In music, the tonic chord is the one that represents the key. So for a song in C major, C is the tonic. To use a metaphor, it’s home. Progressions may meander around seemingly aimlessly, but once you play the tonic chord, you sense relaxation: you’re home.
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When you examine the chords used in pop songs, you’ll find that the tonic often appears at the start of many progressions, and almost always at the end. In old-time rock and roll, this would have been typical: the intro chords from “Young Love” (Ric Cartey, Carole Joyner)
C Am F G C I vi IV V I
It starts on the tonic, takes a little trip “around the neighbourhood”, and then winds up back on the tonic.
As it starts out, you can sense the “looking for the tonic” in that progression. With each chord, the pull back to the tonic gets ever stronger. When it finally returns after the G chord, you feel the sense of arrival – home.
These days, songwriters are often looking for more creative ways to eventually return to the tonic. If you’re trying to find a progression that is a little more creative than the simple I-vi-IV-V-I of “Young Love”, here is something to try.
Take a look at the following progressions. The first two are in C major, and the third one is in A minor. They’re long, but if you start somewhere in the middle and work your way to the end of each progression, you’ve got a shorter one that will work every time. In fact, you can pretty much start anywhere:
So for example, in Progression 1, you could choose to start on chord no. 9 (Am) and work your way to the end. Or you might opt to try starting on chord no. 7 (G), and you’ve still got one that works.
Also, these progressions will all work if you play chord no. 1, then jump to any spot in the progression and proceed through the chords to the end from that point.
So with these 3 long progressions, you’ve got many smaller progressions you can experiment with.
The reason they work is that they all do what any good pop progression does: eventually get you back to the tonic chord.
Never worry about the predictability of shorter progressions. We don’t like predictability with melody or lyrics, but predictable chords are not often a problem. So even though the examples above are long, consider the shorter 3- or 4-chord possibilities from the end of each progression. They may sound predictable, but they’ll work well.
You might try experimenting with short cells of chords from the middle of each progression. They won’t all work, so you’ll have to use your ear and determine their usefulness for yourself. But just as a few examples from Progression 3, you might try chords 3-5 (Am Dm Am), 5-8 (Am F Gsus4 G), or 8-11 (G Am Em F).
You might think that the answer to this question, “What talents do I need to be a songwriter?” would start with an examination of basic musical abilities: the ability to sing in tune, and of course to be creative.
But I think the first step toward being a good songwriter is not a talent at all: it’s basic curiosity.
A good songwriter is a curious person. They want to know why certain songs sound the way they do. They get fascinated by certain chords, certain turns of phrase, certain melodic shapes.
That curiosity leads them to explore. It may take them days, weeks, or months, but they need to know why something sounds the way it does.
So after curiosity comes exploration. And then after exploration, songwriters are seized by an unstoppable desire to create music that does the same thing in a different way.
Curiosity –> Exploration –> Creation
…and you’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about talent at all. That’s because I believe most people who are musically curious, who want to explore and understand, and who are then motivated to create their own music, probably already have the talent and skill to be a songwriter.
I mentioned in a recent post that I believe talent to be a starting point, not a flag to wave around. If you’re curious, and you put the time in to examining songs, you’ve already got — as a starting point — the talent to be a songwriter.
Now, does that make you a good songwriter? Much of the assessment of quality of songwriting is subjective. Some songwriters have as many haters as lovers, and we all need to be comfortable with that.
To improve your skills as a songwriter, you need to take the focus off of talent, and move it instead on curiosity. The relevant question is not “what talents do I need,” but rather,”Am I curious enough?”
If you like starting songs by working out a good chord progression, you need to get “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It shows you the strengths and pitfalls of this very common songwriting process. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
A song is good if it makes an emotional impact on the listener. So whether you start the songwriting process by coming up with lyrics, chords or melodies, the end result needs to be the same: a piece of music that causes the audience to feel something.
It’s why you’re more likely to find that songs are about issues of love. There’s nothing like love to cause us all to feel something. We’ve been there; we can relate. And we like hearing songs that give us a taste of that feeling again.
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To say that another way, you can’t really write a song about, say, a fence, unless that fence has come between friends, and then it’s a song about friends, isn’t it?
There are several advantages that become obvious when you start a new song by working out the words:
- You can more carefully and precisely control the pacing of a story.
- You put a spotlight on the subject matter, and have better control over aspects of good lyrics such as imagery, use of metaphor, etc.
- Songwriting legacies often come more from the quality of the lyric than almost any other aspect of composition.
- The way words are used can suggest melodic shape, more than the reverse.
I think it’s a good idea for songwriters to have several songs on the go at any one time. This helps keep writer’s block at bay. When you get stuck with one song, you can move to a different one, and come back to the first one later. The time away from that song usually means that you’ll get a flood of ideas when you turn your attention back to it.
