Songwriting Basics: A Pentatonic Song
Today we’re going to dip our toes in composition and look at some piano songwriting basics. I’ve written a tune with the very unique title of “Pentatonic Song”, which you can download below. You can learn it, or study it, or use it as a launching point for your own composition.
I wanted to build on the pentatonic scale stuff from the previous video. In that video, we talked about what a pentatonic scale is, and why it’s so useful for jamming – definitely check out that video if you haven’t already.
Pentatonic Song download (PDF)
Gb Major Pentatonic Scale
So the pentatonic scale we’ll be writing in today is the Gb major pentatonic scale, which sounds kind of scary but it’s very simple: Use only the black keys, with Gb being your home base.
Songwriting Basics: Chords
In my mind, the easiest way to come up with a melody is to first have some chords figured out. It’s tough coming up with good-sounding melodies out of thin air. But if you have chords as a harmonic background, it’ll give some context to your melody ideas.
So what chords to use? Well, if we’re in the key of Gb, Gb is going to be your most important chord – your home base. I’ll mark this one with an “I”, since it’s the first note of the scale.
The second most important chord which I recommend you use is Db. The tonic and dominant chords, marked by a “I” (1) and “V” (5), are generally the strongest chords in any key. If we were to name the notes by step, Db would be our fifth note.
I would advise you to stick to 4 chords or less, just so it’s not too overwhelming at first. I only used three chords in my composition.
A good one to create contrast is the sixth chord, which in this case is a minor chord (Eb). We’d mark this with “vi” (6). This is a really common chord choice in modern music, especially pop.
How to play the chords
The three chords I used in my Pentatonic Song are Gb, Db and Eb minor. By glancing through the left hand, you can see that I didn’t just plunk down solid chords for this song – instead, I opted for broken chords. I even went outside the chord box a little – in the first chord, Gb, I played two notes from the chord (Gb and Db), but then added a note not found in the chord, Eb, for a little somethin’-somethin’.
For a composition of your own, you could really go in any direction. You could do solid chords, variations on broken chords, or a mix of the two.
Jamming in a pentatonic scale
Honestly, when you’re writing in a pentatonic scale, there aren’t really any wrong notes. I could write a left hand pattern in any manner of ways. Here’s the pattern I did use:
Gb Db Eb
But I also explored 1 5 8’s later in the song (Eb Bb Eb), which are a really simple but useful broken chord pattern.
Throughout the song, I just focused on three chords: Gb, Db and Eb minor.
So now that we’ve got some basic chords figured out, it’s time to shift our focus to melody writing.
Songwriting Basics: Melody Writing
Melody writing is a massive topic. Giant tomes have been devoted to it, so we’re not going to go into a lot of detail today. I’ll give you a few general pointers, and then let you play around with it.
Honestly, as with writing books or any other kind of writing, we could discuss theory all day, but what’s even more important is developing an intuition for it. Most writers aren’t formulating every little note – it’s more like acting on an instinct, and fine-tuning details later.
The best way to develop this instinct is to listen to music and play music. Even if you’re not aware of it, you’ll start noticing patterns and consistencies. You’ll start developing an instinct for what sounds good, and what works.
That being said, there are a few pieces of more concrete advice I can give you.
Keep it simple
Beginner songwriters tend to get really excited and adventurous, with melodies that often involve huge leaps and lack patterns. But if you listen to melodies (pop music is a good starting point because they’re simple), they generally don’t span more than an octave. There are lots of songs that exist mainly within the span of 3 notes.
That’s not to say that you can’t, or shouldn’t, write complicated songs with wide-spanning melodies, but it’s generally wise to understand the basics before attempting them. Masters can make it sound interesting, but when beginners do this, it tends to just sound random.
Include rhythmic patterns
Patterns are your friend. I don’t like making sweeping statements like “all songs have rhythmic patterns”, but it’s basically true. These can be long or short patterns – 4 bar patterns, 1 bar patterns, it doesn’t matter. But almost all music has some sort of rhythmic unity.
In my little Pentatonic Song, the left hand follows a consistent pattern, and you’ll notice a lot of rhythmic repetition within the phrases.
In this song I used a “call and response” or “echo” technique, where a small tune plays not once, but twice (like an echo). This is a common and effective songwriting technique, and it helps create a sense of unity in your piece.
Look at the forest as well as the trees
Sometimes when writing music, we can get so caught up in the little things – like a single bar of music, that we forget to think about the bigger picture. Sure, maybe your bar-long melody sounds great, but does it fit with everything else?
Constantly think about your piece in 4-bar or 8-bar units, and beyond. What’s the larger pattern? Are your notes going somewhere?
I like to compare this to lyric writing. If you’re writing a simple 4-line verse, you need to consider it as a whole. For the sake of an example, I’ve composed a masterpiece:
Summer’s last tomato
Is bursting from the vine,
Patiently I’ve waited,
And finally it’s mine.
So I mean, obviously this is right up there with William Blake. But let’s look at this a little closer. First of all, the rhyming scheme: ABCB. This means that the 2nd and 4th line must rhyme.
Another consideration is how many syllables are in each line. 6, 6, 6, 6. It’s nice and consistent, which means when you read it, it rolls off the tongue easily. It isn’t clumsy.
Now I want to show you this same poem, but without the syllable pattern or rhyme scheme.
Summer’s last tomato
Is bursting with ripeness, red and round.
I’ve been waiting
To eat it like an apple.
So there isn’t any rhyme, and there isn’t any consistency with syllables either. The first line is 6, then 9, then 4, then 7. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, and feels a little clumsy. Of course, there’s plenty of amazing poetry that doesn’t use a standard rhyming scheme or syllable pattern, like the great “This Is Just To Say”. But the thing is, there’s still a masterful sense of style here. And there’s still overall unity when you consider it as a whole.
I know this is a bit of a tangent, but it’s important because melodies work in the same way. Let’s take a look at my very simple melody in Pentatonic Song.
You’ll notice the song is mostly divided into 6-bar sections, which have short phrases that are about 4 beats long. Each section, the original tune returns, but with more “stuff” added. This adds a sense of build and momentum until we hit this climactic moment with all the descending 16th notes. And then for a finale, we return to that original phrase.
All of this makes the song sound deliberate, not random. There’s a clear goal – the louder 16th note section – and a clear path getting there. It isn’t just suddenly louder, or suddenly super fast.
Songwriting basics: Recap
So just to reiterate – my 3 basic tips for songwriting:
- Keep it simple
- Include rhythmic patterns
- Look at the forest as well as the trees
So now it’s your turn! You can print off blank notation paper at blanksheetmusic.net, or just use a notebook and your own notation code if you want. I use MuseScore to draft up my music – it’s a free notation program that you can download.
You can write it however you want, too – my song was slow, but you could do a fast and staccato song, or maybe a really dark and epic song, whatever is up your alley. Keep it simple, stick to the black keys and you really can’t go wrong.