Helping an Audience Understand Your Weird Chord Progressions

Here’s a quick tip for you if you like complex chord progressions: keep the weirdness toward the middle of your progression, and make the beginning and ending of it tonally strong.

Here’s what that means: Most songs in the pop genres are going to be in one key or another, and so if you want that key to be at least somewhat clear to your audience, you’re going to have to end it by giving them something predictable and strong.

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So no matter how complex your progression is, you’ll probably want to end it on a tonic chord (I), approached by something predictable (V-I, or IV -I, or ii-I, or even bVII-I, for example).

The same goes for the beginning. Keep the start of your progression relatively strong and unsurprising. So I-IV, I-V, I-ii… these are all great ways to start.

So far, you have this:

Chord Progression Line Drawing

Once you’ve set up a tonally strong beginning, you’ve gained the trust of your audience that you know what you’re doing, and also makes them more willing to hear something a bit more challenging to their ears.

So that middle section might do any of several things (sample keys and fragments of progressions shown in brackets):

  1. It might move briefly into a new key area. (Beginning: C minor // Middle: Eb major // End: C minor)
  2. It might introduce non-diatonic chords (chords that don’t belong to your chosen key. (Beginning: C major // Middle: Fm – Ddim – G___Ab – Dbmaj7 – Ebsus4 – Eb //End: C major)
  3. It might simple wander around, being tonally ambiguous, pulling back into the original key as the melody comes to an end (Beginning: C major // Middle: Gb/Ab – F/G – Bb/C – A/B, etc… End: C/D  F/G  Cmaj7)

The point is, there’s a lot of strength that comes from keeping chord weirdness to the middle part of a song section, and moving back into something much more predictable and tonally strong by the end.

So if you find that your own songs sound a bit too aimless for your liking, where you find that your listeners are getting lost in your creative approach to chords, the problem may be that you haven’t given them enough to understand clearly before moving into something more ambiguous.

And keep in mind that if you want to strengthen a tonally ambiguous moment in your chords, try modifying what you’ve come up with in such a way that adjacent chords have roots that are a 4th or 5th away from each other. Even just one change can help.

An example:

C  Db  Bb  A  Ab  G  C.

It’s creative, and it can be made to work, especially in slower tempos. But if you’re finding it a bit too random for your audience, try changing that Ab chord to a Dm. Dm is good for several reasons: it’s in the key of C major, it’s a 4th up from A before it and a 4th below the G that comes after. So it really works well to strengthen the end of that progression.

One final thought: Chord progressions are hard to evaluate out of context. Some progressions can be aimless almost from beginning to end and still come across as fine and workable. So determining if or how to fix a progression really depends on your ears, and your assessment of how it’s working.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper

Composing Opposites as a Songwriting Exercise

On those days when you’re between songs and don’t know what to write about, you can avoid frustration — and ultimately writer’s block — if you change your focus and work on some songwriting exercises.

The end result of a songwriting exercise is usually a fragment — a fragment that might or might not ever work its way into one of your songs. The value in creating these fragments is the training your musical mind, training that will help you create future songs with more ease.

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There are lots of different kinds of exercises that might help. Some involve speedwriting (check out “The Many Benefits of Speedwriting Your Songs“), some might require you to focus on one or another specific song element (“4 Fun Games to Hone Your Lyric-Writing Abilities“), and they’re all meant to polish your musical instincts and make you a better songwriter in the long run.

As you likely know, contrast is a vital part of songwriting/musical success. Loud/soft, high/low, full/transparent… there are many ways that songs present opposite characteristics in close proximity, and we love hearing those contrasts.

So we love the loud raucous intro of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which then suddenly gives way to a very transparent, quieter verse, and back to a loud, energetic chorus.

We love the low verse melody of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” which then jumps an octave higher for the chorus.

We love when opposites take their time as well. We love the long, slow build of “Shallow” (Lady Gaga, Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando, Mark Ronson), and love how the constant build grabs our emotions and pulls them along with it.

