One thing that brings a smile to my face is thinking about the fact that chord progressions work pretty much the same way today (in a pop song) as they did more than 300 years ago (in a Bach aria).
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That means we can use the lessons that Bach, Mozart and Brahms learned about chord progressions and apply them to practically any genre of music today.
So what are the kinds of things that composers from classical music’s kings of composition learned about chords? Here are five tips we all need to keep in mind:
- Fast tempo songs should use progressions with fewer chords. When the tempo is fast, a chord progression with lots of chords tends to sound panicky and frantic. It’s better to create shorter progressions, even if you repeat those progressions many time. (Bach’s faster music used simple progressions that were very predictable, like the last movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3)
- If you like longer, more complex progressions, use them in slower ballad-style songs. When a song is slower, the listeners have time to digest the intricacies and complexities of longer progressions that take more twists and turns.
- Don’t be afraid to use the same progression in different sections of your songs. It’s completely fine to use the same progression in a verse and a chorus.
- If you think your progressions lack some flair, try simple modifications before complicated ones. Simple changes might be something as basic as using inversions (slash chords), or perhaps substituting one chord with another one from the same key.
- Try changing other elements of your song to create musical excitement. Rather than automatically targeting a chord progression, try other musical surprises, like changing the tempo, the instrumentation, or even the time signature. Listeners love to be challenged by complex lyrics and innovative melodies, but often get confused with chord progressions that move in odd directions.
Regarding the fifth tip above, there’s nothing wrong with a chord progression that has surprises. But for those who haven’t had a lot of experience, a modified chord progression can sound perplexing. I’ve always felt that you can make more effective music by modifying other musical aspects such as lyrics, melody and instrumentation as a first choice.
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I was told once by someone that there are two kinds of people near the top of any successful company: ideas people and doers. I’m not a business specialist, so I have no idea if this is really true, but it makes sense. You need people who can come up with some great ideas, and you need people who can realize those ideas and make them happen.
The implication, of course, is that you’re either one or the other.
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But in the songwriting world, you have to be both. Show me a good song and I’ll show you a collection of great musical ideas, all realized by a great songwriter, or group of songwriters.
Becoming a good songwriter is about discovering how to turn ideas into songs. So if you’re having success with your writing it’s because you came up with some really great ideas, and then were successful in getting all those ideas working together.
Once a song is finished, though, it’s possible for it to fail. How? By not realizing its fullest potential while recording it. This stage is best guided by one of the most important “doers” in the business — a professional-level producer.
Producers are the ones who can take your songs and get them recorded in a form that properly targets your audience. For every song that’s been written, there are any number of audiences to target. And how you present that song will either work or fail to impress that audience.
When You’re the Producer
If you’re starting out, you may not have the money to hire a producer, and so now you’re the doer: the producer. How do you ensure that you’re making the most of your song as you get it recorded? Ask yourself:
Can I listen objectively to my own song?
Am I completely familiar with my chosen genre and what the audience expects?
(If you’re in a band): Are we all capable of performing this song at a professional level?
Am I willing to change aspects of this song to properly target my audience?
Am I willing to take advice from others?
The best producers are able to make tough choices, and when you’re your own producer, those choices become all the more difficult because the song itself is a product of your own musical mind.
If you can’t honestly answer yes to those five questions above, you’re not ready to produce your own recording. The biggest difficulty is usually with objectivity: it’s very difficult to make tough choices with your own music, and it’s why even the greatest songwriters out there hire others to do that job.
If you can say yes to those questions, you’ll find that self-production can be satisfying and successful. Being tough on yourself without being negative means that you should be able to get the job done.
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Hopefully you don’t need to be convinced, as a songwriter, of the importance of daily listening to music from as many different genres as possible. Even though you may have one particular genre that you call your own, allowing yourself to be influenced by others puts more colours on your musical palette, and you’re able to offer something more creative to your fanbase.
I’m becoming acquainted with a vocal group called Roomful of Teeth, a nine-voice vocal ensemble from Massachusetts, USA. You can read their bio here. A couple of the singers are composers for the group, but they largely use outside writers.
And probably most importantly, they explore the music of different cultures and genres in compiling their performing catalogue. In a way, they’re a prime example of what it means to incorporate music from different genres into what they do.
I’m discovering that I absolutely love this group, and love what they do. If you want a taste of how they perform, give a listen to “Are we death” from their recent album: “The Ascendant” (music composed by Wally Gunn):
Even if this style of music isn’t your thing, you just can’t deny the originality and creativity of the composition and performance here. And you can easily hear the influence of different compositional styles, genres and performance techniques.
