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Insta-song: How to Write a Song in 6 Seconds or Less

Composing music can be a complicated exercise. However, if you understand a few rudiments of music theory, you can comp more quickly and with more expertise. A concept I call insta-song is great entry point to understanding music theory.

Most music is made up of chord progressions. A chord progression is a series of chords that are repeated over and over to lay down a bed for melody. A simple example might be Cmajor-Fmajor-Gmajor repeated over and over to get songs like Wild Thing, LaBomba, and Twist and Shout. To compose music, you must know which chords you can add to your chord progression set. These chords must work together harmonically or you will end up with a mess on your hands.

Chords are, at a fundamental level, every other note extracted from a scale. To illustrate this, lets look at the C major scale (this scale is easy because it has no sharps or flats). The scale’s notes from bottom to top are as follows: C-D-E-F-G-A-B.

Chords are generated out of the C scale by taking every other note and playing them together in sets of 3s. Hence, using the chord progression above—Cmajor-Fmajor-Gmajor—the notes extracted would be as follows:

C major = C, E, G
F major = F, A, C
G major = G, B, D

Simple right? Every other note extracted from the root of the chord (in this case, the roots are C, F, and G). The chords listed above are referred to as triads, which is to say they have 3 (tri) notes, extracted at the rate of every other note from the same scale, beginning on different roots.

To simplify, rather than using notes, you can use numbers or steps to define scales. Thus, C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7—just like walking up a staircase. We have steps 1 through seven working up in pitch from the scale’s root.

These numbers can be applied to any scale. For example, should you want to use the key of G major rather than C major, the pitch-number pairs would be as follows: G=1, A=2, B=3, C=5, D=5, E=6, F#=7. It’s simply easier to think in terms of numbers.

Each major scale has a set of respective triad chords attached to each number. Once you attach these triads to the numbers, it becomes clear which chords can be used to compose your insta-song. These chord qualities (the quality of a chord is it’s sound, such as a major quality or a minor quality chord). Thus, if you memorize the qualities of all seven steps of the major scale form, you have all the ammunition you need to pound out your insta-song.

The qualities attached to each number are as follows:

1 major, 2 minor, 3 minor, 4 major, 5 major, 6 minor, 7 diminished

Now lets assign these chord qualities to 2 separate keys to illustrate how they work musically.

Key of C major
(1)C major, (2)D minor, (3)E minor, (4)F major, (5)G major, (6)A minor, (7)B diminished

Key of G
(1)G major, (2)A minor, (3)B minor, (4)C major, (5)D major, (6)E minor, (7)F# diminished

This can be done for any key. Observe how the order of chord qualities is consistent between the two illustrated keys.

Voila: Insta-song
Okay, here we go. You can play any set of chords from a selected key in any order and they will work together harmonically. This is because all of the notes you play are in that selected key. Hence, you can compose a song by merely selecting at random a set of numbers between 1 and 7 and applying them to a particular key. Once you have a set of chords, you merely repeat them over and over in a loop to form a chord progression.

Here is an example in the key of C major.

Random numbers = 1,4,7,2
Chords in C major = (1)C major, (4)F major, (7)B diminished, (2)D minor

If you repeat this chord progression over and over, you can hum a melody over it and, POOF, you have a song.

Here’s an example in G major:

Random numbers = 1,4,5,3,4,7
Chords in G major = (1) G major, (4) C major, (5) D major, (3) B minor, (4) C major, (7) F# diminished

All you have to do now is learn how to play these chords on your instrument of choice.

Here’s the caveat: although technically you can write a song using the insta-song technique, composition reaches far beyond this article. However, if you can become familiar with all of the triads in every key, you can quickly bolster your composition chops. It becomes easier to hear a song and know what is going on. You can more easily find the chords to any song by determining the key then playing off from the roots. It’s like music reverse engineering.

Above all, composing comes from the heart, but having a good foundation in music theory, even at a basic level, gives you the vocabulary you need to musically express what you feel in your heart.

Don’t ask me why, but lately in my heart I have felt the urge to write campfire songs about zombies. You listen to them if you want by picking up a copy from iTunes.

Good luck and have fun.

-Craig

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    This a well written and accurate article. Too many writers-of-music try to “show off” and make this concept too technical. If many more people read this, I’ll be looking for a new job.

  2. avatar robert griffin
    Posted July 23, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Over the years what I’m starting to realize what really makes a song isn’t the chord structure but what one does with those chords. The atmosphere, tempo and rhythm of a song are what really makes a song unique.

  3. avatar David King
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Then just add a sax solo and you’re good to go.

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