Sometimes opposites are a result of production-level decisions, but you can also create opposites as a songwriting exercise. Here are a few ideas for working on creating musical fragments by considering opposites:


The most obvious opposite we present in typical song lyrics is the contrast of narrative-style with emotional. So try this: Think up a song topic (don’t obsess over this… anything will do: a break-up, love for your child, world peace… that sort of thing). And now write two quick lyrics, a verse-type lyric that tells a part of a story, and then contrast it with a more emotional, reaction-style lyric that you might find in a chorus.


Verse (narrative style):

You told me not to wait around any more,
It’s time to move on, time to walk out the door… [etc.]

Chorus (emotional, reaction style):

How do I keep from going insane?
Don’t toss me aside, there’s nothing to gain… [etc.]


Of the many ways you can create opposites in melody-writing, try this one:

Create a simple chord progression, something like:

C  Dm  F  C | C  Dm  F  C | Am  F  G  Am | C  Dm  F  C
I  ii  IV I | I  ii  IV I | vi  IV V  vi | I  ii  IV I

Now create two melodies, 1) one that sits relatively low in pitch and avoids the tonic note; and 2) one that sits relatively high and features the tonic note as an important beginning and/or ending.

The low one would work as a verse melody and the high one as a chorus. There are other ways to practice your melody-writing skills; for example, try starting on a high note and work your way downward. Now go through the progression again, starting on a low note and work your way upward.

Chord Progressions

The most obvious opposite with regard to chords is to contrast major with minor. In the progression above, you’ll notice that the third phrase switches focus to minor (Am F G Am), and it creates a pleasant sense of contrast that keeps the entire fragment from becoming a boring repetition.

Try transposing a short progression higher or lower, even into a new key. Something like this:
C  F  G  C |Am  Dm  Em  Am|| or…
C  F  G  C |Eb  Ab  Bb  Eb

Opposites have a way of grabbing a listener’s attention in very positive ways. Opposites can create musical momentum that makes us extremely curious and want to keep listening.

For each of the ideas above, don’t worry about writing a full song, but be aware that some of your ideas will be enticing enough to include in a future song you’ll be working on, so be sure to record/document everything you do, and keep those ideas!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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songwriter pondering the future

Setting Targets Will Make Songwriting More Fulfilling, More Exciting

If you’re looking to become a better songwriter and wondering why that’s not happening for you yet, you only need to look at the kinds of goals to targets you set for yourself. Songwriters who struggle are usually guilty of one of the following:

  1. The goals they set are unrealistic. (“I want to be writing songs for pop music’s biggest acts within the next year.”)
  2. The goals they set are too vague. (“I want to be a better songwriter.”)

Setting targets for yourself is a vital part of becoming a happier, more successful songwriter. Without targets to aim for, you’ve got no way of knowing what you’re supposed to be achieving. But they need to be realistic, and they need to be specific.

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songwriter improvising melodies and chords

Improving Your Ability to Imagine Melodies

If the songs you write come about as a result of improvising — either by yourself or with other songwriters/players — you probably find that the various components of a song come together in layers. A bit of this, a bit of that, and it all eventually glues together.

If you’re writing songs by yourself, you may find that it’s the chords that happen first, to which you add a bit of a rhythmic groove, and then melody happens.

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Most of the great composers wrote their music by imagining melodies as a first step, and then working out the chords that might accompany them. In fact, imagining melodies and coming up with chords happened almost simultaneously for the Beethovens and Mozarts of the classical music world.

That’s because their minds were already organizing melodies that have a strong sense of harmonic direction; no one was composing melodies made up of notes that were just moving around randomly. So the melodies, if they were good ones, implied the chords that might go with them.

The Melody-First Process

Coming up with a melody first, with nothing else in your mind at the time, might seem scary to you, but I think that if you give it a try you’ll enjoy what happens. And what happens is usually this:

  1. You hum a few notes, and you find that you create catchy patterns consisting of short, repeating ideas.
  2. Those ideas, if you just start humming, seem to centre themselves on certain chords, often the I, IV or V chords (in either major or minor).
  3. You find that you can imagine when chords might actually change.

All of this is to say that you already have the basic ability to imagine melodies, because you can also imagine chords and the general tempo and feel of music.

