Good Songwriting: Branching Out From 3-Chord Songs

Here are some ideas for taking a short 3-chord progression and turning it into something a little longer, and more interesting.

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Piano keyboard with musicIf I did a blog post listing all the 3-chord songs that have been written in the past 5 decades, it would be a post many thousands of lines long. When we talk about 3-chord songs, we often mean these three: I-IV-V. And they account for thousands of songs. The further back you go, the more there are. It was during the 60s that songwriters developed their chord choices into something a bit more adventurous. But in the pop song world, even today most songs, especially those that populate the Billboard Hot 100, don’t use much beyond three or four chords.

For those songwriters who want to create a more unique musical experience, creating longer and more complex chord progressions might be a way to go. Choruses tend to use fairly predictable and short progressions. It goes hand-in-hand with the hooky nature of choruses. But verses, and especially middle-8 (bridge) sections, broadening your chordal palette can add a bit of interest and musical flexibility to your song.

So how do you do that? There are several ways to take a 3-chord progression and expand it. Take a look at the following suggestions.

  1. Use the other diatonic chords.A diatonic chord is simply one that belongs to your key. So in other words, instead of always giving your audience I-IV-V, try substituting them for something else:
    1. Instead of IV, try the ii-chord or the vi-chord.
    2. Instead of V, try the iii-chord or the vii-chord.
    3. Instead of I, try the vi-chord or the IV-chord. (Not all substitutions work in all circumstances. But I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C) can sound interesting when you change it to I-ii-V-I (C-Dm-G-C), or I-vi-iii-IV (C-Am-Em-F), and so on.)
  2. Use non-diatonic chords. A non-diatonic chord just means that it doesn’t naturally belong to your song’s key. So while that could technically mean any chord, here are the most common: flat-III, flat-VI, flat-VII. The flat-II and flat-VI don’t necessarily act as a substitute for I, IV or V, but try one of these progressions: I-bIII-IV-I (C-Eb-F-C); I-bIII-bVI-IV-I (C-Eb-Ab-F-C)
  3. Use secondary dominant chords. To use a secondary dominant chord, try this easy way: Take a chord that’s normally minor in your chosen key, and switch it to being major. Then follow it with a chord whose root is 4 notes higher. So in the following progression, the D-chord and the E-chord are secondary dominants: C  F  D  G  E  Am  F  G  C.
  4. Use modal mixture chords. Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve chosen a major key for your song. A modal mixture is a situation where you swap the original chord for the version you would have used if your song was in a minor key. Sometimes it sounds better to use the original version first, then the modal mixture, before moving forward in your progression. Here’s an example, with the modal mixture chords underlined: C  F  Fm  C  Am  Dm  Ddim  G  C.
  5. Use a quick key change. You can take a simple I-IV-V-I progression, then do it again in a different key, then switch back to the original key. All you’re doing is repeating I-IV-V-I, but it sounds new each time you change key. So try this and see if you like it: KEY= C major: C  F  G  C  |Eb  Ab  Bb  Eb  |C  F  G  C… etc. You see that the middle four chords are in the key of Eb major. If you find it a little startling when you hear the key change, try switching to some other key, such as A major or F major.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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