When it comes to writing melodies, it’s not actually that hard to come up with a chorus that works well with its partnering verse, as long as you follow certain basic principles.
- Try rearranging the verse chords to come up with the chorus chords. Let’s say your verse progression is: C Am Bb F C (I vi bVII IV I). By using the same chords but in a slightly different order, you’ve got a progression that partners really well: C Bb Am F C, for example.
- Use the same pitches as your verse melody, but bump the lowest notes up an octave. If your verse melody uses the notes (from low to high) GACDEG, create a melody that uses the notes DEGACD (again, from low to high).
- Try reversing verse melodic ideas to create chorus ones. If your verse uses a repeating idea in the melody, an idea that is mainly an upward moving one, see what it sounds like to change direction and move down. If you like it, try it in the chorus.
- Try using the same chords for the chorus that you used for your verse, but add a bass pedal point. Take your verse progression, and keep the first chord’s bass note playing through the entire progression. If you like it, use it in your chorus.
- Keep your verse melody, but try transposing it for your chorus melody. Let’s say you’ve written a verse progression and melody in the key of C major. If you’re stumped for what to do for your chorus, try transposing the whole thing up into Eb major. Or do what Tom Petty did with “Free Fallin'” and transpose it up an entire octave.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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Talk about progressions to musicians, and they automatically make the assumption that you’re talking about chords. Of course, that makes sense. The chords in a song aren’t just randomly selected; each chord within a sequence needs to make a kind of musical sense, and that’s in fact why we use the word progression.
But in fact, you could use the word progression to describe every element of a song. It’s not just chords that progress: everything progresses.
Do you know how to add chords to that melody you just thought up? “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to do exactly that. It 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.
You may not have looked at it that way before, and if you haven’t, it’s time to stop and think about it. How one line of lyric implies the next line is a kind of progression. As a melodic idea repeats, then moves upward and repeats at a higher level… that’s also a kind of progression.
In songwriting, any time you follow something with something else that makes musical sense, you are in fact creating a progression. If that something else is a chord, you’re talking about chord progressions. If that something else is a new melodic phrase, you’re talking about melodic progressions.
Here are some things to think about as you put your songs together, things that relate to the concept of progression:
- A progression of lyrics. Think about how your verse lyric starts, and then progresses until it connects to the chorus. Are you telling a story? Are you asking a question or describing a situation? For each line of lyric you write, whether it’s in the verse, chorus, or some other section, you need to be able to say, “Because I wrote this line, I then wrote that line.” That’s what a progression of lyrics does.
- A progression of melodic ideas. It’s absolutely crucial for melodies to progress in a musically logical way. If you start low and move high, you need to identify a moment where a climactic moment occurs, a spot where it seems logical to perhaps move downward. In all of this, repetition (both exact and approximate) will play a key role. Every melodic idea you use in your song will need to relate to each other on some level. Think of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”, and how all the phrases borrow ideas from each other, and you’ll understand this concept of melodic progression.
- A progression of instrumentation/production. Think of the instrumentation you plan to use — whether real instruments or synthesized — as being like an artist’s palette. Throwing instruments in with no overall plan will make your song sound scattered and disorganized. Think of what a full instrumentation will be for your song, and then pare it down for your verses.
And on it goes. Every element in your song needs to have a kind of plan. I like to call it “logic”, but what you call it isn’t as important as the fact that you’ve used some kind of process to give those elements a sense of formal design.
Here are 3 great songs to listen to, to practice your ability to recognize the concept of progression. You’ll find them all on YouTube. Each one features one characteristic or element that clearly exhibits the concept of progression.
- “Tears In Heaven” (Eric Clapton, Will Jennings) (Great example of lyrical progression)
- “Tidal” (Imogen Heap) (Great example of melodic progression)
- “Stairway to Heaven” (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant) (Great example of instrumental progression)
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Sometimes you need to hear your own music before you know what your song is actually about. There’s something about the chords you choose, and then the melody that gets created above them, that implies a kind of musical meaning.
But occasionally it’s hard to get going because you can feel the melody starting to flow, and everything’s clicking, but… you get stuck with the lyric. The words aren’t happening quite as easily, and it’s frustrating.
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.
Not only is it frustrating, but getting stuck on words can make you feel as though nothing is going well.
In those cases, I’d advocate for… sing anything. Any old sounds will do.
Nonsense syllables, otherwise known as “gibberish” or just plain “garbage,” allows you to keep the music flowing. Especially at those times when the melody and chords are coming together really well, there’s actually something to be said for holding off on the lyrics.
Audiences, whether they realize this or not, pick up musical meaning just from notes alone; they don’t always need a singer to tell them what a song is about. That’s the essence of good instrumental music.
And you will find the same thing happening to you. As you improvise a new melody above a chord progression you’ve chosen, you’ll find that the way the notes move — the up and down of the contours — start to tell you what the song is about.