Whenever you take time in your day to immerse yourself in music like this, your own songwriting will get pulled and prodded in a new direction. That’s practically always a good thing.
So if you’ve been finding that your songwriting has been getting a bit stale lately, the solution is often to allow yourself to be nudged into new directions by some other group that’s doing something a little (or perhaps in this case, a lot) different.
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I’ve got several analogies I like to use to represent what’s going on when we write songs. Sometimes I find it useful to compare it to going for a walk or a short journey. That’s a useful comparison because it emphasizes the fact that, like taking a walk, we are aware that songs have a beginning and an end, needing lots of interesting landmarks (chords, hook, melodies, etc.) along the way.
Sometimes I like to compare songwriting to climbing a mountain. That’s an especially useful analogy if you find the task of writing to be daunting. It reminds us that, no matter how high the mountain, the task is always the same: put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Regardless of the difficulty, climbing a mountain is always one foot in front of the other.
The success of your song’s hook will determine the success of your entire song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you, using examples from pop music history, how to write great ones.
Sticking with that mountain analogy: let’s say that you were climbing a mountain with your smartphone, but you only have enough battery power left to take one shot. What picture do you take?
No doubt you’ll take a picture of the peak of the mountain, no matter how interesting anything else about your climb is. No matter how you got to the top, that mountaintop is the goal — the representation of your achievement, regardless of how difficult/splendorous anything else about your climb has been.
The Mountain’s Peak: The Song’s Hook
Now think about songwriting: if you were to offer one moment to your audience — one moment that represents your song — what would you show? You’d likely offer the hook. It’s that one snapshot that tells everyone what every other aspect of your song is pointing to.
That’s an apt analogy because good songs, no matter how excellent all the different parts are, have one defining aspect that grabs attention more than any other. That one defining aspect, especially for songs in the pop genres, is the hook.
For every song you write, you should be able to point to one element within that song that stands out above everything else, no matter how good everything else is. Because a chorus hook is the most common type of hook we use, just the mention of a hit song’s title should cause us to immediately start singing the chorus.
So if you’re finishing up your next song, you need to record it, even in a barebones state with a simple guitar accompaniment, and be able to identify at least one element within that song that’s designed to grab attention.
If you can’t do that, your next step is to dig back into your song and find a moment that has potential, and modify or edit it so that you’ve got something strong and hook-like that can grab an audience’s attention. That’s going to be your song’s snapshot — the moment that represents what every other aspect of your song points to.
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Once your song is written and you’re ready to record it, you’ll hopefully still find opportunities to to make it even better. Most of the time, rehearsing your song with bandmates gives you that opportunity.
For most good songs in the pop genres, getting a hook working properly is vital. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how hooks have made the world’s top songs successful.
There’s a video online of The Beatles rehearsing “Hey Jude” in the studio, in preparation for recording. It’s very revealing, because it gives us a glimpse into that part of their process after a song is actually written.
The music in the recording is in F# major, so that leads me to believe that it’s been slightly sped up — I’ve never seen any reference to “Hey Jude” ever being done in that key, and we don’t ever see Paul’s fingers at the piano to confirm key. I assume they’re rehearsing in F major, unless someone can correct me on that point.
But in any case, there are several observations to be made in watching this rehearsal:
- They used humour… lots of it. As you likely know, humour was a big part of everything individual members of The Beatles did. Humour keeps things light, and allows ideas that you think might be a bit wacky to come forth.
- Their rehearsal time was, shall we say, unstructured. They’d start and stop spontaneously, even start suddenly improvising on a completely different tune.
- They’d throw in ideas even if they knew those ideas wouldn’t make it to the final version. Some bits were rehearsed slowly, some quicker, sung in different styles, using different voices.
- They used the rehearsal to come up with ideas to arrange the song. At times, they’d drop the vocal out entirely to try various instrumental ideas.
The lessons you can learn from watching this video are particularly relevant today because songwriters are often in the position (for better or worse) of producing their own recordings. The line between songwriting and producing is blurry now. It’s important to find the best possible way to present your song once you think you’ve got it written.
Even if your song is meant for you as a solo singer, turning the recorder on, letting it run, and then just trying out your ideas gives you the chance eventually to listen to those ideas to see which ones you might keep and which ones you might toss.
And the great thing about this kind of rehearsing is that you don’t have to keep anything you don’t want. But it does allow you to toss anything you want into the mix and see where it leads.
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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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