Building a Song Out of LEGOS

Introduction:

LEGO-Classic-Spaceship-by-Peter-Morris

Unless you were raised by wolves in a cave, you played with LEGOS as a kid, and maybe you still play with them.  Why are they so satisfying? Is it because it is a familiar collection of colors and shapes can be snapped together in an infinite number of ways? Is it because once you snap the first couple of pieces together the rest just seem to fall into place? Is it because when you are done, you have a rad spaceship in your hand and feel like a genius for having created it?

Writing a song is much the same as building a rad spaceship out of LEGOs. If you are aware of the songwriting elements available to you, songwriting is less a matter of pulling a song out of thin air, and more about pulling together a set of building blocks in unique and interesting ways. I should emphasize here that there are as many methods to songwriting as there are songwriters. Currently the LEGO Method is producing some pretty cool spaceships in my world. So here it is:

A songwriter’s box of LEGOS includes [but is not limited to]:

1) Chords/Harmony

2) Song Sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc)

3) Language & Concept (where we make our own LEGOS)

4) Arrangement (possibilities for musical accompaniment)

Chords:

Chords are not grouped together randomly. They come in a set of 7—the major chord scale. This is music theory 101. Some of you have known this for years, and some of you might be running for the door (Aaargh the theory monster!!!) Don’t worry. This is easy, and is the first box of LEGOS.

We have all heard the major scale right? (do ray me fa... Sound of Music la la la)

If you base a chord on each of the seven notes in the that scale, you have the major chord scale. The quality (i.e. major/minor) of those chords always follows the same order:

Major, minor, minor, Major, Major or 7th, minor, diminished or half diminished (min7b5).
    I          ii         iii        IV           V                vi             vii

Here are the chord scales in a few common keys:

I              ii            iii          IV         V         vi           vii

C          Dm          Em         F          G         Am        B dim

G          Am          Bm         C          D         Em        F# dim

D          Em          F#m       G          A         Bm        C# dim

A          Bm          C#m       D         E          F#m      G# dim

If you start with the I chord (the root of the key), you can mix and match any of the other chords in the scale to taste, kind of like—you guessed it—LEGOS. Of course rules were made to be broken, and there are other, more advanced principles for grouping chords, but 90% of pop and rock music follows this system.

Minor Chord Progressions (evil twins)

Every major chord scale has what is called a relative minor. If you want to write a song on the sadder or darker side of the emotional spectrum (a bad spaceship), this is the place to start. Here’s how to do it: simply start your chord scale (and your song’s chord progression) from the vi chord of a major key. So, the relative minor of C is Am. The relative minor of G is Em. It means starting from a different place, but all of the chords in your box of LEGOS remain the same—they are just serving a more evil master. Get the idea?

Song Sections:

Like putting together the basic shape of your LEGO spaceship before snazzing it up, establishing the form of your song from the very beginning gives you a structure to build upon.

In short, here are your basic sections:

  • Intro - Sets the mood
  • Verses - Tell the story
  • Chorus or Hook - Main message and most memorable part of song, usually same lyrics each time it repeats.
  • Prechorus - Sets up or builds toward the chorus.
  • Bridge - Takes the song somewhere different. Serves create contrast which makes the last chorus feel more powerful. Develops or completes the story line.
  • Solo - Lets the guitarist show off
  • Outro - The other slice of bread in the intro/outro sandwich

[There is no rule that you have to start writing from the beginning. You can start building at any section of the spaceship. The chorus is the classic place to start. If it is not flowing, start from the 1st verse, or even the bridge. Begin wherever the music just presents itself to you. Proceed in that manner until you have a song.]

Language & Concept:

My fave source of lyrical LEGOs can be summed up in one word: BRAINSTORM.
Say you want to write some lyrics but you have absolutely no idea what you want to write about.

Here’s how I like to play it:

Step 1: Pick up a pen and paper and free associate (alone or with friends). Just fill the page with random words and phrases rapid fire as they come to you. Don’t stop, don’t judge or try to be brilliant, just fill up the page.

Step 2: Circle every word or phrase that jumps out and seems cool to you. At this point, something, either a word or combination of words, will jump out at you as a song concept.

Step 3: Write that concept in the center of a new page and circle it. Start a new brainstorm with words and ideas that relate to your central concept. Again, write down everything that comes to mind without judgement or trying too hard. Imagine a river of words flowing from the sky, through your brain and out of your pen.

Step 4: What you now have in front of you is a page full of Lyric LEGOs! Now fill out the song form spaceship you have created using [but by no means limited to] your new LEGO set.

[If you already know what you want to write about, skip to step 3.]

IMG 9782

Arrangement:

Brainstorming can be effective here too for creating your set of arrangement LEGOS. Elements of arrangement include chord progression (see above), tempo, genre/style, texture (rough, flowing, etc), and dynamics (loud/soft, does it build or stay the same?) and riffs. If you have arrived at a lyrical concept for the song, in what ways will the music enhance that meaning?

Try listing the sections of your song on a page, then brainstorm what you want to express and how you want to express it for each section. What do you end up with? More LEGOS!

Here’s an example:

Imaginary Song form


Conclusion:

Staring at a blank page is, in my opinion, the absolute worst way to start a song. If you create a set of song LEGOs, your songs will come together faster, be more fun and less anxiety provoking, and will most likely be stronger songs in every way, because your ideas, both lyrical and musical have had space to develop, and benefit from brainstorming which taps into the incredibly powerful unconscious mind—the same place dreams come from. You can start your song from anywhere, be it the chords, a riff or the lyrics—wherever inspiration strikes. The smart songwriter watches for the good idea and follows it—just like a kid building a rad LEGO spaceship.