Song Writing Secrets Pt.2

In this episode, we’re going to dig further into song writing secrets.

We’ll discuss the age-old question of do you write lyrics or music first? We will delve into modal writing, number systems, energy, music math, space and co-writing. I will also share my love of the mixolydian mode and the Beatles’ song writing secrets.

So. Is it music or lyrics first? Is it beats or melody first? Do you need a bachelor degree in music composition to be a good writer? Big questions.

Saturday Night Live

I remember a classic Saturday Night Live skit where Paul Simon was acting as an interviewer at a press conference. He put his hand up and asked – and don’t quote me on this, “Do melancholic lyrics need to be written in a minor key?”

It’s funny because it has always come back to me when I write music and I have never found a satisfactory answer to that question.

The best I could come up with is: yes probably, but not always, and that’s the thing with writing songs. There are some basic guidelines we like to stay within but who cares if we don’t? I can think of many many songs that were quite melancholic lyrically but were written in a major key.

So what is a major key then? What is a minor key?  And when do we use them? When I began writing music, it never bothered me either way. If I was feeling up and optimistic I’d generally write in a major key and if I was feeling down and dark, I’d usually drift toward a minor key. 

But it wasn’t until much later on that I discovered there were degrees of colour in keys. What I’m talking about here are the modes; sometimes called church modes.

Get Modal

You may have heard of them: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian. Although there are many others, these are the main seven that appear in popular music today. Each have their own scale giving them each their own unique sound and colour if you will. 

When you write a song in the major scale, it’s most likely you’re writing in the Ionian scale or MAJOR scale (WWHWWWH). If you’re writing a in a minor key – that is beginning with a minor note, you’re likely to be writing in the Aeolian mode or MINOR scale (WHWWHWW).

This really is a complex subject and none of this matters greatly, if you’re happy picking up your instrument and letting it all roll out naturally, as I did for years. But I suppose what these modes can do, is assist you in intentionally developing different flavours and key modulations. 

They can get you out of a spot too sometimes. All the great bands in history used modal writing such as: the Beatles, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, AD/DC, and the Police, so you’re in pretty good company.

You might have heard comments like, “It’s in a major key but has a minor feel”, which may mean it’s in the Mixolydian mode.  Mixolydian was popular in the blues initially.  

It uses a flat 7th in the major scale and it’s a mode that I’ve written in most often. So if your song is in the key of G for example, instead of using the natural 7 – GbMajor, you’ll be using the Fmajor, which makes it sound slightly darker depending on where the Fmajor falls. 

Acca Dacca

AC/DC have written many of their songs in the Mixolydian mode, whether by accident or not, making their songs sound, to me anyway, “tough”. And it’s not necessarily by design, you can be writing in the Mixolydian mode without even knowing it.

Dorian mode is one of the most beautiful sounding modes (WHWWWHW). It’s a natural minor scale with a raised 6th and one of the most famous songs written in this key is the mournful Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel. 

There’s just too much about the modes and their characters to cover here, but there’s a mountain of info on the net and I recommend you getting familiar with them. They can be super handy for your writing. Rick Beato – All Things Music, covers modes better than anyone.

The Numbers System

The chord number system or Nashville system, as it’s sometimes called, uses a number for each chord in a given scale. So for example: G=1, A=2, B=3, etc. The system generally uses the Roman numerals, so the when there is a minor chord in the scale, it will be designated with lower case numeral.

That in itself is no big discovery but what it can unveil in your writing habits can be.

Because this podcast series is more about navigation and less about hard music theory, we’ll quickly skim over some of these concepts.

But what I think is very interesting about the number system are the sequences that you may not be totally aware of. Each time you compose a sequence of chords together you can assign a number to each chord. 

What’s interesting to know is the I, V, IV, and VI and variations of it, is by far and away the most overused chord sequence for popular song writing in the world. 

It’s predictable and uninteresting to say the least. I’m guilty of using it as much as anyone else. But I mention it here because of the importance of you breaking away from it to discover and use newer exciting chord structures and changes.

Have a look at your songs and see what numbers you’re using.

The Beatles

I heard last week that of the twenty six number one hits the Beatles had in the USA, only ONE song used the I, V, IV, VI chord structure.  And that was Let It Be. The Beatles were the masters of experimentation and bending the rules.  This is probably why they only had one number one hit using this chord structure. 

You only have to listen to mainstream radio today to hear almost every song churned out by major record labels and producers that are using this structure. Things have certainly changed since the 1960’s.

I believe the repetition of chordal structure in pop music makes songs too predictable and the listener becomes  complacent. When confronted with something different it becomes challenging and maybe that’s why the record companies push this kind of mediocre music to the masses. It’s safe!

Fair enough, the formula has worked for years and they’re hanging on to it, and I’m guessing that is why many of us feel contemporary pop music is average and lack lustre.

Try and be creative with your songs.  Try different arrangements, borrowed chords, a verse in Dorian mode and the chorus in Ionian mode. Modulate your chorus up half a step.

The choices are endless, and you can be the maestro of greatness. You just have to experiment and be open to trying new things.

Tension and relief

Something that is often overlooked by the beginner songwriter is tension and relief, the rise and fall in your songs. This is sometimes call the song’s ‘energy’. 

I totally screwed this up when I was starting out. Most songs I wrote as a teenager would be pumping on all eight cylinders right from the get go. By the time I reached the middle eight or solo, there was no fuel left in the tank!

