ill with AIDS. (A result of living too much of a rock and roll lifestyle. See Chapter 17, "Closing Arguments.") It was him leaving me a message to drive to San Jose and "Come see me before I die." I did. We watched Batman on TV, hung out, talked, ate dinner, and had a blast.


Syncopation is the rhythmic device of varying the placement of the beat off the standard of where you feel it would be. It is often used in funk. And often the accent is on the one. The singing in the first four lines of my song "My God Is a Woman" on the CD is sung in a syncopated manner.

You can also syncopate the instruments. This is done in a lot of funk. It is also done in an odd and not really funky (but very disturbingly cool) way on my band Baby Opaque's song "How Now Brown Mao" (How Now Brown Mao is on the CD).

Also check out The Blood Brothers' "Kiss of the Octopus."

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