Peter Gabriel - Kate Bush

Chord Ideas for Connecting a Verse to a Chorus

There are a few important spots during a song, moments that serve as connectors between one section and the next. What happens during those connecting moments will either enticingly pull the listener along and make them want to keep listening, or that moment will fail to do its job, and we feel a temporary “lull” in musical energy.

One of the most crucial spots is the moment where the verse connects to the chorus. The biggest factor in a successful connection between these two sections is the chord progression: how does the end of the verse connect to the start of the chorus?

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionIf you like to start chords by working out the chords first, you need to know the benefits and potential pitfalls. “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” shows you the step-by-step processes that can help make chords-first a winning technique. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle.

There are other factors as well, but those tend to relate in some way to chord choice. For example, how the bass moves from verse to chorus, and how the melody connects, are both important factors. But both of those factors relate strongly to chords.

So let’s look at some possible chord choices for connecting a verse to a chorus. Some are typical, some a little less common, but hopefully they’ll stimulate your musical imagination

  1. Dominant (V) to Tonic (I). Ending a verse on a dominant chord (i.e., a V-chord) makes for a very smooth transition. At the end of a musical section, a V-chord going anywhere other than I will sound like a surprise. Example: “All You Need Is Love” (Lennon & McCartney)
  2. Subdominant (IV) to Tonic (I). There’s something really nice about this transition, because the IV-chord doesn’t have the same intense need to go to the I chord. So ending the verse on a IV-chord gives a moment of pleasant indecision in the progression… a “what’s-going-to-happen?” kind of feel. Example: “Someone Like You” (Adele)
  3. Dominant (V) in a minor key, to Tonic (I) in the parallel major key. This is interesting, because it means you’ll create a minor key verse (F# minor, let’s say), ending on a V-chord (C#). But then instead of starting the chorus on F#m, you start on F# (the major version), and continue your chorus in major. That key relationship, where you switch from F# minor to F# major, is called parallel or tonic major. Example: “Happy Together” (Garry Bonner, Alan Gordon). In this song, the chorus actually flirts with minor (giving a minor V and a borrowed chord bIII, but you get the idea.)
  4. Tonic (i) in a minor key, to Supertonic (ii) in relative major. In this example, you do a verse in a minor key. Then for the first chord of your chorus, you play a iv-chord of that minor key, but immediately switch your chord choices to be in relative major. That iv-chord is “reinterpreted” as a ii-chord in relative minor. The best example of this is Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up“. Here’s the progression a few chords either side of the change from verse to chorus: Cm  Eb  Bb  Cm ||Fm  Eb/G  Ab  Fm…
  5. Tonic (I) to submediant (vi). In this one, you do a typical major key verse, and then, while staying in major for the chorus, you simply start that chorus on a vi-chord. Listen to Eagles’ “Take It Easy” for a good example: G  D  C  G  D  C  G ||Em7  C  G…

Apart from the first example above, which is very predictable, the others each have their own “personality.” They provide a brief moment of musical interest, and like any moment of interest in music, it will help entice your audience to keep listening.

To create your own interesting connector between verse and chorus, start by identifying the verse chord you want to end with, and then a chorus chord you want to start with. From there, move back in your verse and forward in your chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Pianist - Songwriter

Songwriting: Changing Key Within a Verse

Most of the time, a song will start and end in the same key without ever changing. But once in a while, it can be interesting for the audience if they hear the music move off to some new key, even if that key change is just temporary. In music theory terms, it’s called “modulation.”

So let’s say that you’d like to spice up your verse by changing key. One possible scenario would be to move to a new key, but then move back to the original one before hitting the chorus:

Verse that changes key

There are a few reasons why you might like to change key. One good circumstance would be if the chord progression you’re using is a very simple, basic one; doing the same progression in a new key makes it sound like you’ve come up with something new, when in fact you’re just repeating the old progression in that new key.

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So let’s say you’ve got this progression:

C  F  C  F  C  F  Am  G (I  IV  I  IV  I  IV  vi  V)

And lets assume that you play each chord for two beats. You get something that sounds like this:

To make a full verse, you’re going to want to repeat that, and possibly add even more to it. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and I’ve often said on this blog that I think songwriters sometimes worry too much about repetitive chord progressions.

But if you’re looking for a way to make that progression sound fresh and new, try moving up into a new key at least temporarily. Which key you choose can be up for some experimentation. I’ve often liked the minor-3rd relationship: moving it up into Eb major, and then moving it back down to the original key again:

From C major to Eb major

…which sounds like this:

As you can hear, the kind of modulation here is a so-called abrupt modulation, in the sense that there was no attempt to alter the chord before the key change to smooth out the transition to the new key. I kind of like the abrupt nature of the modulation.

One of the reasons I like the change to Eb major is the fact that the Eb major chord has a note in common with the C major chord, so that helps to make a connection between the old and new key.

