If you’re bored with the chord progression you’ve come up with for your latest song, you’ll naturally want to spend some time looking for chord substitutions that sound more interesting.
But if you find that choosing new chords is a matter of random hunting, you can waste a lot of time. With a few tips, you can shorten the time it takes for you to come up with something that will suit your new melody a bit better.
“Essential Chord Progressions” is just one eBook in the 10-eBook Bundle that offers you lists of progressions to try. Read articles to help you understand how chords work, how to harmonize melodies, and how to apply chord progression formulas to your search for the perfect progression.
To help you come up with new chords that might serve that melody you’re trying to harmonize, here are 8 tips to guide you:
- Though it’s not essential, it’s good if you can identify the key of your melody when choosing new chords. Most of the chords you’ll wind up using will come from one specific key, and it makes the search for possible chords a lot easier.
- Remember that chords tend to change on the strong beats. So you’ll notice that most chords will change on beats 1 and 3 of every bar of music. Or if they’re held for longer, they’ll change at the start of every bar, or every second bar.
- To find a good substitute chord, focus on chords that include the melody note of any given moment. Let’s say that your song is in C major, your melody note is an E, and you had previously chosen a C chord as the one you want. To find a good substitute, you’ll want to choose a chord that includes an E. In C major, that means that your choices will likely be Em or Am.
- Don’t forget that chord extensions give you more substituting possibilities. In the previous tip, I mentioned a melody note E, and that the possible chords to harmonize it might be C, Em or Am. But chord extensions, which are the little numbers after the chord name (G7, Bbmaj7, Eb11, and so on) give you other possibilities to experiment with. That means that to harmonize the E note, you might also try: Fmaj7, Dm9, or G13. (To read more about chord extensions and how they work, read this article.
- If you use altered or non-diatonic chords (ones that don’t belong to your key), don’t allow your chord progression to stray too far from your melody’s key. Let’s say you toss in an Eb chord into your C major progression, like this: C Am Em Eb… Once you’ve used Eb, the temptation might be to stray off into some new key (…Eb Ab Bb Eb…). But that can confuse listeners. Most pop song progressions work well if you find a way to get back quickly to C major. So you might try this: C Am Em Eb Ab G C. Now the Eb to Ab acts as a momentary diversion, and you get back into C major by the end of the progression.
- Remember that the substitute chords you choose need to adhere to the principles of functional harmony. Just because a chord sounds “neat” doesn’t mean that it’s the one you should be using. Chord progressions, even creative ones, usually need to point to the tonic chord as an important anchor. Ensuring that many of the adjacent chords in your progressions are a 4th or 5th apart helps rivet the music into a key. Something like C F Dm G C works nicely because C to F, Dm to G, and G to C are all a 4th apart, finishing on the tonic chord.
- Think of a creative moment in a chord progression as a kind of “spice.” If you’re hunting for a chord substitution as a way of making your progression more interesting, you’ll find that one creative moment in your progression is probably all you need to make it sound innovative and fresh. So if you’ve got this as your progression: C F Dm G C, and you want to make it a bit more interesting, simply changing one of those chords may be all you need to do: C F Bb G C, for example.
- Innovation in your melody and lyrics is more important than innovation in your chords. I think searching for an interesting progression is great, and can be very worthwhile. But even more important than that is the work you put into creating beautifully innovative melodic shapes and ideas, and imaginative lyrics.
You’ll find that my eBook “Creative Chord Progressions” can give you even more ideas for substituting chords that you find aren’t doing it for you. (That eBook is free right now to purchasers of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.)
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“, is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store. Get it separately, or as part of 10-eBook Bundle, along with a FREE chord progression eBook.
Writing a great song is the dream of every songwriter, but one excellent song doesn’t necessarily point to consistency. There are many one-hit wonders, many songwriters who have been able to write something amazing, but have been unable to follow it up with another excellent song.
I write about consistency a lot on this blog, because we know the music industry is reluctant to hitch their wagon to anyone who writes a great song unless they’re able to show that excellence is a trait: you need to be able to write great songs consistently.
The new 4th edition of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook (342 pages) is out. Packed with information about chord progressions, lyrics, melodies, how to develop a songwriting process, all about copyright… everything you need to know to be a consistently great songwriter.
