Songwriting Part 8 - 3 Chords and the Truth

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

I’ve been focusing mostly on lyric writing, neglecting the poor little chord progression which is the backbone of a song. Hopefully you’ve gotten my message thus far, which is write what you know, but try to say it in a way that’s never been said before.

Hey, backbone of a song…that’s pretty good…the chords are the backbone, the lyrics are the soul, the melody is the body, the hooks and riffs are the little things that make a song unique – just like the colour of your hair and type of sneakers you wear make you different from other humans…the hip bone’s connected to the thighbone, the thighbone’s connected to the…kneebone! Oops. Sorry, got a little distracted for a moment.

Write what you know, but say it in a way that’s never been said before. Apply that principle to melody and chord structure. The same chord progressions can be found from song to song to song, and it’s up to you to make them sound like NEW chords.

Here are some pretty common problems I’ll try to address:

the lyrics are good, but the music is weak - and now that you’ve written it, you can’t hear any "new" ideas.

you find yourself writing songs that sound similar to each other, or use the same chord progressions in many of your songs.

the melody line strictly follows the chord changes - i.e. singing a C note over a C chord, then an F note over the F chord, etc. This is a very common method of songwriting, because human ears naturally pick out the "top note" (highest pitch) of any chord you play, and make you think that’s the natural melody note. (But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s always the best melody.)

"You have to know the rules before you can break them." It’s actually true. So…start with some very basic music theory. Assuming that you play an instrument, are you familiar with the key signature of all major and minor scales? Do you know the sound of a major chord as opposed to a minor chord, diminished, augmented and so on? Having this knowledge can be a huge help in writing. You waste less time searching for the tone or progression you need (and cut down on frustration).

To study chord progressions, we will use a Roman numeral for each note in a scale. It’s a common system for charting music in any style, whether classical or jazz. In the scale of C major, C is I, D is II, E is III, F is IV, and so on. Building a triad on each degree (note) of the C major scale, you would find that…

I    C E G  = C major chord

II   D F A  = D minor chord

III   E G B = E minor chord

IV  F A C  = F major Chord

V   G B D  = G major chord

VI  A C E  = A minor chord

VII B D F  = B diminished chord

VIII C E G = C major chord

This order of major, minor, minor, etc. is the same for triads of ANY major scale. These are called diatonic triads, meaning they all adhere to the key signature of the scale, in this case C major. These chords "belong" to the key of C major.

If you’re writing a song in C major, diatonic chords would commonly appear. It would be less likely that you would use chords outside of the C major scale, like Eb major or G minor.

The chords built on I, IV and V are known as primary triads, because they are the most commonly used (even in classical composition, where they constitute plagal and perfect cadences). Primary triads are the basis of 12-bar blues and are found heavily throughout modern pop and rock.

In fact, many popular songs use primary triads almost exclusively, so how come they all sound different (well, most of them)? Because while chords are the foundation for the song, it’s what you layer upon it (melody in combination with the lyrics, hooks, and arrangement) that makes each song unique.

The secondary triads of II and VI (minor) are the next most commonly found, while the VII, because it is diminished, is generally only used as a passing tone to "lead" back into a primary triad.

Combinations of the primary and secondary triads are common, such as I-VIm-IIm-V and IIm-V-I.

Diatonic triads can also be formed using minor scales. For example, A minor (harmonic):

I   A C E = A minor

II  B D F = B diminished

III  C E G# = C augmented

IV  D F A = D minor

V  E G# B = E major

VI  F A C = F major

VII G# B D = G diminished

VIII A C E  = A minor

Augmented and diminished chords are pretty rare in popular music, so when they do appear they catch your ear.

Let’s use these principles to analyze "Desperado", by the Eagles.

If we transcribe it in C major, here are the chords for the beginning of the verse…

C – C7 – F – Fm – C – G/B – Am – C/G – D

and bridge…

Am – Em – F – C – Am – F – C

C major will contain the diatonic chords Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Bdim.

The chord progression of the verse is
I, I7, IV, IVm, I, V/VII, VIm, I/V, II
while the bridge uses
VIm, IIIm, IV, I, VII, IV, I.

Elsewhere in the song you will find a IIm. So every diatonic chord of C major has been effectively used, except B diminished.

Another technique this song uses is switching the cadence of the lyrics between sections. The lyrical beat in the verse falls quite regularly, with open space between phrases. The bridge ("don’t you try the queen of diamonds boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able") fits in just a few more words per bar and leaves less space between phrases – but that little change results in a feeling of forward movement.

The Importance of Melody

Melody schmelody. A lot of contemporary "hit" songs don’t have a discernible vocal melody at all (rap, Bob Dylan, etc.), or it’s been made up on-the-fly as an afterthought, kind of wandering in and out of pitch. But the melody is generally what sticks in your head afterwards (take the annoyingly repetitive "Blue (Da Be Dee)" dance song for example).
Melodies that follow the chord progression can be predictable, because chord progressions often are – I, IV, I, V, IV, I. You don’t have to use the obvious choice for the melody note - you could start the vocal on any note. You don’t have to use one of the notes in the chord for the melody note (C, E or G when playing C major, for example). Play the melody line on your instrument, if you haven’t before, and figure out how often you land on a "common note" throughout a song.

In this example, this happens on every chord change. Even the last chord uses a common note (D is the fifth of a G chord).

melody: C D E F A G F C B A F E D
chord: C Am Bm G

Building a melody strictly above the chord progression (rhythmically) will sound mechanical if you never allow them to part ways. Keep a constant chord while the melody moves (and possibly suggests a chord change that doesn’t happen for tension), or conversely, hold a vocal note while the chords fluctuate beneath.

