Take a look at the chords in pop music today, and you don’t see the diminished chord being used much. It’s an extremely versatile chord, but it’s possible that songwriters might be a bit confused as to how to use it.
And by “use it”, I think many just don’t know how to approach the chord in a sequence, and then how to leave it.
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A Bit of the Theory…
A diminished seventh chord is comprised of a diminished triad, with a fourth note the interval of a diminished seventh on the top. You get a diminished triad when you stack minor 3rds, so B diminished — a chord that occurs naturally in C major — would consist of the notes B-D-F. Adding a diminished seventh — Ab — would give us Bdim7:
That chord moves nicely toward a C chord:
In that case, the note B is acting like a leading tone toward the tonic note.
But because the chord consists entirely of stacked minor 3rds, any one of those notes can act like a leading tone, and that gives the dim7 chord a special versatility.
So instead of calling it Bdim7 and having it move to C, you could think of the D as the leading tone, call it Ddim7, and allow it to move to Eb or Ebm:
Ddim7 Eb (or Ebm)
Or Fdim7, which moves to Gb or Gbm, or Abdim7 which moves to A or Am.
In common usage, songwriters don’t even usually concern themselves by making sure they’re using the leading tone at the bottom of the chord as the letter name. So you might call them all Bdim7, regardless of where they eventually go.
How to Use the Diminished Seventh
So because this chord can move so easily to so many different chords, it’s a great way to change key (either permanently or temporarily), and/or to add delicious and unexpected colours to your chord palette, in a passing chord situation.
First, let’s look at passing chords. A passing chord is simply a chord that gets inserted between two important structural chords within your progression, with the bass note filling in the gap between those chords. If you play C moving to Am, you can insert G/B (a G chord with a B in the bass) as a nice passing chord, the bass creating a C-B-A line.
It turns out that the dim7 chord performs this passing role quite nicely. Some examples:
C C#dim7 Dm G C
C F F#dim7 G Am
C Ebdim7 Em A7 D7 G C
To create these progressions, I did the following:
- I thought up a simple C major progression. (ex: C Dm G C)
- I chose a spot, somewhat randomly, to insert a diminished seventh chord (ex: after the first C).
- I looked at the chord after where I’m planning to insert the dim7. (ex: Dm)
- I created a dim7 built on the note a semitone below that note. (Ex: C#)
If the chord following the dim7 is from the key of your song, you’ve simply created a nice altered chord that adds colour to your progression. A good example: George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago“: D Em Edim7 D
But you can use the chord to change key, by allowing the chord after the dim7 to be a new tonic, like this:
C F G G#dim7 |Am Dm Esus4 E |Am…
It’s a great chord to experiment with. Every time you play a dim7 in your progression, you can think of any of the four notes of that chord as being a leading tone to a new tonic, and you’ve got an easy and smooth way to change key.
In that regard, you may want to think of the dim7 chord as one to try at the end of your second chorus, to get you to a bridge section that starts in a new key.
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No doubt you’ve heard that the district court legal decision regarding the apparent fact that the writers of “Blurred Lines” (Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and Clifford Harris Jr) plagiarized Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” has been upheld the U.S. Court of Appeals.
I have to say, I’m still confused, particularly considering that the decision reiterates and affirms that the copyright breach has to do with the printed music, not the recording. When you compare the melodies of the two songs in written form, there is little to no similarity. The only similarity I notice is the one that I hear: a similar tempo, similar cowbell, similar basic beat/backing rhythmic feel, etc.
But the court has said in their decision: “The district court ruled that the Gayes’ compositional copyright, which is governed by the Copyright Act of 1909, did not extend to the commercial sound recording of “Got To Give It Up,” and protected only the sheet music deposited with the Copyright Office.”
So that leaves us with the things you’d find on a lead sheet: the notes, rhythms, lyrics and chords. The chords, as we know, are generic enough and couldn’t ever be protected. I don’t believe the lyrics were ever contested. So that leaves the notes and rhythms, which are completely different when you compare the two songs.