It also works to switch to F major, though I find it a bit less satisfying, mainly because the last chord of the F major section is a C, which is the first chord of the C major section. That means you get two C major chords in a row:

From C major to F major

…sounding like this:

Anther option you might want to consider for making a key change within a verse: Switch from minor to major. This works well if you use the relative major/minor relationship. So let’s say that you use the progression above, but in C minor rather than C major: Cm  Fm  Cm  Fm  Cm  Fm  Ab  G. You can then use the Eb progression from above as the nice contrasting middle section.

The examples I’ve given above make for a 12-bar verse, and so if you want a 16-bar verse, you might consider creating a 4th phrase that connects well to your chorus. Or, when you come back to your original key, you can change that progression to be something longer — different from the original progression.

Switching key in the middle of a verse works best if you consider the following:

  1. Use a simple progression if you want to simply repeat the progression in a new key.
  2. Don’t feel you have to use the same progression transposed. You can move to a new key and then come up with something completely different.
  3. There’s no need to switch back to the original key for the chorus, but it can feel a bit unbalanced to move to new key in the middle of your verse and stay there for the chorus.
  4. Switching key in a verse can be just one part of several key changes that happen in your song. You can then move to a new key again for the chorus, and move up for the bridge, etc. But the more you modulate, the stronger the need to keep the progressions simple.
  5. Don’t use this technique a lot! It’s something you want to use sparingly. Listeners like feeling rooted in a key. It’s why I’d favour moving back to the original key before hitting the chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Modulation (Key Change) and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Songwriting notepad

Identifying the Principles That Guide Good Songwriting

In order to help students fully understand a topic, teachers will identify a list of principles that strive to explain as much as possible with as few words as possible. We teachers of music do that very thing: we study as large a collection of music as possible, and then come up with a few statements that hope to explain how most — not likely all — of those songs work. Those statements are principles.

With regard to songwriting we sometimes toss the word “rules” around, but it’s almost never about rules; guiding principles are a much more relevant way of comparing and understanding music. But how do we identify the principles that guide the writing of songs?

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In songwriting, a principle is identified when we notice many or most songs with a similar basic trait or characteristic, a trait that is almost necessary to the success of music in general. That may seem easy, but in fact it can be a difficult challenge, because the characteristic might be working almost entirely in the background. And it’s got to be the kind of trait that almost all songs, regardless of sub-genre, display to varying degrees.

Here’s an example. We might notice that some songs start in a minor key for the verse, and then switch to major for the chorus. Not many songs do the opposite: you don’t notice many songs that start in major and then switch to minor.

You might be tempted to say something like “Good songs start in minor and switch to major.” But of course we know that’s wrong. We know that many, probably most, songs start and end in the same key. But there’s obviously something pleasantly enticing about a song that starts in minor and switches to major, so there must be a principle involved.

The actual principle in play that makes changing from minor to major work is this: In general, the energy of the end of a song should EQUAL OR EXCEED the energy at the beginning.

There are other things we can say about musical energy that shine a brighter light on that principle. For example, we know that even though musical energy increases as a song progresses, it rarely increases in a straight line. It usually moves up and down, but higher toward the end than the beginning.

That statement regarding musical energy is a principle, not a rule. A principle is a far more encompassing than a rule. It gives the songwriter and producer much more leeway in achieving the principle’s intent. Rules are rigid and don’t allow for flexibility. Principles encourage creativity.

With musical energy, for example, there are many ways to make the end of a song more energetic than the start:

  1. Build up the instrumentation.
  2. Play louder as you go.
  3. Switch from minor to major.
  4. Play faster.
  5. Move melodies higher.
  6. Change to a higher key.
  7. Use more backing vocals later in the song.
  8. Add countermelodies later in the song.

Any one song might only use one or two of those ideas. But they all work to achieve the same thing: they boost musical energy.

To most fully understand songwriting as an art form, you need to dissect songs that have made the most powerful impact on our culture, and describe, in the most concise way possible, why they succeed. You need to be able to find the commonalities between those songs, and express those common traits using as few words as possible.

In “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook, I identified eleven different principles, the intent of which has been to describe the success of as many great songs as possible. Those principles are not meant to prescribe exactly how you should be writing songs, but rather to serve as a guide that allows you to express your creativity in your own unique way.

The best way to fully understand those principles is to engage in active listening of music on a daily basic. Active listening means striving to put into words what you like about a song, what you don’t like, and then to think of ways you can incorporate the things you like into your own music.

And if you succeed with that, then you’ve properly understood the principle involved, and you have a better chance of writing songs that express your own unique approach to creativity. That’s what musical principles are all about.

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Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Songwriter and pen

How Long Should a Songwriting Session Be?

If songwriting is the kind of activity for you where there’s no particular pressure to get something written, there’s nothing like the freedom of starting and stopping as the whim hits you.

The biggest problem with writing when you want to is keeping disciplined. There can be days (weeks? months?) when it’s hard to get something done without the focusing pressure of a deadline.

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If, however, you’re the kind of songwriter for whom music is either a career choice, or forms a good chunk of your income, or at least has that potential, you’ve got the added pressure of getting work done in a timely fashion, and possibly having several songs on the go at any one time. You’ve probably got band rehearsals, gigs, and possibly recordings to do.

That puts songwriting in a different category: you don’t have the same luxury of writing when you feel like it, and stopping when you don’t.

