BackReturn Home

A Framework For Writing

We already have some idea of how to make a Melody, how to generate a Chord Progression, and how to combine the two. We can do a lot with this information alone!

However, sometimes our pieces have many nice musical ideas within them, but do not seem "to go anywhere". It feels like separate "bits" that were put together rather than one contiguous whole. No story is told. This lack of overall cohesion is usually because the underlying framework is missing! Let's explore this concept some more. If some of the following doesn't make sense the first time, please skim through it and come back to it later.


[Sideways has a fantastic video that serves as the basis for this part of the article. If you would like a more in-depth look at these same ideas, there is also this free course by The Art of Composing.]

As we saw previously, a Motif is just a small collection of Notes. The Pitch and Rhythm of these Notes gives the Motif a unique pattern. The Motif is the smallest unit of music beyond individual Notes, Intervals, and Chords. While it usually describes a fragment of a Melody, it can also imply a Harmony as both are usually interconnected. The Motif is like the seed from which everything else about the piece grows.

We can take a Motif and turn it into a larger grouping called a "Phrase". This is exactly what its name suggests. To quote the book "Fundamentals of Musical Composition" by Arnold Schoenberg:
The term phrase means, structurally, a unit approximating to what one could sing in a single breath*.
[*Italics added for emphasis]

Phrases are usually from two-to-four Measures in length. We combine two Phrases together to make a "Theme". A Theme is a complete musical idea. Like the first chapter of a story, it introduces some basic information that we need in order to understand the rest of it. How do we do combine Phrases? There are two ways...

Method 1: Period

Here, the first Phrase is called the "Antecedent Phrase", while the second Phrase is called the "Consequent Phrase". Together, they make a "Period".

In the first half of the Antecedent Phrase, we will present a basic idea, our Motif. Then, in the second half of this same Phrase, we will present some contrasting idea, something different from our Motif. We will call this contrasting idea an "Answer".

In the first half of the Consequent Phrase, we will repeat our basic idea. Then, in the second half of this same Phrase, we will present another idea that ties up the whole thing. We will call this our "Conclusion".

Notice that the beginning of both Phrases is the same, but they end differently. When it comes to Harmony, the Antecedent Phrase ends in a weaker Cadence (such as a Half or Deceptive Cadence), while the Consequent Phrase ends in a stronger Cadence (such as an Authentic or Plagal Cadence).

Method 2: Sentence

Here, the first Phrase is called the "Presentation Phrase", while the second Phrase is called the "Continuation Phrase". Together, they make a "Sentence".

In the first half of the Presentation Phrase, we will present a basic idea, our Motif. Then, in the second half of this same Phrase, we will repeat our Motif. The Harmony doesn't have to stay exactly the same, but the Melody should be pretty similar.

In the first half of the Continuation Phrase, we will create something new from our Motif by breaking it apart and recombining it in a different way (e.g.: by keeping the Rhythm but switching out the Intervals between the Notes within it, or vice versa). This is called "Fragmentation". Unlike the beginning of the Consequent Phrase of a Period, the Continuation Phrase of a Sentence doesn't simply repeat the Motif. It changes it! To quote Schoenberg again:
The distinction between the sentence and the period lie in the treatment of the second phrase...
The second half of the Continuation Phrase ties up the whole thing with a Cadence. Again, this is our "Conclusion".

In summary, two Phrases of two Bars each are combined in various ways to create a Theme. Periods and Sentences are simply different ways of writing a Theme. These aren't "hard and fast" rules that must be followed, but they do give a useful framework for writing pieces.

The same type of process that we did with the Motif inside of the Phrases can also be done with the Theme as a whole. For example, a piece of music usually introduces a Theme, reiterates it, changes it in some way, and then reintroduces it. We can represent each part of this sequence with a letter, such as "A". Every part of it that is the same is represented by the same letter, so the above pattern would be "AABA". We call this type of pattern the "Form" of the music. In other words, Form is the outline that a piece of music follows.

There are some basic patterns that the Form can take. [Here, the letter pattern of the Form is given in square brackets next to its name.]:

Binary [AB] - An idea is introduced (A), and then something completely different is given for contrast (B).

Ternary [ABA] - This is like Binary Form, but we come back to the original idea (A).

Rounded Binary [ABA'] - This is like Ternary Form, but the original idea is slightly altered when it is repeated the second time (A').

