When you talk about thirds to a musician, you’re usually talking about the space between two notes, like C to E, or D to F, and so on. In photography, the so-called “rule of thirds” is completely different: it refers to dividing an image into thirds using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines.
The theory is that objects that are a point of focus should be centred on one of the spots where the lines intersect, like in this image from the Photography Mad website:
Obviously, there’s no relation between the rule of thirds in photography, and thirds as we usually discuss them in music. But it got me thinking that in songwriting, as well as other kinds of musical composition, we also observe a kind of rule that’s similar to the rule of thirds.
Photographers are always thinking about the point of focus in a picture when they consider a photo’s composition, and that’s where the rule of thirds becomes tremendously important. By offsetting the butterfly in the photo above, it provides a sense of creative tension that encourages the eye to move, and the viewer to consider how the point of focus interacts with other aspects of the photo.
I won’t say more about it than that, as I am not a photographer. But in music, we also deal with a song’s point of focus, and in fact, most songs are a conglomeration of several points of focus. Some examples that might appear in a song:
- A song’s climactic high point (usually in the chorus melody).
- A crucial “other shoe dropping” moment in the lyric.
- A loudest moment in a song (either in the chorus, or perhaps during a song’s bridge.)
- A dramatic moment other than a climactic high point. (Like the scream at the end of the instrumental break in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again“)
In most songs, one point of focus usually takes precedence over all others. Most verses, for example, will have a moment that sounds somewhat climactic, but the climactic moment that occurs in the chorus will usually supersede the verse’s moment.
And you’ll notice that, just as in photography, the climactic moment sounds better and more interesting if it’s not in the middle of the chorus, but offset, coming in more toward the beginning of the chorus, as in Lennon & McCartney’s “She Loves You”, or toward the end, as in the refrain of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”.
By avoiding perfect symmetry in musical composition, we give the impression that other interesting things have and will happen in a song, but we can’t be sure during a first listening exactly when.
So it’s not exactly like the photographer’s rule of thirds, in the sense that we don’t typically divide the length of a song into thirds and place important events at the 1/3 or 2/3 location. But it does honour the basic idea of the rule of thirds: offsetting important musical structures so as to avoid simple symmetry.
Most of the time, songwriters will get this rule of thirds right by instinct. And there’s not much you can do about a song where offsetting musical focal points hasn’t happened. For example, there’s not much you can do if a song’s climactic moment happens exactly at the midpoint of a chorus melody. You’re not likely to rewrite your chorus to make it adhere to the rule.
But it’s still worth thinking about and considering, as a songwriter, that we find a song to be an interesting musical experience if we notice that all the focal points, both the big ones, like a chorus hook’s climactic moment, and smaller ones, like a verse melody’s high point, are not exactly in the middle.
If you’re like me, where you find yourself always looking for the ways in which artists in different disciplines are really all trying to achieve the same thing, the photographer’s “rule of thirds” is a great example.
If you like the sound of a minor verse moving to a major chorus, you’re in good company. Many songs move from minor to major. That natural “brightening” of the sound just seems to work really well.
To hear this in action, you might listen to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors”, or Taylor Swift’s “Style.”
Minor-to-major songs will work in any genre. It makes your verse sound pensive and moody, and your chorus sound confident and optimistic.
Here’s an easy way to create chord progressions that will work for you. You can start by choosing any key, and then transpose what you come up with to get it into the key that’s right for your verse. So let’s start easy: choose a chorus key of C major.
C major gives you seven chords that occur naturally:
C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim
Getting the Minor Verse Progression
The Am chord is the 6th chord, and that’s the one you’ll want to choose to base your verse progression on. There are any number of progressions that will work:
- Am Dm Em Am (vi ii iii vi)
- Am G F Am (vi V IV vi)
- Am F Em Am (vi IV iii vi)
- Am Dm C G (vi ii I V)
- Am Em F Dm (vi iii IV ii)
Keep experimenting and you’ll find even more. In your verse you may choose to use two different progressions, one for the first half of your verse, and then another for the second. That’s songwriting for you… there are no rules, and you get to say what the plan is.
