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3 Lessons Songwriters Should Learn from Music Composers

music theory Sep 04, 2021

Songwriting and music composing are sort of the same. And yet sort of completely different.

Music composers often work without lyrics or see lyrics in a supplementary role. Hopefully, as a songwriter, you see lyrics as one of the most important pieces to your song.

On the other hand, songwriters tend to utilize a much more simplistic music backdrop via fairly straightforward chord progressions and arrangements. Composers dive into the complexities of the movement of every single individual note. 

Neither is necessarily harder or easier than the other. They are just very similar yet different. 

That being said, songwriters can learn some important things from music composers. Let’s break down 3 of them.


Whatever Goes Up Should Also Go Down (Or Stay the Same)

Music rules are made to be broken- sometimes and only if you know what you’re doing. One of the rules that composers have is that all notes should not go up or down at the same time

So, if your melody is going up, the chords and lead parts shouldn’t all go up with it. Often you want something staying on the same note, something going up, and something going down at any given time. As long as you just have 2 of those 3, that’s enough to give the cohesive feel we generally want.

Why? Because this keeps the song sounding more cohesive. If everything goes up and down together it starts to feel like one single part, rather than a song with many evolving and growing parts. 

Think of your song like an ecosystem. It’s not like the deer and wolf populations move up and down together, right? If the deer population is rising, that probably indicates the wolf population is in decline. But then there are SO MANY deer for the few wolves to feast on, the wolf population rises again… Which then causes the deer population to fall. 

Like an ecosystem, your song should live and breathe and ebb and flow. Each part should be its own story interconnected with the rest of the song. 

A composer sees music this way. We songwriters should as well. 


Every Instrument and Part Choice Is Important

Be honest with me. Have you ever just written a song on piano, threw a lead and rhythm guitar on top, recorded bass and drums, and then called it a day?

Did you even ask if the lead guitar would be better as a piano part? Did you take some time to arrange some extra guitar parts to fill out the mix? Did you try your piano part as a quartet of violins instead? I bet not.

A composer puts great care into each instrument choice and what every part is playing at every moment of the song. They don’t just “throw another guitar in there”. They figure out the right instrument for the job, whether that be piano, flute, cello, or violin. Then they take the time to write the part to do exactly the job they want it to do.

Is the part meant to add a beautiful counter-melody in the mid-ranges? Is the part simply meant to build to the chorus? Is is a part to extend the upper range of the song so your song isn’t too midrangey? These are all answers a composer could easily answer. And so should we.

Every single part is important, not just the vocal and the lead guitar. And every part has a job to do. The job of the lead guitar is not the same as the violin in the chorus or the flute in the verses. Know what each part’s job is and be intentional about it. 


Chords are Harmony

Let’s think about how we usually look at songs as songwriters. Most of us would say we have three main parts to a song: Lyrics, Melody, and Chords/Chord Progression. 

When we think of “harmonies”, we’re usually thinking of vocal harmonies to support our vocal melody, right?

But that’s not the only thing harmony is. By definition, harmonies are “the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect.”

So, literally every musical note that is supplementing the melody. 

And that is how composers see “harmony”. So your guitars, piano, bass, and everything else supplementing your melody is part of harmony.

What is the takeaway here? That you don’t have to move chords around in rigid chord progressions made up of simple triads. There are so many different colorations available, from suspended chords, add chords, different inversions, and more.

Also, instead of thinking of a chord change as “C major to G major”, break it down by note. A composer doesn’t simply write “C Major chord”, they intentionally chose how each individual note moves. 

They choose the C to go down to a B while the E goes down to a D and the G stays the same. Meanwhile the lead guitar is going from a C down to a G. In the base, maybe the C simply descends down to a B.  That’s the same as “C major to G major”, but broken down into what we want each individual note to do.

Not all “C major to G major” transitions will sound the same. A composer knows this and utilizes it. We’re missing out if we don’t take the time to figure out exactly where each of our notes go in the change from one chord to the next.

You may not like the idea of music theory. Maybe you think it’s some “music education nonsense”. But the reality is that composers have a much more vast and powerful toolbox musically because of their knowledge of music theory.

Sure, you can write good songs without it. But you can also get into the MLB without playing little league. It’s just definitely more likely you’ll get into the MLB if you do play little league. Why limit yourself in an important area of practical music knowledge? 

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