How to Write Motown Songs

By Christopher Morse ; Updated September 15, 2017

Things Needed

  • Recordings:
  • "(Love is Like a) Heatwave" and "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas
  • "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Ooh, Baby Baby" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
  • "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You) and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye
  • "My Girl" and "The Way You Do the Things You Do" by the Temptations
  • "Where Did Our Love Go?" and "Baby Love" by the Supremes
  • Materials
  • Song lyrics
  • Sheet music for each song (optional)
  • Skills
  • Basic skills on piano or guitar: knowledge of chord progressions, ability to play rhythms, major and minor chords, and melodies in a variety of keys.

Between 1960 and 1970 Motown Records produced dozens of the biggest and most enduring pop hits of all time and created the "Motown Sound." At the core of that sound were great songs by Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Marvin Gaye, and others. To learn how to write Motown songs, listen to them and learn them. The song structures and chord progressions are fairly simple, but the possibilities are endless.

Rhythm and Tempo

Listen carefully to the rhythm and tempo of all 10 songs.

Play along with the songs, following the sheet music or playing by ear. Practice until you can play each rhythm part with ease.

Notice rhythmic similarities and differences among the songs. All Motown songs, even the ballads, feature a solid, danceable rhythm.

Consider the tempos. The ballads are not so slow and the up-tempo tunes are not that fast.

Mix and match rhythms you have been practicing to create new ones.

Lyrics

Listen to the lyrics of each song. Notice which words are emphasized, whether with high notes, duration, or repetition.

Notice how singers sustain and manipulate some words and use others to create clipped or percussive sounds.

Read the lyrics out loud, as in conversation. Notice that the syllables you stress are also stressed by the singers.

Pick out the most striking lyric lines in each song. Notice that all are simple, direct, plain-language statements.

Notice how every word contributes to the song’s theme.

Write new lyrics that work with the tempo and feel of a rhythm you created.

Melody

Listen to the melodies of all 10 songs.

Look for patterns and variations in the melodies. Notice which songs repeat the melody of the first line in line two, and which do not.

Play the melody line of each song. Notice which notes are repeated or alternated.

Look for starts and stops in each melody. Note areas where the rhythm supports the melody and where the rhythm and melody work together for emphasis.

Write a new melody to accompany your new rhythm and lyric. The melody should emphasize the syllables in the lyric that you would stress when speaking.

Tip

Spend serious time learning these rhythms and coming up with your own variations.

Motown lyricists wrote beautifully about love, deceit, joy, and loneliness without getting wordy or preachy. Try to mimic this approach.

"Dancing in the streets," "how sweet it is," "ooh, baby baby" and "I heard it through the grape vine" were well-known phrases before they became song titles. Giving a new twist to a current phrase or cliche is a great way to find song ideas.

The sound of a word can be more important than its meaning. Listen to what Smokey Robinson did with "ooh."

You need a hook to make a hit. The hook is the part that grabs your attention and gets stuck in your head, usually a repeated chorus.

Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye often co-wrote with other musicians. Collaboration can make the difference between a good idea that fizzles and a spectacular song.

Warning

If you don’t have these recordings, buy them. Downloading songs for free is theft.

The songs referred to are copyrighted material. Reusing them in whole or in part will get you into trouble. Let this music inspire and educate you. Then create something new.

About the Author

Christopher Morse, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, has written promotional and cover copy for more than 5,000 books over the past 18 years, as well as articles, reviews and book-length research projects. He studied political theory at Hunter College, where he was a member of the Honors Program.