Your melody does not have to move in small intervals, either – C to D to E to G, etc. Try larger leaps - C, A, Bb, E, B. If you’re not limited to using "the note that’s beside the one I’m on right now", you have a LOT more options. You don’t have to go C to B or C to D.

Try out strange notes (i.e. the II, VII or VII or those not even in the scale) at the beginning of verses and choruses. The new sound - dissonant, jazzy, or whatever, might be enough to trigger an entire melody.

Once you have a "keeper" melody, you can use different chord progressions underneath it. e.g. the first line minor, second line major.

vocal note    C     D    F    A    G
chords line 1  C           Dm        Em
chords line 2  Am        Bb         G

The Importance of Variety

Contrast within a song keeps the listener’s attention – so make each part of your song just slightly different from the other.

Some ways to do it…

"Lift" the melody in the chorus to a higher pitch. This low verse, high chorus technique is pretty standard because it works. The very highest note in the song is usually found in the climax of the bridge.

Change the rhythm between verse and chorus, in the vocal timing or chord progression (or both). Vocally, this might be as simple as leaving lots of "space" between phrases in one section, and not in the other.

The chord progression of the verses and the chorus are almost always different. If you do not use different chords between these two sections, you must find another way to draw attention to your chorus and give it the necessary climax. Try to start your verse, chorus, and bridge each with a different chord so that you are forced to write something (even slightly) different. For example, use the I chord for the chorus, the IV or V chord for the verse, and maybe the relative minor for the bridge.

By the way, copyright doesn’t apply to chord progression in the same way it does to melody and lyrics. You can use the chord progression of an existing song, and still create an original work. However, you must be sure that your song does not infringe in other areas – like rhythm or riff. Think of the basic chords that form the intro to "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones, and you’ll see what I mean.

Modulation. This means changing the key by raising or lowering it slightly in mid-song to add drama or interest. For example, in "Joy to the World" (Jeremiah was a bullfrog…), the last repeated chorus is raised from D major to E major so the repetition doesn’t become stale. A simple step-up modulation is easy to do near the end of songs, but don’t use it all the time – once is interesting, too many can be redundant.

Modulation can also be used between sections of a song. It’s harder to create smooth progressions when you’re switching back and forth, so it’s rare (and when a writer is able to pull it off, very effective).

Jann Arden is a genius at it.

First check out "Good Mother" from "Living Under June" (let’s use the key of Eb major).

The verse/chorus sections are basically

Eb – Bb – Cm – Ab (I, V, VIm, IV)

A Bb (V) chord leads into the instrumental break, which is the same progression, except now in C major:

C – G – VIm – IV (I, V, VIm, IV)

Another Bb chord creates a V-I progression leading smoothly back into the original key of Eb major. A very simple progression, yet the modulation of the bridge really makes it soar.

Then listen to "Could I Be Your Girl" (from the same album).

The intro & verse begin on the I (let’s say A major), and proceeds to the IIIm to start the chorus for a very distinct change.

Following the second chorus, the solo (instead of returning to the A chord as your ear expects) creeps up a semitone into A#m. Returning to the verse, she modulates another semitone to finish up in B major.

Breaking the Rules

If this is child’s play so far, I dare you to check out some Kate Bush. "Wuthering Heights", despite its unorthodox chord progressions and rhythm structure, was a #1 hit in the U.K. (She knows the rules so well she broke every single one of them.)

Key of A major
verse (4/4): I – VImaj - V – IIImaj (repeat 3x)

Key of Db major
(2/4) V
(4/4) IIm7 – IV – IIIsus4
IIm7 – IV – III sus4
(2/4) IIm7 - IV
(4/4) IIIsus4

IV – IIm7 – V7
(3/4) I – IV
(2/4) V7
(3/4) I – IV
IV – IIm7 – V7
(3/4) I – IV
(2/4) V7
(3/4) I – IV

Bridge - key of A major again
(2/4) I
(4/4) VIIbmaj – V – III etc.

This example illustrates that while many songs incorporate only the seven diatonic chords of the key, you are not limited to using them – and in fact, incorporating chords that fall outside of the key signature can make a progression interesting, unusual or more beautiful.

Trigger new melodies
  • purposely start writing in a key you don’t normally use. Or, if you normally write in a major key, try a minor one.
  • use the third of the chord as the bass note. For example, an E under a C major chord. It adds a bit of colour without completely changing your progression. The sixth under also works well (C/A).
  • try new time signatures.
  • shake up your schedule. If you’re a morning person, why not try writing at 7:00 a.m.?
  • practice finding new "paths". If you’re trying to rewrite a 4-bar line that begins on A and ends on E, the boring option is to do a walk up B C D E. But there are infinite possibilities to cover that gap of a fifth! Remove the lyrics and come up with 10 different melodies using unusual intervals and rhythms. You may find the problem was with the lyrics and a simple phrasing or word change will work with the new melody line.
  • Use both major and minor keys in a song, e.g. minor for the verse and major for the chorus. To find the relative minor of a key, move three semitones down (three frets). E.g. for "A major", the relative minor is F#.
  • Write a chord progression and melody for someone else’s lyrics. Visit the songwriting section, poetry websites or books, find some words that stir an emotion, and force yourself to write a song for them. It’s harder to fall into old habits when the words are entirely new to you. (Of course, if you write a song you want to keep, you’ll have to see if you can get the copyright holder’s permission to use the words!)
Hope this gives you a little start. I will attempt to address some more advanced problems next issue.

P.S. I appreciate all your feedback - especially hearing about your successes!

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published February 2000.

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