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There’s a theory that not a lot has changed since the early days of what we call “Classical music” (i.e. the year 1600 through to the present). In fact, you’d be fairly safe in estimating that at least 90% of the difference between J. S. Bach and Bob Dylan really amounts to differences in performance style, not compositional style. Though the sound of today’s pop music is radically different from the sound of a Beethoven symphony, the compositional structure, the “rebar”, if you will, is very much the same. The constructional elements you find in the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are pretty much the same elements you’ll find in the music of Dylan, Bowie and Springsteen. And beyond.
Chord progressions work the same because the rules of harmony haven’t changed. Dominant chords still want to resolve to tonic chords.
It may surprise you (maybe even disappoint you?) to know that Classical composers were not usually very innovative with their choice of chords. In fact, if you strip Bach’s counterpoint down to its basic chord structures, you’re looking at something that might be considered downright dull: lots of I-chords and V-chords, with ii-chords and IV-chords thrown in for good measure. What complicated things harmonically was that he visited many keys within the same work.
Classical progressions were simple because Classical composers knew that most of their innovation had to happen in other elements within their compositions. If they innovated too much with regard to the way their chord progressions worked, the music would come crashing down.
It was later on, during the later Romantic era (mid-1800s through to the 20th century) that composers started to elongate and expand their chord progressions, and take listeners on longer “musical journeys.” But even in those musically complicated days of composers like Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, their chord progressions still worked, just with more twists and turns that made journey more interesting.
So that should mean that if you take a Classical era symphony and condense it to its basic chord progressions, those same progressions should work in pop music, right? Yes!
A good example would be “A Lover’s Concerto”, sung by 60s pop group The Toys. The writers, Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, simply took Bach’s “Minuet in G”, changed the time signature, and of course the performance style, and delivered a song that was not only something that sounded original, but reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.
But what about taking original chord progressions from Classical works and constructing entirely new songs? It’s easy to do; simply analyze those original works, and you’ll discover how beautifully they’ll accompany anything you’re writing today in the 21st century.
Here are a few progressions to get you started. A simple YouTube search of the original Classical work will show you how the composer used the progression:
Pachelbel: Canon in D:
D A Bm F#m G D G A D
Mozart: “Laudate Dominum:
E F#m7 E/G# Aadd9 B/A E/G# B7 Esus4 E
Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Cellos in G minor:
Gm Cm Gm Cm D D/C Gm/Bb A Dm
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7: ii. Allegretto:
Am E/G# E Am (Am) C/G G C
C B Bm [A Am] Am [E/G# Am] E Am
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 7:
F Gm C7 F Gm/Bb C F
G C G C G C G C (return to beginning)
Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 1:
C G C F C G C
And here’s a sample of the complicated way Russian composer Igor Stravinsky used harmonic progression:
Stravinsky: Le Baiser de la Fée: Scene III.1
Am F7 F#dim F Fdim Amaj7 F#m
And one other technique for borrowing from the classics is a bit like “modified stealing.” The story goes that Adler and Ross, who wrote the musical “Pajama Game”, took the opening bars of Mozart’s Sonata in C (K.545), slowed the tempo massively, and turned it into the blockbuster ballad, “Hey There.”
Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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I think so many people miss this when trying to compose new great works, of any genre, but especially in modern classical.
It is supremely easy to become hyper focused and obsessed with chord progressions – it’s practically irresistible once you learn how to hear common relationships or chordal functions by ear and then start paying attention to not only the songs on the radio but most of the songs you like – or used to like – and discovering that nearly all of them share the same chord progression, or perhaps even just a rearrangement of the same 4 chords! It can lead us to radically desire a departure from such well-trodden norms of musical nomenclature.
It just goes to show though that it’s really not the chords that are the importance here. It’s what you do with them. Chords, basic harmony is the way music works. Yes after a while it seems rote or predictable or oddly like painting within the lines, while trying to claim a new piece.
But we must find a way to transcend that, without transcending our audience… Unless of course that is indeed your goal! Ahah!
But don’t think of chords as lines people want you to color within. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. I’ve learned that if it sounds beautiful, people don’t care what the chord or progression is. A great melody can take an otherwise weak sounding chord progression and make it perfect.
Think of chords as colors, without which you would never have a proper painting. Maybe you want something simple that only has 1 or 2 colors. Some might find that boring. But others might find it comforting. But if you refuse to use colors at all, well IMO whatever art you manage to come up with is not going to be very enjoyable LOL however that is an opinion-based allegory.
Then again, music is art, so I suppose “fixing” inviduals by explaining this principal of harmony to them wouldn’t really fix them, but only change them, if they took it to heart.
