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A formula is simply a predictable procedure for writing music. In other words, you’re following a formula if you say, “Once I’ve done this, I need to do that…” For songwriters, there are two formulas that are often in play. The first, called a “chord progression formula,” is the sort of thing that describes how one chord follows another. The other type, the so-called “songwriting formula,” describes how your song unfolds, and refers to structural elements. In most cases, trying to follow a chord progression formula, at least much of the time, is a good thing; following a songwriting formula is, almost all the time, going to be a bad thing.
Usually when we speak of songwriting formulas, we’re talking about song form. And we usually mean more than simply talking about intro – verse – chorus, etc. Most songs need those things. We’re talking about writing a song that follows a previous song’s plan for the intro, a previous song’s plan for the verse, etc.
For example, we’re following a songwriting formula if almost all our songs start with a loud and boisterous intro, which then proceeds to a very quiet first verse, followed by a one-bar drum solo that proceeds into a loud chorus, followed by a bridge which starts in a minor key… that sort of thing. If, because that worked once, we use it again and again, we’re following a songwriting formula, and it’s not good.
Practically everything in songwriting comes from a formula of some sort, so you won’t be able to avoid using something that’s been done before. Think of this analogy: If you plan to take a walk that begins at some location, goes toward some particular spot, and then returns to the first location, it would be silly to think that you could create a walk that’s never been done before. Certain parts of that walk will need to be predictable.
But unless you come up with something creative for your walk, it will start to look like any other walk, and boredom sets in. So, to make your walk creative and inspiring, you will find unique moments, spots to linger here and there, or short little diversions that create other moments of interest.
So some aspects of songwriting will adhere to tried and true formulas: the fact that you’ve used a verse-chorus-bridge design, the fact that your chorus uses more emotive words than your verse, the fact that you’ve put a guitar solo in the bridge, etc.
Songwriting formulas become tempting especially if we start all our songs the same way. So if you have a favourite starting procedure (starting with chords, for example), try starting your next song in some other way. Perhaps with a bit of lyric, then develop a melody to which you add chords. Starting your songs in a different way almost always insures that you won’t follow a previous song’s formula.
So why, as the title of this blog posting says, are chord progression formulas good? Simply because progressions, to be useful to us, need to move in certain predictable directions.
Chords do not randomly move around. Their direction is inherently predictable. From time to time within a song, it’s a good thing to spring a harmonic surprise, but not often. More often than not (and I’m talking about the top-40 kind of song), it’s good to have chords that behave predictably.
And as long as you have some moments of unpredictable surprise, the strength that comes from a predictable chord progression formula will be a necessary aspect of your song.
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