Simple Song Design Using Big Star's "Thirteen"

Big Star’s “Thirteen” could have been written today, and in fact you can use it as a model for your next song.


“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle now includes a free copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.”

Big Star - "Thirteen"I was recently reminded of the band Big Star recently on the Indie Rock Cafe website. I randomly clicked on the track “Thirteen“, from Big Star’s debut album “#1 Record”, and was blown away. If you didn’t know the song, you could believe that it had been recently released by an up-and-coming group – it sounds that fresh. In fact, it sits at #406 of the Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time.

I’ve been on a kick lately on this blog about the beauty and importance of simplicity in pop music. Simplicity is what makes music connect to the heart of the listener. “Thirteen” (written by bandmates Alex Chilton and Chris Bell) has a  poignant powerful lyric, accompanied perfectly by an uncomplicated song design.

Simplicity usually translates to staying power in the arts. While many songs on the Rolling Stones list are fantastic but dated, “Thirteen” is anyone’s dream song, and if you told an unknowing listener that it had been written yesterday, it could be easily believed.

If you want to create a simple song design using “Thirteen” as your model, here are some of the characteristics you should make note of. First, give the song 2 or 3 listens.

  • “Thirteen” is in the key of Bb major. The verse is in two parts, with the first part of the melody sitting in the midrange, from F up to D’, accompanied by two chords: Bb and Eb. The second part of the melody sees the accompanying harmonies move to G minor (Gm – Cm), pulling back to Bb major as the melody comes to an end. So you get what sounds like a beautifully simple journey from a major key to its relative minor and back.
  • There is a slight climactic moment as the melody comes to a close, moving up to the high D before moving down to end. In that sense, the melody is a long U-shape, with the middle section in G minor before returning to Bb major. The little side-journey toward G minor provides enough tonal contrast to make the listener feel that they’ve been on a short musical journey.
  • The bridge section is instrumental. Often, bridges are meant to expand on and answer lyrical questions from the verse. Placing lyric in the bridge often powers it up, but in this case, power just isn’t necessary. The gentle guitar bridge provides a new harmonic direction as it starts in G minor, pulling quickly toward F, before returning to the opening key of Bb major.

One of the ways that “Thirteen” achieves such a melancholy characteristic is the importance of downward-moving melodic phrases. Melodic lines that move down often get translated in the brain as a kind of sigh, and it works very well in this song. It’s a great reminder of how melody, lyrics and harmony all work together to support each other.

If you want to give the verse-verse-bridge-verse format a try, feel free to post a link below to let us have a listen.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle$95.70 $37.00 (and get a copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro“ FREE.)

Posted in Song Analyses and tagged , , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.