Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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When we create music, we often feel that our new creation has attained a life of its own. There’s something exciting about that, of course. But at the same time, we like to feel that the character and personality of our song is something that we’ve planned. There are times when an uptempo song can gain an unwanted “panicky” feel. Here’s how to get control of your song again.
Chord progressions, and how frequently we change chords, is usually the main cause of songs that feel frantic.
The rate of occurrence of chord changes is called harmonic rhythm. And you should keep this little guideline in mind as you harmonize your songs: the fast the song, the less frequently chords should change.
That is, if you don’t like the frantic feel. Changing chords quickly has a way of making songs sound jumpy and jittery.
Try the following experiment: play this chord progression at a moderate tempo, changing chords every 8 beats:
A D C D E F#m G D E D C D A
Now try playing it, holding each chord for 4 beats. Then every two beats. You should hear the energy of your performance increasing each time you shorten the length of time you hold each chord (i.e., each time you speed up the harmonic rhythm.) At two beats per chord, you become aware of the jittery feeling I’m talking about.
To more clearly make the point, if you’ve got the chops, play the progression with a chord change on each beat. At that tempo, the chord relationships take on a new character. That movement near the end of the progression (…D E D C D…) starts to sound weird, and the whole progression makes you feel like you’re on an out-of-control roller coaster.
As a general rule, consider the harmonic rhythm of your song to be inversely proportional to the tempo. The faster your song, the less frequently chords should change, as long as your after a quick tempo without the frantic feeling.
And there’s one other factor to consider: the actual number of chords you’re using. If it’s quick chord changes you want, but you don’t want the jitters, try to limit your chord choices to four or five chords at the most. Limiting the number of chords helps to keep the song under control.
Looking for chord progressions to use in your next song? Gary Ewer has published hundreds you can use right now in your own songs as is, or modify them as you see fit. See the “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” suite of downloadable e-books.