So if you’re worried that trying your hand at lyrics-first songwriting is going to slow down your process for a while, having a lyrics-first song as one of 3 or 4 songs you’re working on allows you more time to finish it without feeling unproductive.
Lyrics-first songwriting takes practice, but you’re going to love the eventual benefits. The easiest process to try if you’re new to working on the words of your song first is to come up with a list of possible titles, and then work out a lyric that points to the title.
Give that a try, and I think you’ll be hooked on lyrics-first songwriting processes.
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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just completed a new eBook for songwriters entitled “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s available right now at the online store as a free add-on to the 10-eBook Bundle. (It will also be available as a separate sale item in the coming days.)
For a limited time, this ebook is being offered free to purchasers of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” As I do with most of my eBooks, I will be also offering it free of charge to previous purchasers of the bundle upon request.
(Could I ask, though, that previous purchasers of the 10-eBook Bundle please give me a few days to send it. I have a busy week of rehearsals and concerts coming up, but I should be able to respond to requests by Thursday or Friday. (You can contact me at gary [at] pantomimemusic [dot] com), and please send me your Transaction ID or even date of purchase of your Bundle package, and purchasing email address.)
If you’ve always wanted to try a lyrics-first songwriting process but didn’t really know how to begin, this eBook offers three suggested methods for doing so. From those methods, you should then be able to develop your own set of steps, ones that help you place words front and centre in your songwriting process.
DOWNLOAD THE INTRODUCTION AND PREFACE FROM “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”
To get a copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”, get the bundle at the Online Store.
There’s a concept in music that applies to chord progressions called harmonic rhythm. That term is used to describe how frequently (i.e., how quickly) chords change, especially in relation to how many notes of melody happen between changes. As you know, some songs use progressions where each chord is strummed for a relatively long time before changing to the next one: a slow harmonic rhythm.
A good example of this kind of song is Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Each chord is played for sometime 6, sometimes 8 bars, before moving on to the next one. And there are lots of melody notes — sometimes a couple of dozen — that get sung before the next chord change happens.
For songs in the pop genres, a good chorus hook can mean the difference between success and failure. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” will show how this vital song component works, and how you can create effective ones for your songs.
Then there are the songs that feature quick changes, where there is only a note or two of melody before the next chord change. A good example of this: James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face,” in which the beginnings of many phrases feature a chord change on every beat, and only 2 or 3 melody notes happen before the next change.
Why is this anything to take note of at all? Isn’t it just a musical decision, like any other musical decision a songwriter makes in the writing of a song? Maybe, but there’s something important to consider with regard to harmonic rhythm: the quicker the harmonic rhythm (i.e., the quicker the chords change) the more energetic (possibly even frantic) the music tends to sound.
The fact that music can be made to sound relaxed or pumped up by virtue of how quickly the chords change is either a feature or a problem. If you’re trying to make your song sound relaxed but you’re changing chords every beat or so, you’re causing problems.
So good songwriters (like good composers down through the ages) have learned how to pace the changing of chords, using harmonic rhythm as a good way to generate or release song energy.
More Than Just Chords
But how quickly chords change is just one small part of a larger concept. It turns out that the quicker anything changes in music, the more energy is generated.
Here’s a short list of three musical features within songs that can make your song sound energetic and pumped up, or low-key and relaxed:
- Tempo. Though not always the case (because it sometimes depends on what’s happening in the backing rhythms), slowing a song down tends to relax the overall energy of the music.
- Backing rhythms. The Bee Gees hit single “Nights on Broadway” turns out to be a perfect example of this. In the first couple of verses we hear a backing rhythm (drum hi-hat, synth bass, and vocal lines.) that uses lots of 16th-notes, producing a very energetic feel. In the bridge, the tempo stays almost the same, but the backing rhythms greatly slow up and simplify (using dotted quarters and 8ths), cutting the song energy in half in the process.
- Melody. The number of melody notes with relation to chord changes is what we’ve been discussing, but it’s also useful to look at number of notes in general, regardless of what the chords are doing. This becomes a more complex issue because song choruses generally feature slower, more simplistic rhythms in the vocal line, even though we perceive a higher sense of musical energy. The higher energy comes from the elongation of melody notes particularly on the chorus title (usually incorporating that all-important hook). But in general, more notes equates to a more energetic musical presentation.
So this issue of rate-of-change becomes an important musical one to study in your own songs. Every song you write has an inherent level of energy that you hope the audience picks up on. But sometimes, if we’re not careful, we can be working at cross-purposes, trying to produce a relaxed sound in a particular song, without realizing that we’re changing chords every beat or two.
To produce a song that sounds relaxed and tension-free, you need to consider slowing the rate of change of some key song features. And chief among those are the rate-of-change of chords, backing rhythms, and melody notes.
A good lyric needs to partner well with the melody, but how do you make sure that’s happening? That’s what Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” deals with. That eBook comes as part of the 10-eBook Bundle, and also comes with a FREE eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions”
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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