And not only different, but the way they are presented, including the phrasing, doesn’t even line up. “Got To Give It Up” uses longer 4-bar phrases, while you can hear the much shorter, punchier phrasing of “Blurred Lines.”
So I’m mystified. I’m not a lawyer, and so there are much smarter people than me to weigh in on the legalities of what can be considered in a case like this, and what cannot. But if you transcribe the melody of Blurred Lines, and then transcribe the melody of “Got To Give It Up”, and look at them side by side (as I assume smart people in the court did), you’d wonder why you’re in court at all.
Of course the sound of the recordings is similar, but all that proves is that songs can sound similar while having completely different melodies. (Songs, by the way, can sound completely different, yet use the same melody, as we hear when we compare the tune from “Hey There”, from the musical “The Pajama Game”, with the main theme of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K 545)
If the copyright protection extended to the sound recordings themselves, then I’m assuming that this would have been an easy case of infringement. As I say, I’m not a lawyer, so maybe someone in the legal profession can tell me how two completely different melodies, using different notes, rhythms and lyrics, can even be in court over copyright infringement.
This decision as been affirmed by two courts, and so there’s obviously something I’m missing.
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In the Classical music realm, we tend to look to history as a way of categorizing music. The Baroque era, for instance, is generally identified as that period of time from about 1600 to 1750. We can clearly hear similarities between compositions written during that time: the way the writer uses the instruments, the approach to rhythm, melody and harmony, and so on.
Within that Baroque era, we can hear certain differences, but we mainly identify those dissimilarities as coming from various countries: there is a slight difference between Italian Baroque and German Baroque, for example.
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When we use the word “Classical”, we tend to use it as an large all-encompassing term – a genre, so to speak. The other words associated with that term — “Renaissance”, “Baroque”, “Romantic”, and so on — are typically seen as sub-genres of that larger “Classical” umbrella term.
There are some attempts to further categorize classical music, but certainly not as much as we see in the pop music world. For example, within the Romantic era, some writers were “programmatic” composers, writing music that strongly evoked images and stories. Other composers were “absolutists”, writing music that didn’t tell a story, but took a more “music for music’s sake” approach.
The fixation on genre is more of a pop music phenomenon. There are many hundreds of genres and sub-genres of musical styles, all co-existing, and most of which could be pulled in under the umbrella of “popular music.” Take a look at the list of genres on the “List of Musical Styles” Wikipedia page, and you’ll no doubt find some genres you’ve never even heard of before.
Does “Genre” Matter?
As a songwriter, does it really matter what genre you call your own? Should identifying the genre of your music be all that important?
I say mostly no. I actually can’t think of anything less important to a songwriter than being able to identify the particular sub-genre of their music. Having an idea of genre can be important for learning what’s being written in your realm, but as far as your songwriting technique is concerned, it’s not crucial knowledge.
The main reason it’s so unimportant is that , from a songwriting point of view, the differences between genres are largely differences in performance style, not composition style. Your latest song can probably be done as pop, country, calypso, ska, or reggae fusion. Or Baroque, Classical, or Romantic.
Even as a performing songwriter, I still submit that the actual genre of what you’re doing is not very important. Those interested strictly in the marketing of music (managers, producers, and other industry executives) will have an interest in targeting certain audiences, and genre suddenly becomes more important.
But if you want your songs to sound imaginative, fresh and stimulating to a listener, don’t worry so much about genre, and focus more on the technical aspect of good songwriting, which should transcend genre. Let other people who think it’s important decide which genre your songs fall into.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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If you still write songs in the traditional way — sitting on the edge of your bed with a guitar and working it all out — you probably perform your songs with your band, or perhaps as a solo performer, with guitar or keyboard as your main instrument.
Lately I’ve been giving Peter Gabriel’s album “New Blood”, released in 2011, another listen. It features songs from earlier in his career, but all with orchestral accompaniment. It got me thinking… I wonder how many of you ever consider orchestral accompaniment, or even small ensembles of orchestral instruments, instead of typical rock or folk band instruments.
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Your first reaction, of course, is: “How do I do that? I’m not Peter Gabriel… I can’t just hire a symphony orchestra!”