So the question of how long a songwriting session should be becomes more important. You’ve got a lot of music to write, let’s say, but you get easily frustrated with songs that don’t come easily.

In those cases, how long should a songwriting session be?

Pacing Yourself

You’ll guess correctly that there’s no one right answer, and that it depends on the personal characteristics and approach of each individual songwriter. But if you find writer’s block keeps becoming a problem for you, you may need to rethink how you’re pacing yourself as a writer.

Here are some tips for helping you to gauge how long your songwriting sessions should be.

  1. Divide your day into 3 sections or “chunks” of time: morning, afternoon, evening.
  2. Aim to write for one hour in any one section of a day.
  3. Aim to write for one or two sections per day.
  4. If any section of a day includes school or work, don’t force yourself to fit songwriting in. In other words, if you work from 9 to 5, the evening is going to be your one songwriting session for that day.

Now, that just gives you a blueprint for what a day of songwriting could look like. There are days when you’ll want or need to write more, especially if you have a gig or rehearsal that needs your new song finished.

No matter what your songwriting needs are, there’s always the chance that you’ll get stuck in your songwriting process, and need to step back a bit to keep frustration from growing into writer’s block.

So the issue of frustration is always going to be the determining factor for how long a songwriting session should be. Frustration is no friend of the arts.

The best solution for busy songwriters is to have several songs on the go at any one time. That gives you the option of switching to a different song as a way of dealing the frustrations that are happening with your current one.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

3rd_ed_cover_smChapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is where you’ll discover the secrets of writing a melody that partners well with a lyric. Get the full 10-eBook Bundle, and a FREE COPY of “Creative Chord Progressions.”

Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , .
Floating musical notes

Tips for Developing a Melody-First Songwriting Process

Starting the songwriting process by working out chords makes a certain amount of sense, mainly for the reason that chords can provide a strong sense of mood. The theory is that if you can get some good chords working, and then pair them up with a rhythmic groove, you’ve got the makings of the feel of a good song. Now you just need a melody and lyrics.

I think the chords-first method can work, but it comes with certain musical dangers, the main one being that the melody can get neglected. The great classical masters of composition practically always did a melody-first method for writing music. By doing so, they ensured that melody was front and centre, with no chance of being neglected.

How to Harmonize a MelodyOnce 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 rhythmidentifying the key of your melody, chord function, and more. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

There are two problems that many songwriters have with the melody-first method are:

  1. Without chords to guide me, how do I come up with a good melody? Or…
  2. Once I’ve got a melody, what do I do for chords?

The first problem is the one that provides the most anxiety, but it shouldn’t. If you’ve always thought that coming up with a melody with no chords in mind sounds daunting, you might be surprised that it’s actually a lot easier than you think.

If you, right now, start to hum an improvised melody, you’ll likely find you won’t simply sing random notes. You’ll probably notice the following:

  1. You’re creating melodic shapes that fit into a major or minor scale structure, even if you’re not trying.
  2. Your melodic ideas are singable.
  3. You’re creating rhythmic ideas that get repeated.
  4. You might even throw in a word or two as you get a feeling for what you’re singing about.

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that you’re simply going to improvise random notes that have no structure whatsoever. Everything you hum will have the potential for being accompanied by a chord progression.

In that sense, there’s really no such thing as a melody-first method, because a newly-improvised melody will imply the chords that could support it. So it really is a melody-and-chords method.

Just because you have an ability to sing melodies that make musical sense doesn’t mean you’ve written a great melody. There are lots of ways that singable melodies can be bad, but at least you’ve got the ability to get inside the ballpark, as they say.

The Advantage of Melody-First Songwriting

So if melody and chords happen more or less together, is there an advantage to concentrating on writing the melody first? Yes, and it’s a pretty big advantage: By focusing on the melody, you feel freer to change the chords underneath it, and you can end up with a more interesting chord progression.

It’s amazing how much you can influence the impact of a melody by adjusting the chord progression underneath it. If you’re not sure how to come up with good chord substitutions, give this article a read: “Chord Substitutions: Finding a Great Chord.

Don’t Forget the Structure of Good Melodies

Don’t be too discouraged if your first attempts to write a melody result in something that sounds structureless or otherwise disorganized. It may take several attempts to come up with something you like. As you try to get the melody-first method working for you, remember these important tips regarding good melodies:

  1. Good melodies use a good amount of repetition. If you come up with a good, short melodic idea, try seeing what it sounds like if you simply repeat it. You’d be surprised how many song melodies make use of this one important characteristic.
  2. Good melodies are mainly stepwise with occasional leaps. If you’re stuck for what to do next once you’ve sung your first note, simply move up or down by scale degrees. Scales often form important parts of good melodies. A great example of a melody composed by mainly scalewise passages is “A Groovy Kind of Love” (Carole Bayer Sager, Toni Wine).
  3. Don’t forget repeated notes. When all else fails, try singing the same note a few times, working out an interesting rhythm. A good example of this is Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone“, where the verse melody makes great use of note repetition.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 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.

Posted in Chord Progressions, Melody and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

Hi, 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.

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