With so much of the music we hear on a daily basis being chock full of heavy instrumentation and sleek production elements, it can be hard to understand and hear what the true bones of a song are. Dig deep beneath track automation, instrumental layers, and effects like EQs and reverbs, and you’ll discover the foundational elements of a song.
As important as doing this is, it’s not always easy or natural to do for developing artists. By stripping a song down to its most essential and minimal components, you’ll not only gain a better understanding of the music you listen to but will also become a more effective songwriter.
What are the core elements of a song?
We can think of a song like a house––it needs a solid foundation and construction to be able to stand up. A house’s windows, paint color, and yard are all attractive qualities that make it nice to look at and live in, but they wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the main parts of the structure that make it a house. The production aspects of some songs can be extremely impactful to their overall sound and feel, but they wouldn’t exist with the crucial foundational parts of the music.
Chord progressions are the harmonic elements of popular music. Combinations of specific notes create unique chords, and unique combinations of repeating chords create the chord progressions we hear in songs. Chord progressions can be as simple as two chords that repeat throughout an entire song, or far more numerous and complex for genres like jazz or progressive rock. But when it comes to most of the popular music we hear, the number of chords in most progressions range somewhere around three to six per verse, bridge, or chorus. The chord sequences you select for your music are massively important because they’ll shape the vocal and instrumental melodies of your songs, and even the percussive elements depending on how you write. Guitars, synths, and pianos are examples of instruments capable of playing multiple notes needed to produce chords. In many songs, bass guitars or other stringed instruments help reinforce and outline chord progressions by selecting single notes from the chord progressions.
Melodies are the parts of songs most people remember and gravitate towards the most. For example, when you think of the song “Happy Birthday,” you probably think about singing the vocal melody and not much about the song’s chord progression, tempo, or rhythm. Melodies can show up in a song’s vocals, or instrumentally through piano lines, guitar riffs, and other instruments. Many songs trade-off between vocal and instrumental melodies.
The rhythmic elements in your songs can be played by the obvious instruments like drums or electronic beats, but it’s important to remember that the way melodies and chord progressions are shaped is often made engaging through choices in rhythm as well. This means that if you put all your energy into creating interesting percussive rhythms but none into the rhythm of your chords and melodies, you’re missing out on ways to make your music more engaging.
These are the core elements of most conventional songs, but it’s important to remember how differently artists work with them. For example, the way a hip hop artist and a metal band approach melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions is in all likelihood going to be markedly different.
How to separate the essential aspects of a song from everything else
When you listen to a song, you can easily get down to its main components by stripping away instrumentation and production elements until you’re left with nothing but the foundation of the music. Production features like automation and sound effects aren’t essential, so you can get rid of those. Any instrumentation or vocals that don’t directly support the main melodies and chord progressions can be removed as well. And, depending on how essential you view percussion, you can keep or remove drums, electronic beats, and other percussive elements.
After doing this, what you’ll end up with are the essential parts of a song. When it comes to your own music, it’s important to understand that if these basic elements in your songs aren’t engaging and exciting to listen to on their own, glitzy production and instrumentation won’t make a difference. The better you’re able to focus on the crucial parts of your songs, the better your music will be.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.