As you can see, they all either start and end on Am, or they end on some chord that moves easily to Am, so creating minor turnarounds is usually not difficult at all.
Getting the Major Chorus Progression
To create a major progression, simply take the progressions above and substitute the vi-chord (Am) with a I-chord (C).
That one small change to the first chord is all you need to make those progressions sound suddenly brighter and more optimistic. Those five sample progressions would become:
- C Dm Em Am (I ii iii vi)
- C G F Am (I V IV vi)
- C F Em Am (I IV iii vi)
- C Dm C G (I ii I V)
- C Em F Dm (I iii IV ii)
It’s sometimes good to think about how to smoothly transition from the final chord of the verse to make for a polished switch from minor to major. But you may want to consider doing an immediate jump from minor to major — an abrupt modulation. In most cases, it will work just fine.
Dealing With Sameness
You’ve got one small issue that you may want to deal with, which is that both the verse and chorus progressions will be largely the same. It’s only a problem if you want something more contrasting.
An easy solution to the prevailing sameness between verse and chorus progressions done in this way would be to add a bridge section to your song that moves in some new direction, perhaps starting on the ii-chord.
There are many ways to create chords, and this is just possible way. The benefit to creating a verse-chorus chord partnership in this way is that creating the verse basically gives you the chorus, and you get quickly beyond the chord creation stage and into working on melodies and lyrics.
Each eBook in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundles shows you the fundamental principles that make great songs great.
Songwriters 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.
When a song is unfinished it can make you feel frustrated. That’s especially true if it stays in that unfinished state for a long time. Your best way forward is to develop a positive attitude to that song that simply won’t finish: think of it as material for some future song, leave it alone, and get to work on a new one.
Having several songs that you’re working on simultaneously is a great way to keep frustration levels low, and writer’s block from setting in.
For each of those songs, the musical elements you’re trying to put together are a collection of ideas. Each song, until you finish it, is musical material. That means you can rearrange those ideas, take some out, put new ones in, and keep working and reworking your song until you get something that clicks.
You can even take the ideas that you thought were going to be part of a separate song and combine them with another. The material for one gets pulled into a second one, and instead of two songs that are causing you grief, you get one great song.
Too often, songwriters think of a song as a musical “event” that requires your full and undivided attention until it’s complete. In songwriting, the expression “a change is as good as a rest” is very applicable, and very true.
So the best thing you can do to keep yourself feeling creative and positive is to allow yourself the freedom of working on several songs at the same time. And don’t be afraid to put songs on the back burner for a long time if the ideas aren’t happening.
Once you’ve got a song finished, how long it took to write it becomes very irrelevant. And become a much happier songwriter.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process,” along with a Study Guide. Learn how to make the writing of a good lyric the starting point for your own songwriting method.
If you find yourself fixated on improving your lyrics, you’re right to be. Over the long term, the quality of your lyrics is probably going to take you further than the quality of almost everything else you write.
If you find everything else about songwriting relatively easy (the melodies and chords), but struggle with lyrics, here’s a way you can practice your lyric writing: take a line from an existing song, and write your own line to follow it.
Stuck with how to get chords that fit the melody that’s rolling about in your musical mind? “How to Harmonize a Melody” will show you how to do it, with sound files that demonstrate the process. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
If the line you’re borrowing is well-known, you won’t be able to easily use it in your own song; I don’t recommend starting your song with “Lady Madonna, children at your feet.”
But creating your own line to follow an already-written line is meant purely as an exercise anyway. The first line is there for you, and you simply need to come up with something that gives the same feel and flow of the borrowed line.
It’s best if you choose a line from a song you don’t know, so do an online search for performers or songwriters you’ve heard of, but never really gotten into their music.
