Historically, music was all about melody, not chord progressions. In fact, if you go back in time a few hundred years, let’s say to the 1400s or 1500s, the concept of “harmony” was a bit different from what we have today. In those days, “harmony” was what happened when various melodies were played at the same time.
If you want to know what that sounded like, give this a listen. It’s English composer John Dunstable’s “Quam pulchra es” (“How Beautiful”). There’s no denying that you’re hearing gorgeous harmonies and chords when you listen, but those harmonies are formed by the coinciding of three different lines of melody; it’s not a melody line with chords accompanying it.
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Starting in the late 16th century, a shift in the way people heard and wrote music happened. The upper line of multi-voice music started to be heard as being a more important melody than the other lines. The bottom line started to act more as a kind of bass line, and the middle lines filled in what would eventually be known as harmony.
So when you hear a piece of music written by Mozart in the later 1700s, you’re hearing a melody line on the top, a bass line on the bottom, with the other instruments filling in harmonies and chords, like his well-known “Ave verum corpus“. The melody is in the upper soprano line, and that’s where we’re constantly listening. The double bass is playing the bass line, and the other instruments are mainly filling in the chords.
Once that shift to hearing melody mainly in the top line happened, music started to sound more like “melody and chords” — not the mere coinciding of several melodies.
That may seem unimportant, but it significantly changed the way some writers of music — particularly writer’s in pop music genres — composed. It started to become an option: you could write a melody and then find chords to fit it, or you could start with a chord progression and create a melody on top of it.
Many songwriters like the chords-first option, not just because it’s easy to create chord progressions quickly, but also because chords (and the way they’re played ) will offer a mood right away, and that can help with creating a song topic, and with developing a lyric.
Getting Better Melodic Ideas
But if you’re a chords-first songwriter, you are well acquainted with the problem of playing chords over and over, but only coming up with lame melodic ideas: nothing good seems to be coming to mind.
If that’s the case, here’s a good way to help your creative brain come up with new ideas: revoice your chords.
By revoicing I simply mean to move the chords up or down on the fretboard or keyboard: find as many alternate playing positions for your chords as possible.
As you do this, you’ll start to find that you hear different melodic possibilities. These new possibilities come about because as you revoice your chords, a different note is happening at the top. Sliding your hand further up the fretboard to find a new voicing gives you not just a new upper note, but also gives you a different sound.
The new upper note is significant because, as we know historically, we tend to hear the upper note as a melody note. So if you keep strumming the same chords using the same standard positions on the fretboard, it’s hard for your musical mind to create a new melody to try out.
If you’re a chords-first songwriter, learning as many different voicings for your chords as possible will be one of the best strides forward in your melody-writing that you can experience. It will take practice, but it’s practice that’s going to pay off well!
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If you’re looking for a way to make your chord progressions a bit more interesting, you’ll find that changing key is a good way to do it. You might, for example, have your verse in one key and your chorus in a different one.
The most common way to do that is to use a minor key for your verse, and then change key (“modulate”, as the theory folks call it) to the relative major.
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You’ve likely heard the term “relative major” or “relative minor” before, but not known what it means. It’s quite simple: every major key uses its own particular key signature. For every key signature, there is a major key that uses it, and there is also a minor key that uses it. Those two keys are therefore said to be “related.”
So G major, for example, uses one sharp in its key signature (F#), and if you go down by three semitones, you’ll get the note E. The minor key based on E will also use that same one sharp, so we say that G major is the relative major of E minor:
G major: G A B C D E F# G
E natural minor: E F# G A B C D E
Writing a song where the verse is in minor, then switches to the relative major for the chorus, is very common. It’s so popular because it gives a nice “lift” to the mood of the chorus of the song. Listen to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” or “Drive By” (Train), and you’ll hear that relative minor-to-major sound.
Getting It Done Without Changing Key
There’s another way to get this same kind of contrast without actually changing key. Here’s how it works:
Let’s say that your song is in C major. There are seven chords that exist naturally in that key, and you find them by building 3-note chords on top of each note of the C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B), like this:
- I (C): C-E-G
- ii (Dm): D-F-A
- iii (Em): E-G-B
- IV (F): F-A-C
- V (G): G-B-D
- vi (Am): A-C-E
- vii (Bdim): B-D-F
As you can see, some of those chords are major (C, F and G), some are minor (Dm, Em, Am), and one is diminished (Bdim).
You can give your listeners the impression that you’ve changed key by choosing mainly minor chords for your verse progressions, and then using mainly major ones for your chorus.
In particular, you’ll want to start the verse progression on a minor chord, and start the chorus progression on a major chord. And if you want to fake a relative major-minor relationship, you should start your verse on Am, and start your chorus on C. Like this:
VERSE: Am Dm Am Em | G Am Em Am…
CHORUS: C Dm F G | C Dm F G…
As you can see, it’s not necessary to only use minor in the verse for this major-minor effect to work. You simply have to focus on it, using mainly minor chords, switching to mainly major ones for the chorus.
The benefit to switching focus is that it helps you get past a possible creative block that comes about by thinking you are working with two different keys. In fact, all the chords you’re using come from C major; you’re just being judicious about which chords you use when.
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When every song you start seems to grind to a halt, and finishing it seems difficult or impossible, you’ve got the makings of writer’s block.
Your musical imagination can help you through a creative block. But you’re likely thinking, “HOW can I use my musical imagination to help me, since it’s my lack of imagination at this particular time that’s causing the problem.”
