Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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As a songwriter, you’re usually looking for ways to control song energy, usually building it as the song progresses. We know that there are standard ways to increase energy: dynamics (i.e. loudness), instrumentation, vocal range, and so on. And there is another way that you can increase energy, and it involves creating chord progressions that use the dominant note as a constant pedal.
In instrumental composition, this technique is known as “standing on the dominant”, and here’s how it works.
Let’s consider a situation where you’re writing the bridge of your song. Bridges will typically start with a chord other than the I-chord, because a bridge should temporarily move the listener away from the song’s key. So a vi-chord, for example, can be a good starting point for a bridge.
Eventually, that bridge will want to connect smoothly to the chorus, which will often start with a I-chord. How do we ensure that the connection is smooth? We often end the bridge with a dominant (V) chord. Here’s an example:
I ii V vi | I ii V I
vi IV bVII IV | vi IV bVII V
In this case, the bridge ends on a V-chord, making the transition back to the chorus smooth. But there’s a potential weakness here: the moving of V to I is quite predictable, and you might be looking for a way to intensify the energy. Here’s a solution.
Try elongating the bridge a bit by adding a phrase or two that moves off of the V-chord to other chords, ultimately returning to the V-chord. But keep the dominant note in the bass as a constant pedal tone. That dominant note creates the “standing on the dominant” I was referring to earlier. And that constant dominant note increases energy and expectation, requiring an eventual resolution to the I-chord. So the bridge might look like this (using chord names instead of Roman numerals):
Am F Bb F | Am F Bb G | Dm/G G F/G G
Song energy is increased in two ways. First, the extra four chords at the end prolong the bridge, and that prolongation intensifies the need to resolve to the I-chord of the chorus. Secondly, the constant G in the bass strengthens the anticipation of the eventual resolution. By keeping a dominant pedal, you’ve been able to intensify song energy.
This dominant pedal is a very noticeable technique, and so you’ll want to be careful how often you use it. A dominant pedal at the end of every bridge becomes trite and predictable, and predictability has a way of diminishing song energy.
Check out “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-ebook bundle. They can show you how great songs are written, and give you hundreds of progressions you can use right now in your own songs.