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5 Elements of the Perfect Ukulele Song
A well-written song generally has five major elements:
- Melody: A melody is a tune that defines a vocal line or instrumental riff. Whether you're writing a song with lyrics or a ukulele instrumental, you'll need a memorable melody.
- Harmony: In songwriting, harmony generally takes the form of a chord progression. A song's melody and chords play off of each other, each supporting the other. A good songwriter knows how to balance both melody and harmony. This means you'll need to find chords that sound good together on ukulele.
- Rhythm: Rhythm can be the most memorable part of a song. Rhythmic ukulele strumming patterns are just as important as the chord progression you're strumming.
- Lyrics: Well-written song lyrics can turn a decent pop song into a smash hit. Some songwriters make lyric writing the focal point of their songwriting process. Others consider lyrics less integral to their own songs.
- Structure: Most song structures alternate between verses and choruses. One of the most common structures is intro / verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / chorus, but you can write a great song using a variety of formats.
How to Write a Song on Ukulele
To write your own ukulele song, start simply and layer in complexity as you go.
- Use standard ukulele tuning. When writing your first ukulele song, use the standard tuning of G-C-E-A. Standard tuning enables you to use traditional fingering as you write your song. Also note that while the G-C-E-A tuning produces a C6 chord with its open strings, you certainly aren't limited to the key of C. All of the major keys and minor keys are available in standard ukulele tuning. The melodies you compose, and the chords you place under them, will determine the key of your song.
- Improvise a chorus melody. You don’t need to know advanced music theory to generate great song ideas. In fact, many songwriters start by improvising. Try improvising a chorus melody. You can either pick out the notes on the ukulele, or you can sing them into a smartphone recorder. You'll use this vocal melody as the foundation for your new song.
- Find the appropriate chords. Once you have a melody, you'll need to support it with chords. If you know a little theory, this process is fairly easy. If not, you can find your way to a satisfying sound through trial and error. As a general rule, the best ukulele songs embrace a mixture of major chords and minor chords; some even use diminished and augmented chords. For instance, if you're composing a song using the G major scale, you might naturally select G major for your first chord. But rather than follow that G chord with another major chord (such as D major or F major), try changing the tonality to minor. An E minor or B minor chord might provide a bit more variety to your chord progression. Invest in a ukulele chord chart, which diagrams basic chord shapes.
- Use a key card. Some ukulele players use a tool called a key card, which indicates which chords work well together. A key card highlights the most common chord progressions (like C-F-G or D-A-Bm-G) and gives you ideas for creating your own chord progressions. Some ukulele key cards feature tablature and chord diagrams that show how to play those progressions as easy ukulele chords on a standard fretboard.
- Write your verses. Once you have your chorus melody and chords, you'll need to move on to the rest of the song. Writing verses tends to be the next step. Note that sometimes a first verse leads directly into a chorus, but some songwriters delay the chorus and instead go to a pre-chorus or even the second verse. The first time you write a song on your ukulele, you may be tempted to use the same chord progression for all sections of your song. As you get more comfortable, challenge yourself. If your chorus is in C major, try putting your verses in a different but related key, such as A minor or G major.
- Add lyrics. Once you have the melodies and chord progressions for each section of your song, you're ready to write lyrics. Be flexible—not every pair of lines has to end in a rhyming couplet. The most effective lyrics have unified themes and clear images; the rhymes are secondary.
- Pick a song title. Most singer-songwriters don't name their compositions until the very end of the process. You might pull the song title from a memorable lyric, but there's no wrong way to name a song.
You can also mix up the songwriting process by putting a capo on your ukulele, trying an alternate tuning, or using a different sized instrument like a soprano or baritone ukulele.
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Grab a MasterClass All-Access Pass, stretch out those fingers, and get your strum on with a little help from the Jimi Hendrix of ‘ukulele, Jake Shimabukuro. With some pointers from this Billboard chart topper, you’ll be an expert on chords, tremolo, vibrato, and more in no time.