Jim Ittenbach's Song Writing Page

There are so many aspects of song writing and there is no single way to think about. This page covers the aspects if song writing that I have learned through the years. Do not consider this to be a complete study of the subject, but just another source of ideas that you can consider to see if they work for you.

Song Structures

  • Intro 
  • Verse 
  • Bridge 
  • Chorus 

What Comes First

One of the most frequent questions I here when someone finds out I write songs is; what comes first the music or the words. The answer is; it depends. I have certainly written many songs both ways. All songwriter's know that what really comes first is the inspiration. In my experience it is always an emotional process. Either a musical hook or chord progression aligns with a feeling I am having or lyrics that align with that emotion begin to unveil themselves. I have always felt that I do not actually write songs, but instead I am a conduit that the song travels through. I try not to force the song to exist. Instead, I let the song reveal itself to me and I try to capture its pure essence, so I can work the arrangement. Whether its the music or the lyrics that show up first, normally the process is usually (but not always) relatively quick. It just happens because I did not force it to. There are certainly people capable of creating music without being fully, emotionally involved. Jingle makers may be an example of this. There is merit to being able to do this as well, but it is not how I am able to create music.

How Arrangements Affect Songs

Once you have a strong song, getting it to sound right involves developing the arrangement. There is much more to an arrangement than is immediately visible. Of course you determine what sections belong in the song (intro, verse, chorus, bridge). You also determine how many of each section occur and whether there will be any modifications to the sections in certain parts of the song. The beauty of being a songwriter is you determine these things and your options are completely up to you. So as far as sections go what do you think of:

  • Is the Intro a different section, built off a verse, built of a chorus or built off a bridge or is there even an intro at all? 
  • If the song does not open with a chorus it is likely to have a verse next. Will a chorus follow the first verse or another verse or something else?

Some common song formulas include (but not limited to):

  • Intro, Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus
  • Intro, Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse (solo), Verse, Chorus
  • Intro, Verse, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Verse, Chorus
  • Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus

This not a definitive list of basic arrangement structure, but it is representative of many songs you have heard in your life. Twists to these structures can include multiple different bridges, additional verses, repeating choruses at the end, etc.

Another dynamic to arrangement is the layering of instrumentation. This is a very important aspect to arrangement. It adds flavor and allows the introduction of dynamics by arrangement to the music. This can be very important nowadays when the mixing and mastering process squeezes much of the natural dynamics out of music in an effort to gain volume. Simply bringing instrument in and out of the song at certain parts of the song provides a new dimension to the song. It can also help keep the music balanced. For instance if a guitar part drops out in one section, but a percussion part begins in the next section the brain will fell that there is still balance. There are so many ways you can accomplish this that it would be impossible to list them here. The point is be aware of this phenomenon and use it creatively.

Another thing to consider is the use of adding instrumentation for dramatic effect. This is very important in the chorus, which usually supports the main point of the sing both lyrically and musically.

Solos are an important part of many types of music, but what do you play them over? It could be a verse, chorus, bridge or a section written specifically for the solo. If you listen to my songs you will find most of them have either a guitar or flute solo and sometimes both. 

How Dynamics Affect Songs

We covered some of the aspects of dynamics affecting the song in the section above. The dynamics via arrangement is certainly true, but you also have dynamics created by the musician and how they play their parts. The tone and timber of an instrument is affected by how the instrument is played. Playing an instrument harder (louder) changes more than just the volume. As a guitarist I know I have many simple tools I can use to create different feels. Play harder, play softer, let the notes ring (legato) cut them short (pizzicato), palm muting, etc. When I am playing the flute I can also play louder or softer, but I can also hum while I am playing (thanks Ian and Roland) or use alternate fingering and adjust air pressure to bring the notes in tune (another Ian trick). As a vocalist the volume dynamics exist too and options like adding grit in certain sections works too. Every instrumentalist has these tools at their disposal.

Color in Music

This is another important aspect of music is its color. Color in music is created by choices in chords and harmony. Chords are created by individual multi-note instruments like guitars and keyboards or multiple single-note instruments or a combination of them. A harmony is created by combining two different notes. A chord is normally created by three or more notes. Chords are named after the note that it is center (musically) around. Every chord has a certain feel. Some of the variations include major, minor, various types of 7th, 9th and other formations. There are plenty of resources available to learn about various chord structures. The main thing to remember is they are built off the scale they are derived from and they have their own distinctive sound and feel. So although theory is great and provides a way to verbalize the more technical attributes of music, your best tool in knowing how and when to use a certain chord is your ears. Don't forget the chords and the voicings of the chords are created by the interaction of all the musical instruments playing at any given point in time.


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