So why do so many songwriters like the chords-first process over the many melody-first methods? What is it about coming up with chords that makes songwriting seem easier than coming up with a melody? Mainly, it’s that you can create pretty good songs with very few chords. Even two chords can be enough to get most of a song worked out, like American’s “A Horse With No Name” (Em D6/add9)

And chords have a way of creating a mood almost immediately, while a melody (and this is usually a strength of the melody-first methods) can be manipulated into different moods depending on the chords and accompaniment specifics.

So if you’re going to write songs using the chords first method, you’ve probably got the mood of your music established pretty early on in the process. But what do you do to create melodies? How can you improve your ability to imagine melodies once you’ve got the chords?

Here’s a short list of ideas that will hopefully help you out:

  1. Create your chords, record them, and let them sit in your mind for several days. Listen to them over and over on a loop, and start improvising melodies vocally. It’s a great activity as you walk to work or school, or sit in your car at rush hour. And because you’re doing this over several days, you will likely find that your musical mind goes looking for new ideas, and that’s a good thing.
  2. Change how you play your chords. Alter the tempo, the time signature, the notes you choose to be the tops of the chords. The more you change the way you play the chords, the more likely it is that you’ll come up with something unique as a melody.
  3. Choose a good progression, but don’t stop experimenting. Some things to try: change up the order of the chords. For example, if you’ve chosen Am G Em Am as your basic progression, try Am Em G Am, and even try a different starting chord: Em G Em Am. Substitute chords. Nothing’s cast in stone.
  4. Explore vocal range. Play your chosen progression on a loop, and start by improvising melodies that are generally low in pitch. These ones will work well for verses. Then try melodies that are mainly high in pitch, comprised of short, catchy patterns that might work as a chorus hook.

By spending this kind of time on working out your melodies, you avoid the problem of melody boredom; chords-first has the inherent danger of making us ignore melody.

The main benefit of focusing as much as possible on melody early in your songwriting process is that you’re focusing on the bit that everyone will hum. You’ll notice any little problems with your melody right away, and it helps you as you start layering other components underneath it.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Chord Progressions, Melody and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
Songwriter - editing music

The Confidence to be Honest as a Songwriter

You’ve got little to no hope of achieving your goals in songwriting, or any of the creative arts, if you don’t have the confidence to be honest about your songs.

Confidence refers to your ability to stand behind and believe in your songs even though others might dislike them.

Honesty refers to your ability to hear your songs exactly the way others will hear them.

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If you falter and dismiss your own songs because someone else doesn’t like them, you don’t have the confidence needed to move upward in the music business.

If you find that everything you write sounds wonderful to the extent that you miss crucial opportunities to improve your skills, you don’t have the honesty or objectivity needed to advance from the amateur world to the professional world.

Tricky Tightrope

It’s a tricky tightrope upon which the best songwriters find themselves balancing. Too confident? You’re probably missing opportunities to hone and polish your music. On the other end of the spectrum, you might find your confidence collapsing simply because someone else dislikes your music.

If you are a songwriter with both of those characteristics in proper balance, the following statements likely pertain to you:

  1. You feel pride in every song you complete — but you don’t let pride cloud your musical or artistic judgment.
  2. You feel disappointed if someone expresses dislike for a song you’ve written —  but you don’t use that opinion as the sole reason for changing the song.
  3. You feel able to listen to your songs objectively and honestly — and you work to hear them the way others hear them.

Confidence in your songs should never prevent you from seeking out advice from good songwriters and good producers that you respect and admire. Listen to that advice; you’ll find that more often than not, their advice is sound.

Professional producers with experience in your genre will almost always give you advice that will help you tap into your target audience.

Professional songwriters will be able to help you by teaching you the lessons they learned the hard way.

The Top of the Creative Tree

To be innovative and unique in the songwriting world means doing something that no one else is doing. That requires confidence, because you’ll be at the very top of the creative tree, and it’s a lonely spot.

For every song you write, you need to ask yourself, “If someone else had written this song, would I like it?”

You might find that it takes a lot of objective honesty to be able to answer that question truthfully.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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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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