For example, if you’ve never been big into Imagine Dragons, do an online search for [imagine dragons lyrics]. I did that, then went to an online lyrics site, randomly clicked on “Selene” from their 2010 “Hell and Silence” EP.
The first line is “To the top of all the world.” Your job is to start writing second lines that could work with it. Try not to focus on what the actual second line is… just start brainstorming your own second lines. Try rhyming and non-rhyming:
To the top of all the world…
…I set my feelings free;
…you see the rolling hills;
…like flags and sails unfurled;
…I open up my heart;
The point of the exercise is that when you find lyrics hard to write, the first line is often the toughest one. When you’ve got that first line, you’ll find that a second line will often happen more easily.
What To Do With Your Invented Lyric
You may really like the lines you’ve written, and even though you wrote them all as possible second lines, you may find that they all work well as a pretty good verse lyric. If that’s the case, go back to the first line that you randomly selected, change that line, put your second lines together, and see what they look like:
From the top of the towering mountain
I set my feelings free;
You see the rolling hills
like flags and sails unfurled…
Not a great lyric yet, but sometimes it’s easier to edit bad lines than it is to come up with something while staring at a blank computer screen.
You can now edit, remove, or otherwise fix lines as you see fit. Sometimes getting just that first line of lyric given to you is all you need to get your lyric-writing juices flowing.
Thousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” to discover the secrets of writing excellent songs consistently. Comes with a FREE copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”
There’s nothing like the word “structure” to turn off an artistically-minded musician. When a song sounds good, we don’t necessarily think about its structure. We just revel in the fact that it just sounds great.
But when songs sound good, it’s at least in part due to its structure. So what exactly do we mean by structure?
Are you ready to have LYRICS take a much more important role in your songwriting process. You need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
It’s best to use an analogy, and building a house is a great one, because we often refer to houses as structures. No matter how beautiful a house looks, we need to know that its underlying structure is sound and supportive.
When that house’s underlying structure is solid, we don’t tend to think about it. We don’t need to be aware of the viability of the frame of a house in order to enjoy the rest of it. When we think about its structure, we appreciate it, but we like when it’s not obvious.
Musical structure works in a similar fashion. When it’s working for you, you end up with a song that sounds great, and your listeners don’t think at all about structure.
What are the things to think about when you consider a song’s structure? Probably the most important one is contrast:
- Loud/soft. Typically you’ll hear soft verses, louder choruses, and the cycling back and forth between those two sections gives a natural dynamic contrast that’s important in most songs.
- Low/high. Melodies are usually lower in verses, higher in choruses, and then the bridge will either contrast with the chorus to move even higher, or contrast by moving lower especially if the verse/chorus combination is all highly energetic.
- Major/minor. It’s a common songwriting technique to put a verse in minor, move to major for the chorus, and then wander between minor and major for a bridge. This constant shifting creates a sense of expectation in the listener. We tend to accept whatever key the chorus is in as the main key of the song, and when it shifts away from that key, we eagerly anticipate the return of the chorus key.
There are other important aspects of contrast as well. For example, verses tend to be unemotional and narrative in style, while choruses are usually more emotive and expressive.
So while a good house relies on the placement of strong beams, all attached properly to each other based on an engineer’s estimation of what will give the most strength, the strength of a song’s structure will largely depend on subtle contrasting of important musical features.
When it’s working well, musical structure is not obvious. Listeners are not usually aware that the song is moving, let’s say, from minor to major. It just sounds “satisfying” somehow.
In that sense, we can get away with the impression of strength, while a house builder can’t rely on impressions. It’s safe to say that in songwriting, a song that sounds good is good.
And contrast works because of the pleasant sense of anticipation it creates in your audience.
“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.
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.
Power Up Your Songwriting Skills!
Got good songwriting instincts? Those instincts might be letting you down. Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle, and get the skills you need to write great songs consistently!
or READ MORE
Gary’s YouTube Videos
Gary's latest video: "5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics"