Stevie Wonder

Five Easy Ways Your Chords Can Be More Interesting

As you know, I spend a lot of time telling songwriters that their chords don’t need to be complex or even innovative in order for a song to succeed. They just need to support the melody, and as long as that melody is catchy, and assuming the lyrics you come up with are engaging, you’ve done what you need to do.

But there is something to be said for a song that goes beyond a typical three-chord offering. The specific chords you choose are tied, at least somewhat, to your song’s genre, but in practically any genre you can name there is something to be said for progressions that are creative and at least a little inventive.


How to Harmonize a MelodyIf you’re not sure how to add chords to the melody you’ve just come up with, here’s an ebook that shows you how to do that: “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step, the best way to add chords and make the most of that melody.


I love Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” from his 1973 “Innervisions” album, mainly for the groove and feel, but you have to acknowledge the role that that creative chord progression plays in the song’s success. No three-chord progression here — Stevie uses up to twenty different chords to create the progressions in this song.

So let’s say that you’re tired of basic, predictable progressions, but don’t feel that you’ve got Stevie’s prowess for creating something more imaginative. There are things you can do to your own chords that don’t require you to know a lot more than you already do.

Here are five ideas you can try to make your chords sound more creative. Let’s take an example of a good, but less than innovative, progression, and see what these ideas do to it. Our example progression is from the key of C major:

C – Am – Dm – G7 – C

1. Try modal mixture (or “borrowed”) chords.

A modal mixture is a chord that’s “borrowed”, as the terminology goes, from the opposite mode. So if you’ve written a song in C major, you imagine instead that you’re using chords from the key of C minor.

In C minor, your seven naturally-occuring chords are: Cm, Ddim, Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, and Bb. This take a bit of experimenting to decide which chord you could or should replace, but I would right away try replacing the Dm in the example progression with Ddim. That gives you: C – Am – Ddim – G7 – C

Another common replacement that uses a modal mixture is to replace a IV chord with a minor version of that chord. So if you create a progression in C major that uses an F chord, switch that F for Fm, and you’ll have used a modal mixture.

2. Try adding some non-chord-tones.

A non-chord-tone is a note that’s added to a chord that doesn’t normally belong there. These can be any notes, but let’s look at the C chord that starts and finishes our sample progression. You could add the note “D” to that chord, and it gives you Cadd9. So your progression is: Cadd9 – Am – Ddim – G7 – Cadd9.

Theoretically you can add any note you want to a chord, as long as you like it. Adding 9ths and 6ths are probably the most common, though they happen more often in some genres than others.

3. Try using a bass pedal point

This is a chord effect that’s extremely easy to use, and you’ll love the fresh, creative effect it provides. Simply keep the same note in the bass (or left hand of your keyboard) while the chords change above it.

The most common pedal points you’ll hear in music are the tonic pedal (keeping the note C as your lowest sounding note), or the dominant pedal (keeping the note G as your lowest sounding note.)

It’s easiest to hear this effect at a keyboard, where you play, let’s say, the note C in the left hand while you cycle through the chords. You’ll love the delicious dissonance created when you play the Dm and the G7 against C in the bass.

4. Try using chord inversions.

Most of the time you’ll play chords in root position, which means that the letter name of the chord being played is also the lowest sounding note. But you also have the option of placing any of the other notes in the chord at the bottom, and for each choice you can make, the result is different.

If you’re not sure what chord inversions are, or how you might use them, read this article that I wrote this past spring: “Getting Creative with Chord Inversions.” Inversions give direction to your bass line and are a powerful but easy way to keep your standard progression the same, but have it sound more creative.

So you might try this: C – Am – Dm/F – G7 – C. The Dm/F is simply a Dm where the lowest sounding note is an F. You should be careful how many inverted chords you use in a row, however. Too many, and they can make your progression sound a bit unstable. But putting them in once in a while is often a great, simple modification.

5. Try using secondary dominant chords.

This is another chord effect that might require a bit of reading if you’ve not used them before. (Try reading “How to Add a Secondary Dominant to Your Chord Progressions“.) They’re used all the time in good music, so you’ve definitely heard them before. The easy method is simply to do this: take any minor chord you see and change it to being major, and you’ve just created a secondary dominant chord if it’s followed by a chord whose root is a 4th higher.

So in our sample progression, you could turn both the Am and the Dm to major chords, giving you this: C – A – D – G7 – C. You can hear this effect in the opening chord sequence of “Deep Purple” (1923) as performed by Nino Tempo & April Stevens.

Conclusion

My main point with this article is this: if you’re looking for a more creative approach to chord progressions, you can get that more creative result by first considering things you might do to the original progression you thought up. These five adjustments to your progression might give you what you’re looking for.

And all of these modifications have the positive quality of keeping the basic structure of your progression intact. So if your simple progression works, the modifications should work as well.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes the all-important Study Guide. It shows you the best way to work your way through the materials and helps you get the most of the eBook collection.

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Music of the future

The Songs of the Future — What Will They Sound Like?

I had a professor once who, while commenting on what the music of the future would sound like, said, “Well, if we knew that, we’d be writing it now.”

That’s very likely not true. What’s more likely is something like that scene from “Back to the Future”, when Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode”, which morphs into a distorted guitar solo belonging about to 15 or more years in the future. The audience stares with very unimpressed looks on their faces.


Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionIf you like the chords-first songwriting method, you’ll want to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It deals with the common chords-first problem of how to write a great melody straight from the chords. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.


If we were blessed with the ability to hear what the music of a few years from now would sound like, we’d probably be similarly unimpressed. What we hear mostly in music is its style. And hearing music from, let’s say, 20 years in the future — 2042 — means we’d have no perspective on why it sounds that way.

When a group or performer is so noteworthy that they influence all the acts around them, they almost single-handedly change the direction of music. The Beatles did it in the 60s, the Bee Gees did it in the 70s, and Michael Jackson arguably did it in the 80s.

But when we talk about the music of those musical acts, we’re talking more about the style of the music than anything else. And style is a present-day notion, and then it ages. In some pop genres, music that’s a year or two old is already showing its age.

Songwriting a Few Thousand Years From Now

But it’s an interesting thought experiment to think about what music of the distant future will sound like. What about music a thousand years from now? Or two thousand years — in 4022?

Technology has a lot to do with the changes in the basic sound of music, and once the technology happens (like electric instruments and distorted guitar in the 50s and 60s, for example, or digital computers in the 80s), it can influence almost all the music that comes after it.

But one thing that never changes is the basic human voice.

Two thousand years ago, our concept of what harmony should be was considerably different from what we consider acceptable today. Chords as we know them today didn’t really exist back then.

But melody wasn’t much different. If you listen to old Gregorian chant from, let’s say, the mid 500s (roughly 1500 years ago), it wouldn’t be hard to take those melodies and dress them up with today’s equipment and production values. You can make a 1500-year-old melody sound modern, and it’s not hard to do.

The reason that the actual constructs of melody haven’t really changed over the centuries is because the human voice hasn’t changed.

The voice still has the same basic tendencies and characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, because human DNA hasn’t changed in that space of time. I suspect that if we could hear the songs that will happen 2000 years from now, we’d be struck by how strange it will all sound. How weird the instruments will be, how different the production values will be, and how confusing the harmonic structures might be.

But the voice? We’ll still recognize it, and I think when you look at the basic melodic structures, we’ll still hear the same things that we heard back in A.D. 500, and the same things we hear today: melodies that are mainly stepwise in their construction with occasional melodic leaps.

If we popped ahead 2000 years, we may not recognize a single instrument anymore. But in the year 4022, the same need to allow the human voice to convey emotional meaning through music will still exist.

It’s just that it will be done in a rather different way.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of music? Please feel free to share them below.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleIf you’re trying to improve your songwriting skills, you need basic grounding in the fundamentals. That’s what you get with “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Right now, get a copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process” FREE when you get the Bundle.

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Tony Orlando and Dawn

What Can Kill a Song’s Staying Power?

Some songs are still with us fifty or more years after they hit the top of the charts (Smokey Robinson’s “The Tears of a Clown“, for example), but other songs, even ones that were big hits when they came out, are rarely heard anymore, not because they aren’t good, but… well, it’s hard to say why (“Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree“).

I think that successful songs take advantage of a certain kind of social mindset on the week they’re released, and that kind of “perfect storm” will drive a song upwards. After that, if the song is well-written and well-performed, and if the topic and lyrics stay somewhat relevant, the song might succeed in the long-term, and that’s the hope of every songwriter.


Hooks and RiffsSongwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.


There are elements within a song that might contribute to a song’s quick removal from our musical radar. In no particular order, you’ll want to consider the following

  1. Lyrics. Lyrics can sound good in one generation and corny in the next one. Generally speaking, the more you rely on expressions that become attached to a particular era, or use lyrics full of forced rhymes, clichés and other overused phrases, the quicker the song will go from sounding OK to sounding a bit cringy.
  2. Performance-Related Choices. Auto-tune may be a good example of this, although you still hear it quite a lot in today’s Billboard Hot 100. In the 1970s, the prevalent use of wah-wah pedal (the way it’s used in Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft“) has a way of dating songs from that era. There are certain performance-related choices that can dangerously date songs where it becomes something to avoid. Sometimes this can happen to an entire genre, as we witnessed with disco, and the Bee Gees music being almost eliminated from radio play in the early 80s.
  3. Song Topics. In a way, the less pertinent the lyrics are to a particular moment in time, the more chance it has to survive and still be played decades later. So all the songs written in the past couple of years that refer to the pandemic, or isolation, or masking, etc., may be relegated to shows and podcasts that deal with history. The songs we’re still listening to today that were written 50 years ago are the “I still love her” kinds of songs. That’s just the way it is.
  4. Harmonic Choices. There’s nothing really new in the way chords work today. How one chord follows another hasn’t really changed since the time of Bach (early 1700s). But every era and every genre has its own distinctive add-ons to typical chord structures. In the 1970s for instance, major 7th chords built on the I and IV chords, and the use of V9, V11 or V13, in place of a standard V7, were common. In the 1980s, those chord choices practically evaporated, and we saw lots of add2, add9 and add6. The more you stray from standard triads (chords with few  or no added tones), the more likely they’ll last and still sound attractive 50 years later.
  5. Formal Design. This one isn’t as defining of a generation as the other aspects listed above, but there are some features of songs that seemed to define an era. Long instrumental solos are more likely to have happened a few decades back, but not so much today in most pop genres you can name. But songs can be reworked in the studio to edit out aspects of songs that might date the original. So formal design issues that might sound dated can be dealt with and solved after the fact.

This whole issue of music becoming dated is why I so often recommend that people listen to lots of music from different genres and different eras. By listening to what’s being released today, you stay current. By listening to older good songs, you hear what’s worked, and it’s pretty easy to identify why they worked.

And through all this listening, you have a better chance of writing and recording music that is uniquely yours, less patterned after one particular genre or performer, giving your songs a fighting chance to still sound good when your grandchildren listen to it.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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Songwriter

When Writer’s Block Goes From Mild to Moderate to Severe

Everyone deals with creative blocks in the world of songwriting. Unfortunately, it’s part of being a human; we all have creative abilities — a kind of creative reservoir — but like a literal pool of water, that reservoir can get depleted from time to time. It’s normal.


Hooks & RiffsHooks 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.


So mild or moderate writer’s block is something we all learn to live with, and if you’re going through a dry period right now, you are probably doing the things you need to do:

  1. Take a day or two, or perhaps a week, away from trying to be creative.
  2. Turn your attention to other creative pursuits like painting, writing or reading good literature, even dancing, or polishing your instrumental skills.
  3. Make your daily writing sessions short, and keep your expectations from ramping up too high.

Those will work whether you’re going through a mild case or something longer term, like a moderate block that might last for a couple of weeks or so.

But what about severe writer’s block?

What is a Severe Creative Block?

When writer’s block becomes severe, it’s not just that you find it difficult to write — there is a psychological aspect that arises, and is perhaps more debilitating than the creative block itself.

That psychological aspect has this effect: you begin to doubt that you’re actually a songwriter at all, and you wonder if perhaps you’ve been pretending all this time.

A severe block usually starts as something mild and then progresses, usually in this way:

  1. You find on a particular day that you’re having difficulties coming up with song ideas.
  2. As difficulties continue for a few days, you start to worry that you may not come out of this block easily, and so the block deepens. (Most blocks are driven to a certain degree by a fear of failure, and that fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
  3. After a few days or weeks of feeling unsuccessful you imagine that perhaps you were lucky with your previous songs, and that you’re not really a songwriter at all.

Once you’ve hit that stage, it’s no longer just an issue of trying to come up with new ideas… you now need to turn your head around and get thinking in the right direction again. You need to solve your psychological issues as a first step to getting back to writing.

If you think you’re wallowing in a severe creative block, here are some ideas for getting things turned around:

  1. Listen to your previous songs, and write a positive review. Imagine that you’re listening to someone else’s song, and try to find every positive thing you can say about those songs. Leave any negativity aside and focus on the positive. (This helps to remind you that you’ve written some good stuff in the past.)
  2. Analyze some of your favourite songs by other songwriters, writing down why you think they’re successful songs. (This helps to remind you that you know what good music is, even if you’re having troubles writing.)
  3. Find ways, if possible, to help other less experienced songwriters with their own problems. Being a teacher is a great way to organize your thoughts and processes. (This helps to remind you that songwriting is part art, part craft.)
  4. Keep your mind in the musical world in a way that doesn’t require you, at least for a short while, to be a writer. Keep playing your instrument, or learn a new one, or help others with their own playing. (This helps to remind you that there are lots of ways to be creative in the music world.)
  5. Keep your daily songwriting projects small and easy. Once you venture back into songwriting after some time away, even something like vamping on two simple chords and humming some improvised melodies will help. To feel successful, you don’t need to write complete songs. Just improvising short, catchy melodic ideas that don’t have to be written down or recorded can be enough to get you feeling positive. (This reminds you that not every songwriting session needs to result in a full song.)

If you’ve been dealing with a severe bout of writer’s block, remember to step back, take whatever time away from writing you need, and then get your brain thinking positively by acknowledging your previous songwriting successes. Small successes will eventually turn into larger ones, and you’ll be back to feeling creative!


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Chord Progression Formulas“Chord Progression Formulas” show you how to create dozens of chord progressions in mere moments. With lots of sample progressions you can use right away. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle package.

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Songwriting

Is Your Verse Doing What It’s Supposed to Be Doing?

There is a lot of attention paid to song choruses, and for good reason. A chorus is where the catchy bit is either going to do its job and pull in an audience, or it’s not. So there’s a lot riding on the success of a chorus.


“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleIf you’re ready to take your songwriting to its highest level possible, you need “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Get the manuals that thousands of songwriters are using. Comes with an all-important Study Guide.


But how do you know if your verse is actually doing what it’s supposed to do?

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. A verse melody should generally sit lower in pitch than a chorus. There can be a lot of overlapping, of course. But in general, keeping your verse low, even just slightly, allows the chorus more potential to shine.
  2. A verse melody can use quicker, more interesting rhythms when compared to the chorus. By the time you get to the chorus, the rhythms of the melody should be strong and predictable, making that chorus hook more memorable and easy to sing.
  3. A verse lyric should lay out a scenario, or describe the basic story of your song. Even for songs that aren’t specifically “story songs”, we should get a sense of what it’s about before we get to the chorus.
  4. A verse lyric should pose questions or leave things unsolved so that the chorus can answer those questions, or make things sound resolved. This is either done literally or figuratively, but in most songs the verse should “beg for” the chorus.
  5. Verse chords can wander, and can actually be the most interesting chords of the song. Chorus chord progressions are typically short and tonally strong. But verses can be more creative as they seek to support the mood of the story in general.
  6. A verse melody should connect somewhat smoothly to the chorus. You often hear a melody rising to connect to the chorus. And if it’s too far away, one good solution is to follow the verse with a pre-chorus. (Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is a textbook example.)

In a very real way, the most important job of a song’s verse is to set up the chorus for success. In that regard, song verses can fail, not because they aren’t good verses, but more because they fail to make the chorus sound strong and inviting.

So if you’ve written a song and you find that the chorus just isn’t sounding as exciting or attractive as you’re hoping, you might find the best solutions by first looking at the verse that comes before, and ask yourself:

“Is this verse making me want to wait to hear the chorus.”


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessIf you’re trying to make your lyrics a much more important part of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”, and right now, it’s FREE.

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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics

How the Rhythm of a Melody Changes as a Song Progresses

Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs

Gary Ewer

I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this 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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