Songwriting excellence comes from a mixture of discipline and consistency, and usually in that order. If for you songwriting is a random process of strumming until something occurs to you, you lack discipline.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a bit of improvisation to get the creative juices flowing, and so I think a bit of mindless strumming — as part of a songwriting process — is a good thing.
But if you don’t have the discipline to apply a process to what you’re doing in your songwriting sessions, any good song you write is going to be the result of random ideas occurring to you, and that’s risky.
Risky, because it can work for you really well on one day, but let you down on many, many others.
The great thing about developing a process for your songwriting activities is that you’ve got something to do, even when ideas aren’t coming together quickly. You’ve got a set of steps, or activities, that you move through. And those steps are far more likely to produce good music than practically anything else you can do, random strumming included.
In many cultures, we’ve learned to equate the word discipline with medicine. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s necessary. I’d recommend that we get away from that notion, and think of discipline as a way to organize your knowledge.
Randomness is always going to be a part of the creative process, but if that’s all it is to you, you will never attain the consistency of excellence that gets the attention of the music industry.
If you don’t know how to apply a process to your songwriting, read this recent article I’ve written on the topic.
The sooner your songs happen as the result of a process, the more likely it will be that your latest excellent song will be followed up by another.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
There are the kind of deadlines we’re always setting for ourselves, and then there are the real ones. For songwriters, here’s the difference: A deadline comes about when you say, “This year I’m going to release a new EP”, or “This year I’m going to write 15 new songs.”
Sure, those are deadlines, but let’s face it — there usually penalties for missing those kinds of deadlines. So what if your new EP gets pushed to next year? So what if you only wrote 9 songs instead of 15?
Once you’ve got a melody, how do you know which chords will work with it? “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to do exactly that. Shows the secrets of harmonic rhythm, identifying the key of your melody, chord function, and more. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
Setting deadlines, objectives, goals… they don’t amount to much more than mere words if there isn’t a sense of urgency that comes with them.
So what’s a real deadline? That’s one for which the work must get done: you have no choice.
Film score composers know about real deadlines because they’re working with producers who need music when they say they need it.
For those kinds of deadlines, there isn’t opportunity to say, “Well, I’m not really feeling it this week… maybe next week.”
If you’re the kind of songwriter who constantly sets deadlines for which there is no penalty if they’re missed, you’re probably just making yourself feel ineffective and miserable when you miss them.
And in fact, you’re very likely to miss those kind of weak deadlines. We all do.
So how do you create a sense of “positive urgency” with your deadlines? How do you create deadlines for yourself that really work, that really show results?
Applying Pressure In a Positive Way
Well, there are actually quite a number of ways.
- You can determine to write a song as a gift for someone on their birthday. You won’t want to miss that!
- You can also tell your audiences that you’re releasing a new set of songs, and tell them when you’re doing it. A bit of public pressure would work.
- Partner up with someone who has a real deadline. You might, for instance, offer to write songs for someone’s upcoming film or theatre production (check with your local university or college for these sorts of opportunities). You won’t want to mess up their deadline.
But here’s another good way to apply gentle pressure to yourself to get something done: Blog about it. Tell your blog audience when you plan to have your new songs ready for streaming.
And then blog the process. Tell them how it’s going, and don’t make excuses. Plan a public CD-release type of event to go along with it.
The more you add to the audience’s expectations, the more urgency you’ll feel to get the job done.
What If You Still Miss the Deadline?
And if you still miss that deadline? Yes, even after that kind of pressure, missing the deadline is still possible. Happily, though, I think you’ll find your success rate considerably higher.
But in missing that kind of decline, you’ll find most of your fans will be understanding, particularly if missing these kinds of deadlines happens because “life got in the way” — sickness, family issues, new or changing job commitments. These can happen to anyone.
The point here is to not make yourself feel miserable. If you miss this kind of deadline despite the gentle pressure you’ve been applying to get your songs released on time, you may need to look at your overall sense of organization, and that’s a topic for another blog post.
How do we know that pressure like this works? Most professional writers would agree with it. A recent quote I’ve seen on this comes from urban fantasy writer Jim Butcher:”I don’t have writer’s block; I have a mortgage.”
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs.
Many songs have a noticeable climactic high point — a spot where the highest note happens. It’s often found in the chorus, because choruses in general use higher notes than verses.
Though you can find the highest note in the bridge, the high note of the chorus often comes with a higher impact. That’s because the chorus tends to use shorter, stronger progressions, and more emotional lyrics. Those things together can make a chorus’s high note sound more significant.
