Anyone Can Write a Song

What does it take to write a good song? This is an interesting question! To me it’s very similar to asking what is needed to write a good story.

Our Year 8 and 9 Music electives focus on empowering students to create great pieces of music. What skills are needed to accomplish this?

Some might give a very academic answer, arguing that you need a comprehensive understanding of musical harmony, melodic construction, and the balancing of phrase and structure. This can be quite daunting! At one stage I brought in an accomplished local jazz composer to work with some of my composition students, and they came out of the workshop quite dazzled by the complexity of harmonic analysis which this composer applied to his work.

The reassuring fact is that the vast majority of the world’s music is written by people with little or no academic understanding of music. What they do have is a passion to express themselves and the persistence to work at their craft. There are many fantastic composers – Paul McCartney for example – who claim to be musically illiterate.

So how can we usefully empower our students to create great music?

In our courses we approach this in three ways. Firstly, we analyse some of the great songs. We take one of the many ‘masterpieces’ written and look carefully at how it has been constructed. Almost all great music, when analysed, is disarmingly simple, and based on the repetition of a very simple but ingenious idea.

Secondly, we do learn a certain amount of theory. There are some rules about chord progressions and melody writing that are useful to know. In fact, following these rules can guarantee your music will ‘work’. It can’t guarantee it will be brilliant, but it will be at least musically effective.

Thirdly, we give our students time, encouragement, assistance and the technology to explore and develop their ideas.

If a student has a wonderful idea, we can always help them develop it into a wonderful piece. If the initial idea is not well thought out, no amount of structural development will turn it into a masterpiece.

Contemporary composition – rather like contemporary story writing – tends to involve computers. Programs such as Musescore, GarageBand and Sibelius do make it so easy to create a score, listen to it, edit it and produce a printed score or recording. However, a high-quality composition needs both a high-quality idea and careful critical editing and that must come from the operator.

It’s a bit like building a house. Anyone can learn to build a house which is functional, solid, and doesn’t fall down. However architectural inspiration is needed to turn the functional house into a memorable building of wonder and beauty. Really great music – whether Mozart or a Beatles song – has a sense of absolute ‘rightness’ about it – you would not want to change a note.

Martin Arnold
Head of Music