Songwriting basics: chord, melody and music theory tricks for DAW users

Songwriting basics
(Image credit: ArtistGNDphotography)

Songwriting isn’t easy. Or, rather, writing good songs isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.

However, it’s not ‘magic’ either. Sure, you need inspiration, dedication and - let’s face it - a certain amount of talent, but there are also tried and tested tricks that songwriters often use, whether they’re aware of it or not.

It’s these musical ‘hacks’ that we detail in our songwriting basics series. Rooted in music theory, but designed for any DAW user, they’re the keys to taking your songwriting to the next level.

You’ll find videos of all our lessons below, along with links to the full step-by-step walkthroughs, with more being added on a regular basis.

Using music theory to help come up with a melody to fit your chords

Whether it’s a vocal or instrumental melody that you’re after, following the tips that are shown here can help you to break the deadlock and start to form an idea that could turn into your next great song.

The music theory you need to write a chord progression to fit a melody

One perennial issue for songwriters is what to do when you've come up with a melody line and need a chord progression to fit it. So, we’ll show you how to establish the key your melody might be in, how to generate a palette of chords that work with it, then create an example progression using those chords. 

How to turn a 4-bar loop into a complete track

It’s easy to get lost in a groove - your initial idea cycles round endlessly, and your brain flat-out refuses to entertain the concept that it might turn into anything else! We thought we’d turn the spotlight on this common issue, hopefully giving you a few useful tools to get things moving again next time you find yourself casting around for ideas to finish your track.

How to program the perfect bassline in your DAW

When programming a bass part in your DAW, you’ll need to adopt different approaches when working with synth bass or bass guitar samples. There are plenty of aspects that many great basslines have in common, though; we’re going to demonstrate how to construct both synth-based and more real-sounding bass parts.

How to use diminished 7ths to spice up your chord progressions

Diminished seventh (or ‘dim7’ from here on out) chords are nowhere near as scary as they sound - once you know the formula for how to put them together, they’re pretty easy to suss. We'll show you how to build diminished seventh chords and then demonstrate a couple of examples of how to use them to add pep to some basic chord sequences.

How to produce an authentic ‘80s-style synth track in your DAW

How do you go about getting that distinctive ‘80s flavour into your tracks? We’ll be looking at a couple of constructive ways in which you can do just that, with sequenced synth basses, blippy arpeggios and big polyphonic synth chords being the order of the day. 

Using a sample as the inspiration for a new track when you’ve run out of ideas

Regardless of the songwriting route you take, the one thing you often need is that initial catalyst to kickstart your ideas. This is where this guide comes in, as we demonstrate how it’s possible to use almost any sample as the basis for inspiring a new track.

How to create a heartbreaking, sad chord progression

To make a sad song properly sad, you need a properly sad chord progression, so we’ve sought out one or two of the saddest chords known to mankind. These - when combined with the saddest of all keys (according to Spinal Tap that is), D minor - will make anyone want to shed an empathetic tear. 

How to create a modern pop song using just 4 chords

Successful pop songwriters always keep things simple enough to lock a tune into a listener’s subconscious, with enough tonal variety to keep them interested. So, while there are no hard rules to structuring a song, in this lesson we’ll illustrate one way to give a fairly traditional pop song format a more modern twist, using variations in the arrangement of a few parts to make a complete song from no more than a simple, four-chord progression.

How to use repetition and variation to create melodic hooks

If you ever find yourself stuck for a melody to fit over some chords, the technique we're going to show you here could be a great way to produce the sort of earworm melody that should stick in your audience’s mind both during and after the song.

How to pep up your progressions by borrowing chords from parallel keys

Borrowed chords are usually taken, or ‘borrowed’, from the key parallel to the one you’re working in. Parallel keys simply have the same root note, or tonic, as each other - for instance, C major and C minor are parallel scales, as they both start from the note C. 

However, the notes in the C minor scale, when harmonised, produce a different set of chords to the notes in the C major scale, and it’s these chords that you can borrow to embellish your major progressions, as we’re about to discover...

How to use the 2-5-1 chord progression in your DAW

What exactly is a 2-5-1? Well, it’s a sequence of three chords, traditionally embraced by the jazz fraternity but equally of use whatever your genre. When strung together as a package, they form a kind of building block that has a special power - namely, the power of resolution. The 2-5-1 feels like an ending, because it ends on the I chord, so it’s essentially a totally surefire way of navigating any chord progression back to the I chord, resulting in a feeling of arriving home. Here's how it works...

How to use chromatic mediants to add flavour to your chord progressions

The term ‘chromatic mediants’ probably isn’t something you’ll have come across very often in your songwriting pursuits, but working these mysterious creatures into progressions can be a useful way to expand your palette of chords beyond the realms of your regular, day-to-day diatonic triads.

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