Get the eBook Bundle package that’s being used by thousands of songwriters to polish their songwriting craft. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle covers every aspect of good songwriting, and comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”
Rather than simply allowing a high note to occur randomly, it’s worth thinking about where to actually place it. Here’s a suggestion: placing the high note at the start of the chorus or refrain has certain benefits that can make your song more memorable and more powerful.
This is certainly not to say that songs where the highest note happens later in a chorus (or later in a verse in verse-only songs) have a problem. Many songs do this: “Imagine” (John Lennon), and “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson), for instance.
And some songs, though they obviously have a highest note somewhere, may not treat that note with any special kind of significance. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” (Ed Sheeran, Amy Wadge), just as one example, doesn’t make a big deal out of using a high note as a climactic high point.
But placing the high note at the start of the chorus (and sometimes again later in the chorus) has the advantage of setting up the chorus hook as being noticeable and structurally significant.
“Penny Lane”, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, “Firework”, “Payphone”, “Pumped Up Kicks”, “Poker Face”… many songs feature the placement of the highest note at the start of the chorus.
What are the specific benefits to placing a song’s high note at the beginning of the chorus? There are 3 main ones:
- It draws immediate attention to the chorus hook.
- It’s easier for listeners to remember the chorus hook.
- It draws a cleaner distinction between the verse and the chorus.
To make this work for you, try starting your song by working out the chorus first. This can happen any number of ways, including creating a chord progression and then working out a melody that begins high in your vocal range.
Then as you switch to working on the verse, you’ll want to keep the range below that of the chorus you’ve just written.
As you work out a chorus melody that starts with the highest notes of the song, keep in mind that the lyric will likely feature the song’s title. So your songwriting process might well start by brainstorming song titles and lines that pair well with it.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle includes several ebooks dedicated to getting your chord progressions to work even better, including the very useful “Chord Progression Formulas”, which can help you create progressions in moments.
When songs are boring to audiences, don’t expect them to be able to say exactly why they’re bored. Most people can say what they like about a good song, but are less able to say specifically what isn’t working about a bad one.
When a song sounds boring, it simply means that little or nothing is jumping out and grabbing attention. So to say that in a different way, good songs have a way of getting your attention in some way, and they’re easy to remember and fun to sing.
Looking for lists of progressions you can use in your own songs? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle has 2 main collections, plus eBooks on how to harmonize your own melodies, and more.
The notion of grabbing attention is worth thinking about in songwriting, because bad songs can also grab attention. A listener might not be able to recognize bad melodies, chords or lyrics, but that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize that it’s bad.
So simply striving to write a song that grabs attention may not get you on the right track at all.
When grabbing attention is working well, it’s usually because it is close to fulfilling an audience’s expectations. In other words, your job as a songwriter is to give listeners something close to what they are expecting, but not quite.
To get the balance right, consider the following points:
- Think of your song as being a collection of separate elements. That way, it might feel easier to write a strange lyric, let’s say, while having the chords and melodies behaving in a more traditional way. Those more traditional chords and melodies gives the audience something to cling to even if they don’t immediately understand your lyric. (A good example: Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”
- Think of “weirdness” as a subtle quality. In pop songwriting, it doesn’t take much to have a song sound different. In the balance between weird and predictable, a small touch of innovation goes a long way.
- Song components still need to partner well in songs that grab attention. Your instrumentation or backing vocal treatment, for example, might sound strange to most people, but there still needs to be a sense of partnership between everything. In other words, a weird melody needs to sound supported by the chords underneath it.
- There is a fine line between being creative and being pretentious. Be careful that you haven’t simply written something that sounds high-brow for no good reason.
- Good song structure is necessary whether you’re writing a simple song or a complex one. So always think carefully about the basic principles of good songwriting, whether you’re writing something that’s as simple as a standard 12-bar blues, or as complex as a progressive rock tone poem.
If your songs aren’t grabbing attention, they’re just adding to the noise. You should think of every song you write as being worthy of having something about it that’s attention-grabbing.
Just remember that in the pop songwriting world, we’re usually talking about subtleties.
Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks. They’ll help you polish your technique, and make you the best songwriter you can be. Comes with a Study Guide, tons of chord progressions, and information covering every aspect of how to write good music.
I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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