Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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FROM CHAPTER 4: “Harmony”
The Chord Muddle
For many budding songwriters, their biggest setback is simply not knowing how chords go together. It’s almost as if they think, “There are thousands of chords to choose from… which ones do I choose for my song?” This chapter is going to hopefully go a long way to clarifying what I call the chord muddle.
Chord Progressions – A Mystery No Longer
You will see more eyes glaze over when it comes to discussions of chord progressions than with almost any other aspect of songwriting. Everyone understands what good lyrics are (ignoring taste and writing ability for the moment!) and everyone has a basic understanding of beat and rhythm. But start discussing chord progressions, and that’s when the muddle begins. There are all sorts of theoretical reasons why progressions work the way they do, but I want to simplify things here. My desire to simplify is not actually to dumb anything down; I want to make sure you understand the basic principle at work here: If it sounds good, use it. Some composers are so fixated on “am-I-allowed-to” that they place “does-it-sound-good” second in importance, which is for any songwriter an error in judgment.
The neat thing is that the theory behind why chords work the way they do is quite simple. And if you find that a chord progression works, you’ll also find that music theory will support that progression. What we’re looking for are ways to simplify the process of finding the right chords for your song.
I like to use the analogy of going for a walk to describe chord progressions. The key that your song is in defines the chords you’ll use, just like the city you take your walk in will define what buildings you’ll see. That key chord, which we’ll be referring to as the tonic chord, is like your house. The other chords represent a short walk you take around your neighbourhood. Eventually you’ll return home again. It’s not complicated. But I have heard chord progressions that make me picture someone going for a walk, where they meander aimlessly through the town. And if they get back home again, it feels a like a surprise, and the whole walk was just unpleasant. That’s the chord muddle!
There are some great walks you can take around your neighbourhood that may involve visiting places you’ve not been before, but the walk should not be random. Any surprises on your walk should make sense on some level. You can’t set out from your house in Toronto, turn the corner, and find yourself in New York! There are ways to get to New York, but not randomly.
So what makes a good chord progression? Why do chords work the way they do? Why do some progressions excite us and pull us forward, while others sound lame and just sit there? Learning how to make chord progressions work requires us to learn certain things in a certain order. There are real reasons why some progressions work and others don’t. It’s not guesswork! This chapter has four sections, each one building on the knowledge of the previous section:
I. Chord Basics;
II. How One Chord Moves to Another Chord;
III. Integrating Balance When Building a Longer Progression;
IV. Expanding Chord Vocabulary.
In working through each section, we’ll uncover four basic principles of chord progressions. These aren’t rules; at best, they are guiding principles. And like anything in the arts, you will be able to list many songs that violate the principles. These principles are meant to merely suggest reasons for why songs we know and love work, and hopefully provide an analysis that you can apply, if you wish, to your own music.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”
is part of a 6-ebook bundle of songwriting texts designed to get you writing better songs. Including:
“How to Harmonize a Melody”
“Essential Chord Progressions”
“More Essential Chord Progressions”
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- LESSONS”
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- Chord Progression Formulas”