The fact is, it’s not often a lack of creativity that causes writer’s block, but fear: the fear of not being able to sustain the creative process. In that sense, writer’s block is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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The fear of failure is powerful. When you start a song, everything tends to go well at the beginning. Ideas come together quickly, and you feel excited. It’s normal for the creation of ideas to slow down, though, and when you get to the point that you’re tossing more ideas than you’re keeping, that’s when fear sets in.
Mainly, it’s this kind of fear: “The last few ideas I tried to add to my new song didn’t work. What if all the ideas I create fail? What if this song never finishes itself?” As I say, the fear of failure is powerful.
But your musical imagination is also powerful. It’s what has gotten you this far, and you need to remind yourself that your present inability to write doesn’t mean that your imagination has gone missing. You simply fear that it’s missing, and that’s a different thing.
When I’m feeling stuck, here’s something I do: I play through what I’ve written so far, imagining that the song is already finished. Once I get to the part where I got stuck — where I stopped — the solution to moving forward will often pop into my mind.
Sometimes the solution is just a short idea… the next phrase, for example. But just getting the next phrase will clear out the logjam, and new ideas will start to flow again.
This is a psychological tool, and it can take a while to hone it and make it work for you. If you try this, but it doesn’t work, put your guitar down, have a cup of coffee, and then come back at it a few minutes later, and try the technique again.
Soon, you’re going to discover a way to play through the bits you know, and then, with greater confidence, stride into the part of the song you don’t know.
And most of the time, if all it gives you is one more line — one more idea — it’s often enough to get past that spot. The good thing is that if you can do this before you get hopelessly mired, you can avoid a creative block entirely.
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I always say that it’s not rules that we consider in good songwriting, but principles, which serve as guidelines for us. Perhaps a sport can provide us with a good analogy here.
When you watch an excellent tennis player, we’re not at all amazed by their following of the rules of the game. Tennis has rules, and no doubt the players are subconsciously aware of them as the game proceeds. With every hit of the racquet against the ball, there are rules that need to be followed: whether the ball lands on this or that side of a line, where their foot is when they serve, and even how the points are tallied; there are rules.
But a good tennis match makes you forget the rules. Rules aren’t impressive; players are.
In music, even though we’re fond of saying there are no rules, I suppose you could argue that there are at least some “quasi-rules”, rules that we accept as part of the language of music. For example, you may have made a decision that your song is going to be in A major, so there are things that need to happen to make A sound like a tonic note. Even if we don’t call those “rules”, they come pretty close.
In tennis, there is a rule that says a serve must land at a certain area of the court. That rule adds little to the enjoyment of tennis. It’s a rule that’s in place to control the general parameters of the game.
With tennis, you can follow the rules completely, and still lose the game. Your prowess, skill and talent as a player will determine whether or not you win, not the rules of the game.
With music, you could write a song that satisfies every “Can I…” and “Am I allowed to..” question you can possibly come up with, but still write a bad song.
And that’s because, like tennis, rules add little to the enjoyment of music. It’s your skill and talent, partnered with your musical imagination, that will determine the excellence of your song, not the rules.
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Most of the time you’re likely to work out most (or even all) of a song without thinking a lot about what key it’s in. That’s fair enough; if a song sounds good, it is, and it can work well even if the actual key is something you haven’t thought about.
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But an ability to identify key can be a powerful songwriting tool for a songwriter. You can, for instance, change key (modulate) to different closely related keys within the song, and those key changes can add considerable musical energy to that song. That becomes an easier tool to use if you have an ability to identify key. (If you want to improve your key identification skills, read this article: How to Know What Key Your New Chord Progression Is In.)
There’s one other thing about key that can be a powerful songwriting tool, and it’s this: changing how a key feels by playing around with scales within that key.
A great song to demonstrate what I’m talking about is Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, Pye Dubois).
The song key moves around, and over its 4-1/2 minutes we get to hear E major, E mixolydian and E minor, with changes sometimes happening very quickly. You’ll notice that being able to move around to various keys has a big impact on the mood of the moment.
Scales Within a Key
In addition to key, though, you’ll get some great ideas if you concentrate on scales that make up the melodic ideas. The song starts with a single E in the bass. The opening melodic idea sits mainly on the note D, deliciously avoiding identifying the key for us.
Once Geddy Lee starts moving that melody around, he fills in the notes of E mixolydian by singing short 3-note scale passages, two in a downward direction, and the third moving upward:
Because all of these notes are in close proximity, we tend to notice the perfect fifth formed by the low note (D) and high note (A), but we also notice the notes that fill in that fifth:
D – E – F# – G# – A
So even though this section is in E mixolydian (E major with a lowered 7th), we get a strong “Lydian” modal scale impression that’s laid on top of the key. The Lydian mode sounds like major, with the fourth note of the scale raised a semitone. (If you need more info on Lydian, read this blog post: “Lydian-Mode Chord Progressions, and How They Work.“)
It’s important to note that the key here is not D or E Lydian. At this moment, the key is E mixolydian, and that key will offer its own mood. But in addition to whatever the mixolydian key does for the music, we get strong impressions from the scales that are worked into the melody.
Using This Idea In Your Own Songs
If you’re keen to try this idea of creating melodies that pull the music away from the key you’ve chosen, you simply need to isolate a small section of melody, much the way I’ve isolated a small section of the verse melody for “Tom Sawyer.” So perhaps take a look at the first few bars of your verse melody.
Now take a look at:
- the lowest note of that melodic fragment;
- the highest note;
- all the notes you’ve used between the lowest and highest note.
That will give you an idea of the kind of scale that an audience is likely to subconsciously notice. And that scale is going to partner up with the key that you’ve chosen, and the chords that you’re using.
Playing around with chords, key and scale in this way is a wonderful tool for altering or enhancing the mood that your song conveys.
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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.
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