There other Forms (such as "Sonata", "Rondo", etc.). They each have their own pattern, or change in different ways.

All of this might sound complex, but it is actually very simple in essence. The thing that we want to emphasize here is something that you already know. In order for there to be a story, there has to be both repetition and change:

1. Something is presented (the "Exposition")

2. It is altered in some way (the "Development")

3. There is some kind of result (the "Recapituation")

This happens over and over again on different levels within the piece of music. It builds upon itself.

We don't have to understand all of the details behind how this can be done, but the general idea is useful to keep in mind as we Compose. It will help us to connect all of the seemingly different aspects of the piece together in a way that makes sense.

Lyrics & Song Structure

Once we add Lyrics (i.e.: words that are sung), a musical piece becomes a "Song". Writing Lyrics can be approached in two ways:

1. They can be written like poetry. After we have some text, it can be turned into a Melody by changing each Vowel within every Syllabe into a Note or a set of Notes. It is "Syllabic" when there is one Note per Syllable. It is "Melismatic" when there are multiple Notes per Syllable (i.e.: a sliding into other Notes on the same Syllable). We will probably lean more towards the Syllabic, but Songs usually contain a little of both. There are also Rhythmic considerations (e.g.: creating pauses to breathe with Rests).

2. Words can be chosen to fit an already existing Melody or Rhythm. Imagine the music as speech sounds that you cannot quite make out. What does it sound like it is saying? Remember, the voice is an instrument. One can also do "Scat Singing" (i.e.: use nonsense Syllables to Improvise over the music) in order to get a feel for what could be sung, and then decide upon the specific words to use based on these considerations.

Words may need to be changed or Melodies slightly rewritten as the Song is refined throughout these two approaches, but moving back and forth between them can help one to get the Lyrics and the music to complement quite well.

...How do we write the Song as a whole though?

Many modern composers don't pay much attention to the details that we described within the previous section. Instead, they organize the music according to what is happening within the Lyrics. Generally, Lyrics are divided into these sections:

Verse [usually 16 Measures long] - This is like a stanza of a poem or a paragraph of a story. It tells us something.

Chorus / Hook / Refrain [usually 8 Measures long] - This is a short statement that is repeated several times. It is often related to the contents of the Verse, contains the title of the Song, and is written to be memorable or catchy in order to "hook" the listener. It may or may not be emphasized in some way so as to stand out more than the Verse. Occasionally it merges with the Verse (e.g.: coming at the end of it as if it was a continuation of what was said). In some cases, it might even be some nonsense Syllables that sound nice (e.g.: "Ooo-La-La-La").

Bridge / Middle Eight [usually 8 Measures long] - This is a little interlude that is often different musically from both the Verse and the Chorus.

We can combine these sections into patterns, much like we did with Form. This is called "Song Structure". Many Songs [especially those of the Pop variety] use this familar Song Structure:


The Lyrics of each Verse are different, usually being a continuation of one another. The Lyrics of each Chorus often stay the same. The Bridge may or may not have its own unique Lyrics. All of the Lyrics of the Song will probably be related to one another in some way though. Again, we are telling a story.

There are some other sections that can be added as well:

Intro or Outro - This is a small section added to the beginning or end of a Song to introduce it or to conclude it.

Pre-Chorus / Rise / Climb - This is a small section connecting together the Verse and Chorus. Because the Chorus often stands out more than the Verse, this is used to make a smoother transition from one into the other. It helps the listener to "rise" from the Verse into the Chorus.

All of these are usually 4 Measures in length.

Like any other aspect of music, there is quite a bit of freedom when it comes to Song Structure. You can organize it in any way that you please. It doesn't have to follow the above order, sections can be added or removed, and each section can be a different number of Measures! This is just a guideline to make it easier to start "Songwriting". Songwriting often begins as an "informal" sort of activity, consisting of one playing a basic Chord Progression and Improvising some Lyrics over it. More details will appear the more deeply that we consider different aspects of the Song (e.g.: if we try to Transcribe it as Sheet Music).


No matter what type of music that we want to Compose, an understanding of Form and Song Structure can help because they provide an outline that brings everything else together. Explore them as much as possible, both within the music that you enjoy listening to and within your own Compositions. By learning about and practicing different types, we can get some ideas on how to best approach whatever it is that we want to write...and might even become inspired to write something in the first place!

Thank you for reading!