In these days of professional sound samples and computers, a “real” orchestra isn’t necessary. You might be surprised by how close to an actual orchestra well-written arrangements performed using computer and samples can get.
The real question is: why? What can you gain by having your songs accompanied by orchestra?
There are several ways in which orchestral accompaniments can move your music in a positive direction:
- You find hidden colours and sounds within the melodies and chords you’ve chosen. Converting, let’s say, a strumming guitar into a woodwind accompaniment with lush strings in the background can allow you to hear those strums as if they’ve gained a new and interesting life.
- You reveal your songs to new audiences. There are many people that love listening to orchestral music, and having an orchestra as your main accompanying “instrument” presents your songs with a sound that is more palatable to them.
- It can give your music an air of sophistication. The orchestra has a way of making songs sound innovative, perhaps even a bit elite. It can get a listener’s attention in ways that a standard band version might not.
So if you’re interested in seeing what orchestral accompaniment can do for your songs, you’ve got two main ways to get started:
- Learn all you can about using computers and samples, or find a good friend who already knows how to do this. There are lots of sites with free samples online, including the Philharmonia Orchestra site.
- Visit your local music school or university, and find willing (good) classical students to play on your recordings. You might be surprised how supportive and interested musicians are in your projects. Many students will do this for an honorarium.
Don’t feel that including classical instrumentation means that you’re redefining who you are as a songwriter or performing musician. Just doing one song with unique instrumentation might be all that’s required to get audiences thinking you’ve got something deeper going on.
And orchestral accompaniment is a great way to add a new sound to your music, if everything you normally do is accompanied by that same strumming guitar or piano chords.
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Lately it seems that I’ve been getting a lot of comments, both through email and in the comments section at the ends of various posts, questioning some of the various songwriting principles I write about.
Mainly, a comment will go something like this: “You say that chorus progressions are shorter than verse progressions, but I know of a song where the verse progression is shorter than the chorus. So you must be wrong.”
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Or, “In this article you say that chorus melodies are usually higher in pitch than verse melodies, but here are three songs where that’s not the case… What’s going on?”
Good songwriting is guided by principles, not by rules, and thank heavens it’s that way. We’d never be interested in songwriting if all we had to do is follow the rules, and — presto — we’ve written a great song.
So what are the main differences between rules and principles? At least with regard to songwriting, a rule is something that absolutely needs to be present in order for the song to work. If it isn’t there, you’ve got a problem.
I can’t think of any songwriting rules.
A principle, however, is much easier to identify. There are probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, of principles that all work together in the production of music. Many of those principles can be combined because they’re basically trying to achieve the same thing. And principles do so by guiding your musical choices, not demanding them.
For example, in my eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, one of the first principles I describe is the fact that song energy tends to increase as a song progresses: the end of most songs is as energetic, or more so, than the beginning.
There are other principles that actually are a rephrasing of that. The one I mention often on this blog, that chorus melodies are usually higher in pitch than verse melodies, helps to achieve that goal of increasing song energy. That’s because as the human voice moves higher, it naturally exudes a noticeably higher energy level.
So what is going on when you have a song that seems to go in the opposite direction of a stated principle? For every principle I describe, I could come up with a list of songs that actually don’t do that.
There is no one reason why a song that “violates” a principle still might work. It really depends on the song. A song can have a long, meandering chorus progression for example (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John – Bernie Taupin), when the principle indicates that most songs will use shorter, tonally strong progressions in their chorus.
In that case, the progression, though long and meandering, is actually quite tonally strong. It’s all a matter of comparing one section to another within the same song – that’s what really counts.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: you should expect to find songs that violate practically every principle you can think of. It’s the way it is in the arts. If no principles were ever challenged, music would never evolve or progress.
And I’d say one other thing: when it comes to your own songs, it’s best to analyze the songs that you feel are not working, and resist the temptation to apply the principles of songwriting after the fact. If your song sounds great, celebrate that, and move on to the next one.
It’s really only for weak songs, or for ones that seem to have some unidentifiable problem, that it makes sense to put the magnifying glass on it and figure out where a tightening-up of principles might make it better.
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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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