Composing a song can be a daunting task, that is if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve created this helpful practical guide that will pull you through the process and show you that it’s actually very simple and fun experience. In order to compose a pop song in C major (or A minor) you must do the following: Get to know the notes and the chords of your scale, pick a progression, play the chords on a instrument or draw them in a DAW, create a melody, make sure the melody fits on the chords, combine the two, record the result! Off course there is much more to it but this is the main outline of the process. Now let’s dive into the details.
Get to know your notes
There are seven notes in the Western music not counting the sharps and flats, and it so happens that in the keys of C major and A minor there are all white. The notes are as follows
From the C major scale: C-D-E-F-G-D-A-B
From the A minor scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-D
I know what you’re thinking that these notes have been used a gazillion times in other songs and then there is nothing new or unique to create. Well, fortunately, that is not the case. Since that time of the aging Greeks until our modern days, the musical Homo Sapien has been creative enough and come up with millions of unique melodies. Now do some of them share similarities, sure but that is also expected.
Get to know your chords
Courts in both major and minor scales are represented with Latin numerical characters these are:
Depending if the chord is a minor or major the Latin characters will be lower or upper case, (see examples below).
The C major scale chords are:
I – C major,
ii – D minor,
iii – E minor,
IV – F major,
V – G major,
vi – A minor,
vii° – B diminished,
Note that the pattern of every major scale is: Major Minor Minor Major Major Minor Diminished that’s how we know when to play a major a minor chord.
Every basic scale chord consists of 3 notes, these are the so-called three-note chords: the ROOT (first), the THIRD and the FIFTH. If you don’t understand it quite yet don’t worry, bellow I illustrate what I mean
Basic C major diatonic chord triads
From the major scale you can build 7 diatonic chords, thus below follows a list with these seven chords:
Chord I: C major uses the notes, C – E – G
Chord ii: D minor uses the notes, D – F – A
Chord iii, E minor uses the notes, E – G – B
Chord IV, F major uses the notes, F – A – C
Chord V, G major uses the notes, G – B – D
Chord vi, A minor uses the notes, A – C – E
Chord vii°, B diminished uses the notes, B – D – F
The A minor scale chords are:
i – A minor
ii° – B diminished
III – C major
iv – D minor
v – E minor
VI – F major
VII – G major
In the case of the A minor scale, the pattern is: minor, diminished, major, minor, minor, major, major.
Basic A minor diatonic chord triads
As we explored before basic diatonic chords consist of three notes. In the case of the A minor these notes are:
Chord i – A minor uses the notes A-C-E
Chord ii° – B diminished uses the notes B-D-F
Chord III – C major uses the notes C-E-G
Chord iv – D minor uses the notes D-F-A
Chord v – E minor uses the notes E-G-B
Chord VI – F major uses the notes F-A-C
Chord VII – G major uses the notes G-B-D
I suggest, (if you don’t know them already) learn the major and minor patterns when you do you can apply that knowledge to every musical scale. Here is an illustration with the basic chord shapes for guitar and piano:
C major or A minor?
Now that we have a clear understanding of the difference between C major and a minor we can make a decision about which scale we’re going to use. In order to decide that we will have to answer one key question: do we want our song to sound happy or sad?
Happy songs tend to be written in major scales. A few examples would be:
- Over the rainbow from the motion picture the Wizard of Oz
- Basketcase by Green Day
- hey Jude by the Beatles
- Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
By the way, all of the above songs written in the C major scale, are you amazed or what? 🙂
Sad songs tend to be written in minor scales, a few examples would be:
- Light My Fire by The Doors
- Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
- Street Spirit(Fade Out) by Radiohead
- Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
Choose your “weapon”
When I say weapon I actually mean musical instrument, this can be a guitar, a piano or simply a DAW. note depending on the musical instrument you will choose
The feeling of the song may differ. A guitar sounds completely different than a piano, and a piano sounds completely different than a banjo, you get the point.
Note a DAW is short for Digital audio work station. It is a very important tool that has absolutely changed my life! Doesn’t matter if you are a musician a composer, a songwriter or a producer you will definitely need a good DAW.
I have conducted extensive research on which DAW works the best not only for different genres but also which one works best for mastering! If you want to know more click here to read the DAW guide.
Now we have three options, we can start with the chords, the melody, or the rhythm (beat).in this article, we will focus on the first two. If you’re ready have written lyrics for your song this step will be easier, simply match they key to the style of your writing. Hoewer, if you don’t have lyrics yet don’t worry simply pick one of the two options.
OPTION A) Start with the chords: Pick a progression
Starting with the chords is a popular choice the Beatles did it, Mozart did it like so many other composers. Below I’ve listed a few popular chord progressions. Remember those latin characters we talked about before? Here they come!
Progression number one: I – IV – V – I
Progression number two: I – iii – IV – ii – I
Progression number three: V–vi–IV–I
Progression number one: ii – v – i
Progression number two: i-VI-III-VII
Progression number three: i – V – i – iv
What to do next?
Once you have your chords Play them on repeat or program them in a DAW, then start improvising a melody-line upon them.
Compose a melody using simple music theory
Now if you want to understand the theory behind your melody you can always rely on the triads. What do I mean by that?
If for example, We take the following progression I – IV – V – I and if our scale is C major our chords would be: C-F-G-C.
Now, remember we talked about that, at the heart of every basic cord there are three notes, The first the third and the fifth, also if you recall, I provided you with a chart showing you with three notes exists in each chord.
In our case this triads would look like this:
I- C chord – C-D-G triad
IV- F chord – F-A-C triad
V- G chord – G-B-D triad
I-C chord – C-E-G triad
How to combine notes and chords? (use this trick!)
I will show you a little trick when playing your chord structure try using one of these three notes on each chord. If you do that you would notice that you melody always fits with your chord structure, of course, there are no rules you can add different notes, in fact, I recommend it, but for starters just use the triads of each chord.
On the C major chord,
play a C-D or G note combination in your melody
Or on the G major chord play a
G-B or D note combination in your melody
Try for yourself and see how it sounds, furthermore, you can study the song examples I provided above.
OPTION B) Start with the melody
Our second option is to start first with the melody.
Now, this can be a little trickier since you may sing the melody in a different key and you’re likely to use a wider range of notes and not limit yourself to just the triads of each chord. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem but since you want to write a song in C major or A minor and to make your life easier I suggest you play the root chord before you start improvising your melody in order to hook your ear on the sound of it and stay that particular scale
After you sang or improvised on your musical instrument, try figuring out which notes you used and if they fit when you play the cords underneath.
Note, doing this process on a Digital Audio Workstation is much easier since you can see what you are doing!
I took the Progression number three: i – V – i – iv And created an example in Ableton Live 10.
Here you can see the basic chord structure:
And with the melody on top of the chords:
And here is the audio example
Note that the last note of the melody is a C and that particular note is not present in the D major chord, nevertheless I used it in order to illustrate that you can pick notes also outside the basic triads.
That’s it, you’re done! Congratulations! Off course there are more parts to the song and you can use the same blueprint I showed you if you want to create the rest of it. We also did not dive into music theory or basic song forms. I did that because my focus was to offer you a practical guide and avoid unnecessary confusion, I could write 50 more pages and still not be half through 🙂
Now the two remaining steps are:
- Create the rest of the song,
- Write lyrics (optional)
I hope you found this guide helpful, please leave a comment below with your thoughts!