Unalloyed genius, extraordinary artistry, and a prolific career spanning decades make Stevie Wonder one of the most admired and respected names in American music. Here is a guide to writing a song like the legend himself.
Wondering what Stevie’s secret is?
Stevie Wonder’s music is a love-child between all his greatest influences–Pop, Pazz, Motown, Soul, and Blues–the perfect genes.
The truth is, there’s no precise formula for writing songs like Stevie. He’s irreplicable. And if you were to ask him, he would probably tell you not to waste time sounding like him–just try and sound like you!
In any case, we’ve gathered some iconically-Stevie tricks and tips that you can weave through your songwriting. Who knows, if you’re successful, maybe you and Stevie will have a love-child [song] of your own.
Write hooks like Stevie Wonder.
Some of Stevie’s most famous and memorable songwriting accomplishments are his catchy hooks. He has this way of using very few notes, with just the right amount of repetition and a hell of a lot of groove. Adding a hook-a-la-Stevie to your song could give it exactly the life and the light that it’s missing.
Let’s take one of Stevie’s iconic hooks–the introduction to Superstition. Like many of his other melodies, this song’s hook plays on the pentatonic scale.
Pentatonic scales are perfect for hooks because their sound is simple, accessible, and easy to work with. They can either be major or minor. For example, the hook in Superstition is based on an Eb minor pentatonic scale:
A very common variation on the minor pentatonic is what we call the blues scale. This has one extra note, known as the blue note. This note immediately makes the hook or melody sound spicier and jazzier.
For a detailed tutorial on playing this hook, check out this video. If you want to use this sound in your songs, try improvising with a minor pentatonic scale in any key. Throw a backing track of a beat on in the background, and you’ll be grooving on her faster than you can shout, “isn’t she lovely!”
Use chord progressions like Stevie Wonder.
Wonder is the master of taking familiar chord progressions from popular music and giving them a dark and quirky twist–one which ties his music inextricably to the jazz tradition.
Take the standard four-chord progression, I-vi-IV-V, for example. It’s been the go-to in thousands of pop songs over the last hundred or so years. In Stevie’s song Sir Duke, he takes this progression but replaces the IV with a bVI7 chord.
|Regular progression||I = B major||iv = G# minor||IV = E major||V = F# major|
|Stevie’s progression||I = B major||iv = G# minor||bVI7 = G7||V = F# major|
This also creates a chromatic movement in the bassline, which creates an edgy sound with more tension. And more tension means greater resolution and relief.
Another classic Stevie sound is the I-I7-IV-iv chord progression.
This is a unique progression because it is notoriously non-diatonic. That is, every second chord uses notes outside the root note’s scale.
You’ll also notice a chromatic line here, which gives this chord progression mysterious and suspenseful energy, like in Stevie’s hit Evil. Here is a breakdown of the chords, with the chromatic line in yellow:
|3 or b3||E||E||A||Ab|
|7, b7 or 6||B||Bb||E||D|
And of course, Stevie is the king of key changes!
It’s hard to look past his complex and effortlessly executed modulations. There are no dramatic string lines or intense atonal jazz stuff. He has this way of taking you on a journey through different keys without you noticing where you went or how you got there. You just arrive, and it feels good.
In his classic hit Overjoyed, Stevie modulates using subtle variations of ii-V-I progressions, creating delicate voice-leading in the bass line. For example, the first progression in the song stays diatonic to Eb major:
The next progression then replaces the second two chords with a sort of ii-V-I variation into C major:
In this context, the F/A functions as a Dm7 and the G/B as a G, leading you smoothly into a new tonal center of C major. This is a modulation by a minor 3rd, which is a tricky interval to pull off!
Use the formulas above to practice applying these harmonic tricks to your own songs. See if there are any moments where you could replace a chord, add in a modulation, or even create a passing note or phrase with some Stevie-esque colors and spices.
Write lyrics like Stevie Wonder.
If you want to write lyrics like Stevie, you need imagination and honesty. Imagination is what transports you to a world beyond time and space. Honesty is what makes you believe in and fall in love with Stevie’s songs.
In your mind’s eye
“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn’t mean he lacks vision”. These are Stevie’s famous words–and they weren’t even lyrics! But they couldn’t ring truer about Stevie’s writing. His lyrics paint a vivid picture, transporting the listener through time and space.
In his song Saturn, Wonder describes abandoning earth for a different planet, and describes how it looks and feels in great detail:
and orange snow
People live to be two hundred and five
Going back to Saturn where the people smile
Don’t need cars, ’cause we’ve learned to fly
Just to live to us is our natural high”.
As a writing exercise, choose one of the planets in our solar system and brainstorm ten of its features. Think about what the sensory experience of being on this planet might entail. You could take it in one of two directions–a desire to escape the pain of earth to another world or a song that praises and appreciates Earth in comparison to other places in our cosmos.
Preach it to the people
Most importantly, Stevie never tried to be fancy or elaborate in his lyrics. He never shied away from words like love, happiness, God, or friends. This made his voice as an artist very relatable and his music an expression of the universal human experience.
Stevie also asks lots of questions in his songs to make the listeners feel like the artist is in dialogue with them. For example:
- Why did those days ever have to go? (I Wish)
- Why are you people so cold? (Saturn)
- Why can’t it be everlasting? (If it’s magic)
Want to practice writing lyrics like Stevie? See if you can write freely for five minutes, with one rule–only write questions. This is a powerful exercise for allowing your inner struggles and torment to surface. You will surely find that your questions are similar to your friends and family and even reflect humanity’s shared battles.
This is what songwriting is all about.
Take a wander down the path.
Immersing yourself in other artists’ music is a profound way of developing your musicianship. There is no shame in imitation, not if it comes with respect and honesty.
Learning from musical legends like Stevie is the only way music continues to evolve and grow. So take a stroll through his songs in the key of life and see where you end up.