How to Write a Pop Rock Song

by J. M. Pressley
First published: December 15, 2008

There's a lot of competition in commercial songwriting. Understanding what makes a good pop song is essential to success.

Blues, country, and gospel music collided in the early 1950's to create the new sound of rock and roll. The driving rhythm of drums and newly electrified instruments has been with us ever since. Pop rock is firmly rooted in the exuberance—and often enough the folly—of youth.

Part of rock's appeal derives from the more bawdy tradition of the blues as well as its quieter undercurrent of rebellion. Rock, however, celebrates the over-the-top, straightforward approach of its music, lyrics, and subject matter. As Keith Richards once said, rock and roll is "music for the neck downwards." The best rock music retains that edge, no matter the era in which it's written.

Rock at its best is about freedom of expression. That freedom extends to structure, at least to a point. For instance, there are some classic rules that define how a 12-bar blues tune is structured (see How to Write a Blues Song). While that's one way to write a rock song, it's by no means the only one. Fortunately, rock has been around long enough that countless songs exist as models for the aspiring songwriter. We're going to explore some of their most common characteristics.

Musical Characteristics

Many of the first rock and roll songs derived their music directly from blues and country I-IV-V patterns. Another popular, easily recognized pattern of that period is the "doo-wop" I-VI-IV-V progression (such as "Earth Angel"). Most popular tunes, whatever their progression, stick with three to four chords in a single key. Like the blues, rock relies heavily on the pentatonic scale. Pop rock is most commonly written in 4/4 time and 8-bar patterns; think simple phrasing punctuated by hard accents on the beat. The range on a pop song is typically limited—you want the average person to be able to sing along—in a key that doesn't usually feature more than a couple of flats or sharps.

Lyrical Characteristics

There are several basic lyric structures. All are based on some combination of verse (A) and chorus (B). Some feature a distinct bridge (C) as a third movement. This lyric pattern mirrors the musical progression of the song. The simplest pattern is AAA. One of the classic ballad forms is AABA, where the "chorus" serves as a melodic and lyrical change from the three verses. The Beatles, among others, used a compound variant of this in much of their early recordings, AABABA. Two prevalent styles in contemporary pop are the alternating verse/chorus pattern ABABAB and its sibling, ABABCAB. The point is that these are accepted, recognizable patterns; accessibility is a key to pop songwriting.

Putting it All Together

In general, the easiest path in pop songwriting is to develop the melody and music first, then craft the lyrics to fit the music. Using the guidelines above as a template, there are some final things to consider when trying to write a pop rock song. It's not poetry, per se; it's rock. Keep the language crisp and to the point, and stick to simple rhyme schemes such as aabb or acab in your lyrics.

Also, we've all heard the "shaggy dog" joke that goes on seemingly forever until arriving at a punchline that doesn't seem worth all that trouble. Songs aren't much different. Don't drag the intro, and try to keep the overall length ideally between three and four minutes. Your potential audience's attention span is shrinking by the year, it seems. Don't overstay your welcome.

Lastly, the single most important thing in writing pop music is the hook. With a good hook, a mediocre song becomes memorable; without it, even the most clever song will feel like that joke without a punchline. The hook is what creates that "can't get this out of my head" feeling in the listener. Whether it's a catchy riff or a clever title, it's the essence of commercial pop. As with most things in life, there's no substitute for practice.

Sources

88 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them (Luboff, Pat; 1992); Breaking In to the Music Business (Siegel, Alan; 1990); The Complete Handbook of Songwriting (Liggett, Mark; 1985); The Craft of Lyric Writing (Davis, Sheila; 1985)