So at those times, if specific lyrics aren’t happening, sing anything. Oooo… bah bah biddy bah bah bah… will do nicely.
As you sing gibberish, you’ll start to see that actual phrases of words will pop out. Great! Keep the ones you like, and build the rest of your lyric once you feel the melody/chord process slowing down.
Singing nonsense syllables is a great way to make you feel productive, because it releases you from the responsibility of feeling that everything must come together at the same time. You’ll find that, in fact, most of the time, song elements appear at different times and at different rates in your process.
So blather away! Grunt out any old sounds that keeps your process moving forward.
Even if you don’t have a background in music theory, there’s a lot about chord theory you can discover and use! Several eBooks in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle (plus the free “Creative Chord Progressions”) show you exactly why chords work the way they do, and then show you how to use them in your own songs.
Over the past number of years, I’ve worked with songwriters mostly via email and/or Skype. Every songwriter has their issues, the problems they’re trying to solve. If I were to make a list of every problem songwriters are dealing with, a song that’s too short wouldn’t be on it.
Let me qualify that. There are lots of songwriters who write a chorus hook, but can’t seem to pair it up with a good verse. In other words, lots of songwriters who can’t complete their songs. But for those who have a finished song that they’ve asked me to listen to, there has rarely (if ever) been a time when I felt that a song was good, but just a little short.
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.
More often, the opposite is the problem. There are many, many times when I’ve felt that a song is otherwise good, it’s just that it’s too long. Brevity in songwriting is often a blessing. The more succinctly you can communicate something through music, the more powerful the effect it will have on a listener.
It’s strange, isn’t it? Why is it that a song, at 4 minutes in length, might sound as though it’s rambling too much, but a song that’s 3-and-a-half minutes feels just right?
I don’t know if I have a good answer to that, except to say this: the components of a typical pop song are usually few in number. I don’t want to say that a pop song doesn’t have a lot going for it, because the good ones are gems.
But really, when you compare them to their classical music cousins, a pop song usually consists mainly of a good hook, and then music that gets built around it, to support that hook. A nice verse, and then a catchy chorus hook.
That’s why, by the way, pop song lyrics often determine how a songwriter is assessed over time. A good lyric needs to say what it’s meant to say, in precious little time.
If pop music is your genre, and you’ve finished a song and you’re trying to figure out why it seems to be missing the mark, take a look at its length. Good song editing usually results in removing music, not so much adding music.
Here’s a short list of how a typical pop song is structured these days. Adhering to this list can save you a lot of time wondering why your song is missing the mark:
- Song intros should be 10-15 seconds in length. A longer intro is possible, but it gets tricky.
- A song’s verse should be finished by the 0′ 45″ mark. Certainly by the 1 minute mark, your chorus should have started. The slower the song’s tempo, the later a chorus might start.
- A pre-chorus should have a purpose. If you feel that your verse is too short or too unadventurous, you might find that a short pre-chorus can help balance out the lengths of your song’s sections.
- A bridge should have a purpose. If your song’s lyric isn’t complete by the end of a second (or possibly third) verse, a bridge will serve an important purpose. But remember that most bridges work as brief diversions, with emphasis on brief.
- Pop songs that are longer than 4 minutes can work, as long as contrast plays an important role in its structure. Long songs need lots of loud-versus-soft, high-versus-low, full followed by transparent instrumentation, and so on.
If you are sweating over the length of your song, wondering if it’s too long, here’s a simple solution: Keep the full version, and then edit down a shorter “radio-friendly” length of the same song. Then put them both away for a day or two. Then listen to them both objectively.
That allows you to compare a longer and shorter version of the same song. Longer songs can work (as The Beatles learned with “Hey Jude”). But more often than not, the conciseness of something that comes in under 4 minutes is going to work well for you.
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I’ve just uploaded a new songwriting video, “How the Rhythm of a Melody Changes as a Song Progresses.” In it, I take a look at how rhythm plays a role in the emotional connection that a melody can make.
In large part, a melody’s rhythm is determined by the actual words of the lyric. But specific rhythm, natural pulse and accents aren’t the only part of the equation we should be looking at. There’s also note duration — how long we hold certain notes.
You’ll find that the longer you hold a note, the more potential it has for making that all-important emotional connection to the listener.
In this video, I use two songs to demonstrate the principle: “Take It Easy” (Jackson Browne/Glenn Frey), and “Love Me Like You Do” (sung by Ellie Goulding, and written by Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Ilya Salmanzadeh, Ali Payami andTove Nilsson).
Click below to view it, and please visit my YouTube channel to see other songwriting videos.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle shows you how lyrics and melody work hand-in-hand, and “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to add chords to that melody you’ve just created.
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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Gary's latest video: "5 Reasons to Include a Bridge In a Song's Design"