Jump to content
  • Technique: Music Composition for the Dunce (Part Two)

    By Chris Marion |



    In Part 1 of Music Composition for the Dunce, we discussed music theory and some basic tools for music composition.  In this installment, we’ll apply some of those components to develop your compositional technique.  Before jumping into the pool, let me give you some encouragement from a couple master composers themselves – Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky.  Debussy said, “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art”.  Stravinsky offers perhaps the most honest assessment – “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal”.  My point here is that rules of theory are a framework and guide, not necessarily an electrified fence to keep you in.  It’s cool to color outside the lines. When you have a conversation, you speak best about something you are familiar with or of something you are familiar with. Echoing Igor, your compositions will likely reflect music that you love and listen to.   Let’s get down to it…


    The are three basic methods to approach the writing of a song:


    1.     Starting with a lyric and creating a melody and accompaniment around it.

    2.     Starting with a melody and creating a lyric and accompaniment to support it.

    3.     Starting with an accompaniment or series of chords then creating lyrics and a melody that matches the accompaniment.


    Since creating lyrics is really more of a literary practice, we’ll focus on the second and third of the above three methods of composition – accompaniment and melodic creation.  You might say that these two methods work harmoniously together.  While this is admittedly a cheesy play on words, it is accurate to say that the melody is built around the chords and rhythms of the accompaniment and the accompaniment is designed to support and melody.  Just like the proverbial “which came first” debate where chickens and eggs are dependent upon each other for survival and continued creation, melodies and chordal accompaniments cooperate to create music.




    Since the accompaniment or chord progression of a song is the framework that melodies and lyrics sit on, we’ll first take a look at the method of connecting chords together.


    In our glossary of musical terms, we defined key signature as the series of sharps or flats found at the beginning of each staff in musical notation.  For the purpose of expanding on composition, the key signature or “key” of the song is the chord or key that is the predominate chord that everything circles around.  It is sometimes called the tonic or the 1 chord of the song.  Very often a song will end of the tonic or key of the song in an action that is called resolution.  It is also quite common that sections of the song like the verse or the chorus will end on the tonic.


    Rolling Stone recently named Bob Dylan’s song “Like A Rolling Stone” as the top song of all time.  However, Bob would have to kneel at the altar of none other than “Happy Birthday” as the most performed song of all time.  For the sake of great examples that most living humans could reference, let’s consider the birthday song to see how some of these terms play out.


    Let’s say for the sake of argument, we start our version of the “Birthday Song” in the key of C.  Therefore, the tonic chord for the song is the C chord and since there are no sharps or flats in the key of C, the music staff would show no accidentals in its registration.  The second chord that supports the lyrical word “you” (as in happy birthday to YOU) is G, also known as the dominant chord.  For the purpose of classic simple composition, you might say the dominant chord is the best friend of the tonic chord.  Before I expand on this relationship, I want to present a concept called the circle of fifths, one of the most common methods for developing chord progressions. 


    Historically, composers have observed this circle of fifths in transitioning from chord to chord.  The fifth refers to the interval within an eight-tone scale from tone 1 to tone 5 in the scale.  This is where it gets a little dicey for the music theory challenged – but hold on and I will simplify it as much as possible.  I could do an entire piece on the 12 semi tones in a chromatic scale and how ascending up in the interval of a fifth would eventually take you through all 12 tones of the scale.  But, for the purpose of general composition, moving in fifths from chord to chord is common compositional practice.  Because many songs adhere to this method, it also sounds very natural to the ear.  For example, the first two lines of “Happy Birthday” looks like this in the key of C:


    C                                      G

    Happy birthday to you


    G                                      C

    Happy birthday to you


    As you can see, the chords go back and forth from C to G to C in an interval of a fifth.


    In the third line of the birthday song, we are introduced to perhaps the 2nd most common companion of the tonic chord – the subdominant or the 4 chord (based on the interval of a fourth between the tonic and the subdominant).  The third line of the song would read like this:


    C                                              F

    Happy birthday dear “reader”


    I live in Nashville, the home of country music.  There is a popular joke in town that has a guitar player taking lessons.  On the first day he learns the one chord.  In the second lesson he learns the 5 chord.  In the third, he learns the 4 chord.  When he doesn’t show up for the fourth lesson, the teacher calls and asks why he didn’t come for the lesson and the new guitar player answers that he got a gig with a country band.  There are a lot of country songs that simply work the 1, 4 and 5 chords exclusively.  One of the most popular country songs of all time, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” demonstrates how brilliantly the progression is used even its simplicity (in the key of G):



    He stopped loving her today


    Placed a wreath up her grave


    Soon they’ll carry him away


    He stopped loving her today


    In the first installment of this series, I introduced you to a word I’ve used a few times already in this second article – the chord.  A chord is a group of 3 or more notes that are sounded together in a harmonious relationship.  There are essentially two types of chords – major and minor.  These terms refer to whether the interval between the 2nd and 3rd tone in the corresponding scale is a full tone or a semi tone.  For example, in the key of C major, the third tone in the scale would be an E natural.  On the other hand, in the key of C minor, the third tone would be an E flat.  In both of the previous song examples, all of the chords referred to are major chords. 


