How to Write a Folk Song | Writing Folk Music
Folk may be one of the oldest genres of music around, but it’s here to stay. Folk has seen a recent upsurge into mainstream music and though it might not be the first genre you think of writing, folk songs are a great choice for beginner songwriters.
Compared to others, Folk is a relatively undemanding genre of music, making it ideal for novice songwriters or lyricists wanting a ready-made structure to embellish. These songs typically follow the same structure and chord patterns, and folk’s simplicity is what makes it striking.
Folk music is steeped in tradition and has long been used as a means to speak out about political, social, and personal issues. If you’re looking to write a song from the heart and get your voice heard, writing a folk song is an original way to do just that.
What makes a folk song?
By dictionary definition, a folk song is: “passed by oral tradition from one singer or generation to the next, often existing in several versions, and marked generally by simple, modal melody and stanzaic, narrative verse.”
People often think folk music and country music are the same thing. There’s some truth in this, as country music evolved from folk and the two genres share lots of crossovers. But folk music has one distinguishing trait; its focus on folklore and moral teachings.
Folk is described as the “music of the people,” and has existed since the early 19th century. Folk songs are often a lot less commercialised than country music because folk songs aren’t solely written as means of entertainment, but to record memorable events and to pass on moral teachings.
Folk song topics
For centuries, folk music was relied on as a way of passing down traditions through generations. In the early days of folk, communities would write songs to document historical events or social teachings to keep a record of significant events.
Folk music has changed a lot since its origin in the 19th century, but a lot of traditional folk topics have stayed at the heart of the genre. Folk song topics often include:
- National culture
- The plight of the people
- The rural landscape
- Praising heroes
- Social issues
Folk song structure
Folk is a very traditional type of music and tends to be quite simple in terms of structure, chord progressions, and melody. The structure of a folk song can vary a lot depending on the sub-genre of folk song you’re writing, but these are the two most common formats:
- Structure 1: A song with four-line verses where the 2nd line rhymes with the 4th line, and a chorus comes between the verses.
- Structure 2: A one-part song format, where the song is structured the same as above but with the chorus removed, and a repeating line is added to the end of each verse instead.
Folk songwriters often opt for structure 1, because repeating choruses are more catchy and engaging for the listener. Another trick to keep your audience entertained is to add a bridge after alternating choruses to keep your song sounding fresh.
To decide which structure to use for your song, you might want to experiment with a few different formats to work out what works best with your topic, melody, and chord progressions.
How do you begin to write a song?
When it comes to songwriting, there are four main components you’ll need to consider: your melody, your lyrics, your song structure, and your chords. Writing your melody is a good place to start when creating a folk song because it’s the baseline that you can keep drawing back to for guidance and inspiration during the songwriting process.
To find your melody and start writing your folk song, try these four steps:
Step 1: Find your topic
Finding your melody is the first step to writing a folk song, but before you do that, you’ll need to find your song’s topic or message. A piece of folk music always has a strong story to tell, so you’ll need to brainstorm ideas for what yours will be.
Think of experiences you’ve had, opinions you want to express, or things that are going on in the world right now that you want to speak out about. Make notes of your ideas on your phone or in a notebook and carry them with you on your day-to-day errands, adding to the list whenever a thought strikes you. These thoughts will eventually form your lyrics and verses.
Step 2: Find your tune
Now that you have an idea for your song, you can start to find your tune. Look at the ideas you jotted down and think about what emotion and tone your song is trying to create. Try humming or singing some of your phrases as though they’re lyrics and experiment with what tempo, rhythm, and beat best suits the message of your song. For more inspiration, try listening to other folk artists and how their melodies sound.
Step 3: Experiment with instrumentals
You’ve done some experimenting, now it’s time to start creating your melody. You can do this with an instrument or by using your voice.
If you play the guitar or piano, run through some chord progressions you’re familiar with, and see what mood and tone they evoke and how this suits your song idea. Try mixing it up with some different chords and experiment with different keys, scales, and rhythms to see what you come up with.
If you’re using your voice to create your melody, run through some scales and see what tune they create. Try singing some random notes and experimenting with flat, high, and low notes to see what suits the mood and tone of your piece – you’ll eventually come across your melody, even if it’s through trial and error.
What is an example of a folk song?
One of the most famous folk-rock singers is Bob Dylan, whose songs include “Lay Lady Lay” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Folk songs can vary hugely in terms of sound and style, however, because folk has lots of different sub-genres including traditional, bluegrass, folk metal, and folk-punk (among many others).
How to write folk song chords
You don’t need to be a skilled instrumentalist to write a folk song – but writing your melody with an instrumental accompaniment can make finding your tune a lot easier.
String instruments are at the heart of folk music and guitars feature on most of the genre’s tracks. Chord progressions are an important part of folk songs and go a long way in creating a melody and beat. While there’s no standard folk chord progression you can learn, there are some typical chord patterns that are used time and time again in folk songs, such as:
- Folk chords are usually played in simple triadic structures
- Any songs that are sung in a major key usually feature lots of minor chords
- Folk music is usually diatonic and only uses 7 chords (from the major or minor scale)
- Folk songs don’t feature many chord changes
- Unlike other music genres, folk chord progressions use the first chord frequently
How do you write a good verse for a song?
Most songs, regardless of the genre, set out to tell a story. Folk music is especially focused around storytelling and every verse and lyric is carefully crafted to create strong imagery and tell a tale.
To write a good verse for a song, you should focus on your lexical choices, structure, and flow. Here are some tips to write a good folk verse:
- Create strong imagery – metaphors and similes go a long way in setting the scene and creating a powerful verse. Try to find a balance between imagery and concrete descriptions, otherwise, your song might become too intangible.
- Build anticipation – start your verse in a low key and build to a higher key toward the end of your verse – this will build anticipation and suspense.
- Raise a new point in each verse – to keep your song moving, create a new scene, or raise a new point in each verse so your lyrics don’t become repetitive or boring.
- Choose your best lyrics and repeat them – if you have a short, catchy melody or lyric that sounds good, repeat it in the first line of each of your verses – this is an effective, but not repetitive, way to make your song memorable.
Folk may be one of the oldest genres of music, but that doesn’t mean it’s outdated. This genre has seen a resurgence in popularity in the past few years, and writing a folk song is a great option for lyricists wanting to create a catchy track addressing politics or societal issues, or for a songwriter who wants a pre-made structure or chord pattern to follow.
How are folk songs created?
Traditionally, folk songs were created by families, church musicians, or villagers and passed down through generations. The songs weren’t recorded or written down in the early years of folk; they were played and memorised as part of oral tradition and would be reviewed by the community, who could change and adapt the piece after it was performed.
Have you written a folk song? Leave a link in the comments and we’ll check it out!