In the pop music world, songs need a groove, and that usually means that you need to limit the number of chords you use. A groove chiefly happens when the tonic (key) chord happens over and over again. Our musical instincts may tell us that playing that chord incessantly risks listener boredom, but that kind of repetition is crucial to the rhythmic groove.
Pop music that sits in a groove implies physical movement, and you’ll get that sense of movement by starting on the tonic chord, wandering one or two chords away from it and returning again. So if you are trying to write a song that people are going to dance to, long, complex progressions are not the way to go.
And particularly if your song carries a message, a story, or some other type of narrative, wandering into a long chord progression has the negative effect of taking your song “off-message.” Jay-Z’s “Run this Town” is a good example of a song that sits very successfully in a groove, and makes the point that the 3-chord song is alive and well, never straying from the Cm Bb Cm Ab progression.
But there are lots of ways a song can groove, and if, rather than hip-hop, you’re looking to write something more middle of the road, long progressions may still be a problem. Keep in mind that every time a chord changes, you’re pulling your listeners in a slightly different direction. It’s very much like going for a walk: the walk can be nice, but if it goes too far away from home base, it can make the walkers feel a bit unnerved. Make your chord changes concise, with a good balance between strong and fragile progressions, and you’ll have the groove that gets the audience moving.
A strong progression is one that strongly implies the chosen key, while fragile ones make it less obvious, or perhaps a bit more ambiguous. So C F G C is very strongly rooted in C major, while Dm Em Am C has weaker tonal focus because those chords exist in several possible keys. If you really want your song to groove, limit your chord choices, and use more fragile progressions in verses, with stronger ones in choruses.
So if your song seems to wander aimlessly, missing its groove, the problem may be the number of chords you’ve chosen to use in your progressions. Go back and look at your chord choices, and see if there are ways you can tighten up the progressions and use a few less.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how to write great songs. It’s just one of a suite of 6 songwriting e-books written by Gary Ewer. (His newest e-book, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- Chord Progression Formulas” is being offered for free when you purchase any other of his songwriting e-books.) Let these six e-books show you every aspect of how to write great songs! Read more..