It was really difficult to listen to because as human beings, we respond to the rise and fall in every thing; just like breathing – in and then out. 

A song has to have tension and relief too. The contemporary producer/songwriter has this stuff down pat. Anything you listen to on the radio will have that rise and fall, building the expectation into the hyped out chorus, then slowly taking you down in the verse, all but very subtly. 

It’s a beautiful thing when done well and almost impossible to detect sometimes because you’re taken in by the song’s momentum. So it takes some serious consideration when you’re voicing your music and placing melody, harmony, and rhythm changes.

If you can work out where your song’s tension is, strip it back a little and let it breathe. Where there’s relief, you can add colour and energy, or visa versa. It doesn’t matter how you do it, you just need to do it, so there’s a natural curve. 

It takes practice to get a handle this, but it’s not a dark art or something you’re born with. You can learn this over time, just like learning to ride a bike. 

Space and time

Space is another area of songwriting that is not often discussed. The less is more theory, is what it’s all about. As I was saying earlier, when I was pouring every melodic motif and beat into each song, it was choking and gasping for air.

The relationship between each note in a song is buffered by silence or a rest. I liken it to taking a breath. We all need to breathe to stay alive, and so does a song. It can also allow to you transition to another section and it doesn’t need to be two bars long, just a breath.

Silence also creates anticipation. Mastering anticipation in your writing could almost be your most powerful tool. The more you write, the better you will get at understanding and utilising the concept. 

Have you seen any movies by Jim Jarmusch or Win Wenders? Some scenes are so devoid of dialogue it’s disturbing.  But it keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next.


You may have heard of the Swedish producer, Max Martin. He is the superstar hit writer/producer of the last couple of decades.  Max Martin has clocked up twenty two number one Billboard hits with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Pink, and Justin Timberlake. 

There’s been a lot of talk about the method he allegedly created to write contemporary pop music called ‘music math’.  And, I’ve seen him deny using ‘music math’ in the very few interviews he does.

It’s alleged he uses his ‘music math’ to create his hits and it involves such things as: 

Chorus has to start within fifty seconds

No more than three or four parts to a song  

3:30 seconds song length is the maximum

Chorus is king

Recycle melodic motifs throughout the song

Create musical balance

Use powerful verbs

Even though you probably don’t write contemporary R&B or pop tunes, some of these concepts are still worth considering. The masses are indoctrinated to anticipate and therefore enjoy, listening to songs with the above rules. 

You can subtly include some of these into your own music, without sounding like Ariana Grande, and still not alienate people because your first chorus comes in at 2:21 secs! 

There’s also a lot to be said for the ‘three’ rule too. There is a recurring theme in drama, art, and music that involves threes. The school of thought says that you need no more than three main parts to your song.  

That’s because that’s the most a person can digest on the first listen. That could be verse, chorus, middle eight or verse, bridge, chorus solo over chorus. Just something else for you to consider …

Chicken or the egg?

So finally, which comes first? Lyrics, music or beats? For me, it’s always been the music and melody. It’s the music that floats my boat. Sometimes I can come up with a lyric while developing the tune, and that’s a bonus. 

That’s not to say that lyrics are unimportant to me, quite the contrary! Great lyrics seals the deal, particularly if you can marry the two together into something that feels real and believable.

I have friends who do lyrics first and others who start with the beats, so it’s horses for courses, really. When I’m co-writing, I tend to have either unfinished parts for the other writer, or the music structure is complete and it needs a melody and lyric. 

This is something my musical colleague of many years, Paul and I have just done. He had been working on five tunes for months, but just couldn’t find a melody or lyric. 

He handed them to me for my contribution, and now they’re complete. It was a big challenge for me approaching songs with music already completed, but the result is a unique and original bunch of songs that is one hundred percent original that could never been composed alone. 

Writing Buddy

On a final note in this episode, I’d like to touch on co-writing. For me, as beginner songwriter in the late 1980’s, the thought of co-writing was terrifying. As I know myself pretty well nowadays, I can see this was based around a lack of confidence and the fear of rejection. 

Writing with another person or people, can indeed feel that way at times. If there’s no chemistry, or you’re on different pages, it can be really difficult. Sometimes you’re writing with someone who is in a totally different headspace, and that ends up going nowhere.

But, co-writing can be a magical thing. If you can drop your guard and allow your inner-self to be exposed, and accept you may feel uncomfortable and awkward at times, you can create amazing stuff. 

As I became more comfortable over the years, I began to actively seek out writing partners. Not everything is going to work every time, but you might just create an original gem.

A good way of getting into this, is sharing some music with a colleague that you’re having a difficult time finishing. Often they can come up with something to complete the tune. 

It could be a hook, a lyric or a complete chorus. It’s liberating when the song is finished, and occasionally you can find yourself with a killer tune. Give it a go.

Where To Now?

So we’re at the end and I have barely scratched the surface of this subject. There’s just so much to talk about with songwriting.

At the end of the day, who cares about modes, tension, and relief, if you have a great melody and a good groove? You’ll be guided by your gut instinct, and that’s the best way. Get out there and make some great music!

Do you have any songwriting tips and tricks you’d like to share? I’d love to her them! Comment below and  let me and others know of your songwriting stories!

Don’t forget to sign up to my mailing list for updates and giveaways and this blog can also be listened to via my podcast here.

The next episode is about production. Does your band need to do production or even pre-production? Tune in next time to find out more.

I’ll catch you soon.

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