Songwriting 101: a manifesto

Songwriting 101

by Noah Manheimer

Song Elements


- Major genres include Pop, Rock, R&B, Hip Hop, Reggae, Country, Alternative, Jazz, Classical (to name a few) with countless sub genres.

- Each genre has its own conventions and rules. For example, in Rock beats 1&3 are emphasized while in Jazz the emphasis is on 2&4.


- pace or speed

- contributes to the mood & energy level of the song

- In classical music there are names for each tempo range


- The emotional core of the song

- Major chords generally suggest positive emotions

- Minor chords suggest negative emotions

- The terms "chord progression" and "harmonic structure" refer to the motion from chord to chord and the overall structure that this motion creates.

- The harmony moves the song forward.

- A hierarchy exists based on the strength or weakness of each chord progression.  


- The melody of a song is expressed by the lead vocal or lead instrument.

- The notes of the melody are determined by the harmony.

- The importance and complexity of the melody is largely dependent on genre. In Hip Hop the melody can be very simple whereas in a Jazz song, it is usually much more complex.


- The rhythmic feel of a song determines how the listener reacts to it on a physical level.

- A driving drum beat makes you want to dance

- A fluid, rolling rhythm is relaxing

- A disjointed or inconsistent rhythm creates anxiety


- Express the literal meaning of the song

- Will ideally be consistent with emotional setting created by the other elements of the song (i.e. harmony, rhythm, etc)

- Usually have a rhyme structure.


- The instrumentation of a song can range from a cappella (voice alone) to a rock band to an electronic setting. 

- Arrangement is a product of genre. 


- The set of chords and notes that the song is comprised of.


- The number of beats per measure. 4/4 is the most common. 3/4 is a waltz. 6/8 was common in early rock 'n' roll

Song Sections/Form:


-Unique section that sets the key, tempo, feel and mood of the song.

-may consist of the verse or chorus chords


-tells the story

-each verse has the same chords and melody, but different lyrics


-builds up to the chorus

-if verse and chorus have same harmonic structure, it breaks the pattern and makes the chorus seem fresh


Set Fire to the Rain (0:44)


- main message of the song

- repeats ver betam

- usually has greater emotional and musical intensity than verse 

Set Fire to the Rain (1:00)


- a musical or lyrical phrase that stands out and is easily remembered

- is usually part of the chorus but not always

- key to commercial appeal in pop music

- examples: Pumped up Kicks (1:03) Sweet Child of Mine, Empire State of Mind (2:05)


- optional

- occurs near the end of the song

- is musically and lyrically different than the rest of the song

- usually leads into last chorus


- (usually) instrumental section with greater rhythmic intensity


- Improvised instrumental solo based on the song's harmonic structure

Outro (or "coda")

- Often a repeat of the intro

- Can be instrumental

- Can be a looser and more improvisatory vocal repeat of the chorus, hook, a phrase, or even non-verbal singing.

Types of Song

Love Song

Party Song

Angry Song

Ballad (slow song)

Power Ballad (same as above but with big hair)

Pop Song

Poetic Song

Nonsense Song - "Loser" by Beck

Sad Song

Funny Song

Silly Song

Patriotic Song

Nostalgic Song

Story Song "Devil Went Down to Georgia" by Charlie Daniels

Religious Song

Morality Song


Campfire Song

Fantasy Song

Witty Song


Abstract Song

Introspective Song

Epic Arena Rock Song

etc etc etc

Song Writing Strategies

Work quick and messy and edit later.

A blank page can be intimidating. Just get something down. It may end up completely different. It is easier to work with something than with nothing.

Get into "The Zone"

- An intensely focused creative state

- Eliminate distractions and make a conscious choice to do nothing but write

- Use creativity games to get the juices flowing

Creativity Games - Wake up the verbal corner of your dome with these games:

1. Free Association - Take a pen and paper and without stopping, write down every word or phrase that comes to mind, one following the next. This is a great way to come up with song ideas.

2. Targeted Association - If you know what you want to write about, make a list of every word, phrase or idea relating to that subject.

3. Rhyming Game (See if you can get the pattern. You could go on all day with this one!)

"A bear without a claw is like a see without a saw. A saw without wood is like bad without good. Good without superb is like a sub without the burb…" 

Narrow it Down!

Make some decisions about your song from the very beginning. Choose a song type, genre, subject, tempo, key,  mood, and/or form. Every decision you make will lead to further choices, and bring you closer to completion. For example, the choice to write a "lonely" song will probably lead to the choice of a minor key, a slow tempo, and a fluid rhythm.

Keep moving.

If you get stuck on a lyric or a chord, don't let it break your flow. Move on to another section or aspect of the song. Come back to it later.

You don't have to write from beginning to end.

Think like an architect and look at the whole picture. You are free to start building the song from any point--the chorus is a great place to begin writing.

Be Poetic.

Think about your lyrics not only in terms of their meaning, but also in terms of the images they invoke and they way they sound.

- Use phonics as a musical instrument.

- Use imagery to paint a picture.

- Use metaphor to add complexity.

- Choose words that taste good in your mouth.

- Avoid cliches.

- Avoid being too obvious and direct (unless the song calls for it)

Move the Song Forward.

To keep the listener interested, the song has to continually promise a payoff on the horizon. There are a number of ways to achieve this:

- Contrast: quiet verse & loud chorus; less chord movement in verse & more movement in chorus; different key in the bridge; minor verse & major chorus

- Tension and Release: harmonic, rhythmic, melodic and textural dissonance create a desire for resolution. That desire pulls the listener forward like an itch that needs to be scratched.

- Tell an interesting story with the verse lyrics. The desire to "hear what happens next" will move the song forward.

- Write an extremely catchy hook and everyone will chant, "Play it again! Play it again!" A great hook can carry a song.

Songwriting Is Like Fishing

When the waters and the bait are right and luck is smiling upon you, a big one may bite. The next day you may catch nothing but old boots. Neither situation makes for a good or bad fisherman. The good fisherman is the one who goes out in his boat every day regardless of his luck the previous day.

Being a good songwriter takes persistence without self-judgement. It is the ability to recognize a good song idea when it comes along, and to simply toss out the old boots.