All songs are built around chords and there are standard chord progressions that are used and work well in the pop genre. Chords are named after the scale degrees; a chord is built from every other note in the scale. In the key of C, the chords that are build off the scale degrees are as follows:
I – C
II – Dm
III – Em
IV – F
V – G
VI – Am
VII – Bdim (not used much in pop music)
In pop music, both three and four chord progressions are commonly used. In four chord progressions, its typical that you start and finish on the same chord, and the chords in-between are ‘travelling’ chords.
Common four chord progressions include:
I-IV-V-I (C, F, G, C) “Basket Case” by Green Day or “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt.
I-V-IV-I (C, G, F, C) “All the Small Things” by Blink-182 or “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga.
I-V-VI-IV (C, G, Am, F). “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper and “Someone Like You” by Adele.
VI-IV-I-V (Am, F, C, G) “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne and “What If God Was One of Us?” by Joan Osbourne.
VI-V-IV-V (F, G, F, G) Linkin Park – “In The End” intro and verse. (This one sounds really dark)
You also may want to try out simpler three chord progressions, such as:
I-IV-V (C, F, G), I-V-IV (C, G, F), I-II-V (C, Dm, G) or I-VI-V (C, Am, G)
When you’re just starting out as a songwriter, use any of the chord progressions listed above. Just be sure not to use the melodies from the songs!
Melodies in pop music should be simple and catchy. When writing the melody, ask yourself, could a kid sing this back to me? If not, it’s likely too complex for a pop song. The range of the main melody line (the musical distance between the lowest and the highest note) should generally stay within one octave, as many singers prefer to stay within a set vocal range.
Lyrics can be written before or after writing a pop song, depending on the nature of the song. Writers should have a solid idea of what the song is about, and write lyrics that convey one message throughout the song. (e.g., if a song is about an apple, don’t write about an orange). Try to cover one topic or one message throughout the song. Rules are meant to broken and one of my favourite lyric writers, Kurt Cobain, wrote lyrics that seemed to make little sense. This didn’t stop millions of people around the world from loving his band’s songs. Go figure.
Though the art of writing pop songs is a craft that can be nurtured and developed, many great songs are inspirations that have come to writers in their dreams. If you’re catching a few zzz’s and hear an amazing song in your head, consider it meant to be and commit it to (digital) tape as soon as you awake. You’re one of the lucky ones! If this doesn’t happen to you, it’s back to good ol’ fashioned pen, paper and guitar grind.
Have fun writing, I look forward to hearing your new hits climb the Billboard charts!