The Killer Chord Progression? Just Give Me One That Works!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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When a song really works, everything seems to click together like an amazing lego sculpture. Non-musicians usually wonder: how did they come up with that killer chord progression, killer melody and killer lyric all in the same song? No wonder they think we’re magicians. But it’s actually not about killer anything. You just need elements that really click, just like these three examples.

For me, I actually like a chord progression and a lyric that makes me think, one that’s not too predictable. But I’m also very aware that in the past 50 years, the big hits have been ones that feature simple, basic chords, with simple melodies and uncluttered lyrics. Here are three great examples of songs where the individual components are simple, but they work together to create something close to magic:

Elvis Presley - Hound DogHound Dog. (Lieber & Stoller) The chord progression is a basic 12-bar blues. If a killer progression implies the use of something unique, it isn’t in this song. The lyrics are basic, and the melody is actually somewhat limited in range. But the song is fantastic because all elements complement each other. Nothing says everyday working class like the 12-bar blues progression. And the song would be pretentious if the melody were more than what it is. A great example of chords, melody and lyrics that really work.

Born in the U.S.A. (Springsteen) Songs that have an anthem feel generally have melodies that feature considerable contour, but “Born in the U.S.A.” is an anthem with a particularly strong social message. Such songs that make a poignant political statement work best when the melody dwells on one or two notes, and features a constricted melodic range. The chords are basic and few: B and E, with a relentless hook. It’s the lyric, or course, that really sells this song, and could probably be called “killer. But the song would have failed if Springsteen had tried to make more of the chord or melody.

Imagine (John Lennon) When your song has a simple message, simplicity in song construction is going to work best for you. “Imagine” is a gorgeously beautiful song that features a repetitious melody, repetitious and common chords, with very simple lyrical imagery.

There is really only one thing that needs to be “killer” in the world of songwriting: finding melodies, chords and lyrics that all support each other. Beyond the songwriting process, you then need a performance of that song that is killer.

I’ve just mentioned three songs that have become monster hits over the past few decades. But believe me, most of the hit songs of the past 50 years have been songs with melodies, chords and lyrics that are mostly unremarkable by themselves. It’s the connection they make with each other that really matters in the songwriting world.
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