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For every way you can start your next song, there’s a pro and a con. Usually, as long as you know what the potential downfalls are, you can avoid them. So what are the possible problems that can arise with starting a song with a chord progression? Chief among them is a melody that wanders without a strong sense of shape or direction. But if you know that that can happen, it’s easy (relatively!) to make sure your melody has the contour and musical focus that allows it to be memorable.
There’s another problem that can arise from chords-first songs: the mistaken belief that chord progressions need to be exceptional, one-of-a-kind harmonic configurations. The truth is that most songs that become hits use very simple progressions.
So starting with chords first should not mean that you need to develop a progression that grabs people’s attention. It’s the things you put around that progression that should be drawing attention, like melody, rhythm, hook, lyric, and so on.
And now for the benefit of a chords-first song: It usually ensures that the journey your harmonies take actually works! A hiccup in your chords, where one chord doesn’t smoothly flow to the next one, can sink a song. Focusing first on chords allows you to hear the progressions uncluttered by melody or lyric or any of the other song elements.
So here’s a step-by-step procedure for making sure that chords-first songs have a fighting chance of being successful.
- Create a chord progression that’s basic, one that doesn’t use more than 4 or 5 different chords.
- Develop a backing rhythm and play through the progression. (It can also work quite well to dial up one of the standard drum kit patterns on a MIDI synth and play your chords over that pattern.)
- Improvise melodic shapes. Don’t worry about trying yet to create a full-fledged melody. Get your voice moving up or down. Don’t worry about words, but if certain words come to mind as you’re improvising, so much the better. Be sure to explore the full range of melodic ideas going on in your head. Most of what you’ll come up with will be garbage. But once in a while, you’ll hit on an idea that seems to work. When that happens, repeat it over and over, maybe modifying it a bit to see if there’s an even better idea hidden inside that one.
- Try some basic chord substitutions as you create your melody, to expand the colour of your harmonies. Substitutions in chord choices can help fit in problematic melody notes. For example, if your progression uses a IV-chord (F in the key of C major), try a ii-chord (Dm) instead. Other chord substitutions might include modal mixtures, secondary dominants, inversions, etc. (Read more about these kinds of chords here. – Opens in a new tab/window).
At this point, you’re song is well underway, so you can just use your musical instincts from here. When using the chords-first method of songwriting, I like to remind writers of a very important fact: how you know a chord progression is working well is if you don’t really notice it. When you listen to your song, if you find yourself focusing on lyrics and melody, it means the chords have done their job.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is one of a set of 6 songwriting e-books that will show you how to write great songs, harmonize your melodies, and give you hundreds of chord progressions in the process.
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