    Adding minor versions of chords gives us an even broader arsenal of alternatives to extend the progression of chords.  Let’s take a look at a popular Everly Brothers hit, “All I Have To Do Is Dream” for an example of using the 6 minor chord in a progression (in the key of C):


    C                Am           F                               G

    Dream, dream, dream, dream dream.


    As you can see, going to the 6 minor chord of A minor transitions naturally to the subdominant F chord in this line.  This is the same progression of the proverbial “Heart and Soul” piano song that even novices master easily on the family piano as well as the Police hit “Every Breath You Take”


    Another common progression variation involving minor chords uses a phenomena called the circle of fifths.  Descending through chords whose root tones are one fifth apart follows a natural harmonic relationship between the tones.  Weaker or earlier chords might begin as minor then as they circle closer to the tonic become major.  Let’s turn to another classic for an example of this type of progression – “Over The Rainbow”.  In the last line of the verse, we see these chords (in the key of C):


                        F                 C  (1)                          Am (6 minor)

    And the dreams that you dare to


    Dm (2 m)          G (5)           C (1)

    Dream  really  do come true.


    Finally for this section, you can also use chord voicing to help transition to a new chord.  The most common transitional voicing is the addition of the flat 7 to the chord.  When adding a 7 to the dominant (5) chord, it usually signals a transition to the tonic.  Likewise, adding a 7 to the tonic will usually lead you to a subdominant 4 chord.


    TIP:  Become a student of chord progression.  Study your favorite songs from a chord progression perspective.  You’ll find that there are commonalities in progression and even voicing from genre to genre.  Developing your ear in the recognition of the uniqueness of chord progression will only make you a stronger composer yourself as you expand your own chord and progression vocabulary.




    As I indicated earlier in this article, the melody walks arm in arm with the accompanying chord progression.  Typically, a good melody not only matches the cadence of the lyric, but it also compliments the chordal accompaniment.  This is accomplished by moving in and around the notes of the triad and voicing of the accompaniment.  Not every note of the melody must represent the tones of the triad or chord cluster.  However, a stronger melody is at least moving toward a tone in the cluster as it passing through the cluster notes.  These non-cluster tones are called passing notes and indicate movement toward the cluster.


    Let’s go back to our first example of “Happy Birthday”.  The melody in the key C is this:


    G  -  G  -  A -  G –C -B

    Hap-py birth-day to you


    Even though the “birth” syllable note is an A, it is passing through to get to one of the tonic cluster tones.


    Obviously a melody walks the fine line between the lyric and the chord progression that accompanies it.  It’s job is to give the lyrics wings to soar above the accompaniment.  You can demonstrate movement and emotion.  You can capture the attention of the listener with rhythm or syncopation.  As well you can show climax with an ascending line or closure with a descending line.


    TIP:  Enduring and memorable melodies are often the ones that are easiest for the amateur singer to duplicate.  Be intentional and yet simple in your melodic development.  Don’t be afraid to break a rule for emphasis or follow a rule for comfort.




    As I write these articles, I am always intimidated more by what I am unable to share in the space available within time constraints.  As the chief of anal retention, I feel compelled to share it all and sadly often share too little.  If anything in this circumstance, digest this information and use it to hone your craft.  The best recipe for developing compositional skill is just sitting down and doing it.  Don’t follow Stravinsky’s suggestion to outright steal other ideas.  But, don’t be afraid to borrow and make it your own.  Who cares if you ever receive accolades and grammy awards.  Writing is such a wonderful outlet for your expressivity and world view.  Dig in, my friends and as always – compose wisely!


    chris-head-dde56fa3.jpg.0b3254fd093383a7222a881cc8004844.jpgChris Marion is an American musician best known as a member of Little River Band and for his contribution to the gospel and country music industries. Although graduating college with a B.A. in Psychology, he is a classically trained pianist and has worked in the music industry professionally for over 35 years. As a resident of Nashville, he is involved in the recording industry working in the genres of Gospel, Country and Rock.  Since 2004, he has toured globally with the classic rock act Little River Band as a keyboardist and vocalist.  For more useless trivia and minutiae concerning Chris or to contact him directly, feel free to visit his personal website www.chrismarionmusic.com.




    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    There are no comments to display.

  • Create New...