I guess the real secret here is that famous classical composers didn’t throw out the one true great harmony that’s there in a vain effort to experiment or search for a new harmony. But they did have a lot of innovation and personality and either skill, practice and/or genius so that the whole of their works transcended the parts used. I think this should be a similar goal for ourselves – not becoming so hyperfocused on one aspect of music that we send our whole house of cards coming tumbling down because we refuse to ever use the same glue foundation ever again. Imagine if homebuilders refused to use foundation cement, or a pianist refused to play any white keys, citing the well heard argument “it’s all the same!”
See music theory is very useful for understanding music so that it becomes graspable and tangible even though it is abstract. Music theory allows us to approach art formation formulaically so that we can begin to teach one another the principles of something which they may not be inclined to, or may be inclined to but have no explainable names for… But it can have an undesired side effect of making people focus in on what can be understood as if they know everything. For there is an element of music which cannot be fully explained- the art of melody. For you can use 1 5 6 4 and sing the first thing that comes to your head – it might be great, it will almost certainly be alright, but there is no explanation for why it’s not as beautiful as the person who experienced true melodic inspiration and found that progression to be the perfect organic fit.
And yet still the complexity grows as one man’s treasure is another man’s mundanity.
Sure, it’s interesting to experiment outside of harmony, and to each their own, that’s why there are different artists I suppose, but let’s be real. It’s just like you said. If you don’t let yourself use the one harmony we have, the music will come crashing down, in one way or another.
Because what happens when I start hearing only the chord progressions of the radio songs? They all sound the same, they lose the feeling of inspiration, and I have to reach for straws to find anything new in (musical) life, and what I find usually sounds like trash… But hey, it’s new, it’s different! Hallelujah!
What happens when I embrace the predictable structure of harmony yet allow creativity to run abound? Then everything can be fresh again, if you don’t overthink it. Then it doesn’t matter when the chords are the same as the last time or 43 times ago or as so and so on the radio. It’s not the chords, it’s what you do with them, the melody and parts for them. Even law confirms this, as it’s not the chord progressions themselves that can be copyrighted.
This is a too-long way of saying that I fully agree, and was happy to see someone else talking on the subject to some degree.
The genius or talent or what have you of the classical greats shouldn’t be understated, but the fundamental principals of what made them great were first and foremost, an acceptance of the harmonic system that is built into our very beings and the world around us, and a willing to twist and sculpt that in whatever way they could.
P.S. banging random notes on a piano is more complex than any of the greatest classical compositions, but complexity is not truly ALL that people desire from music.
“If you strip Bach’s counterpoint down to its basic chord structure, you’re looking at something that might be considered downright dull.”
Nothing like dimishing the father of western music theory’s work down to crap in one sentence.
I’ve been studying theory over 40 years so I understand your point about chord progressions, but that sentence… ha! That’s quite like saying, “If you take away all of Ted Greene’s magnificent chord voicings you’re left with a dull guitarist.”
Take away the things that make ANYONE’S art great and unique and you’re left dull.
Thanks for writing. First, I would question your supposition that Bach is the “father of western music theory,” but that’s not important here.
When you quote-mine, as you’ve done in your comment, practically any statement sounds silly. That’s why instead of writing one sentence, I write many. I kindly suggest reading the article again, and making an attempt to see that sentence in its proper context. There is a more important concept being discussed here.
The idea of Bach as the Father in this Trinity is well placed. Beethoven himself called him the “original father of harmony” and he is generally considered the greatest composers of all time, at least in the Western tradition.
Wow… check your ego at the door, buddy.
As stated, I’ve been playing for 43 years and studying music and music theory for just as long. I’ve played with the best and learned from the best.
I read your article.
Address your errs through learning the facts of chronological music history (yes, Bach is known as the Father of Western Theory due to his breakthrough in the usage of the seven diatonic modes. This is music history 101. He expanded on the church modes like no one before him.)
I am always curious about the idolatry that exists in classical music. How most people, without even a second thought, prostate themselves in front of Bach, like this gentleman here.
Bach wrote great music, and he also wrote dull music. Yes, there was a lot of technical polish, but let’s be honest – his music died off. People didn’t perform them. Audiences didn’t care to listen to them. Bach’s music had to be ‘re-discovered’ by a bunch of 19th century hipsters – aka Robert Schumann and Liszt Ferenc – for it to be in vogue again.
Yes, we can heap praise on the man’s music. That’s easy. That’s _lazy_. Shouting “I like Bach” takes no courage. It’s a herd of millions, and you are amongst them. Great.
Your 50 years of music theory studies (I rounded it up for you, there) doesn’t produce original thoughts regarding Bach.
The author did.
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Once, when I needed to jam, I just stole the entire progression from Mozart’s 40th Symphony. I can never seem to come up with something as magnificent. But I use a lot of diminished chords and seem to mess around a lot with them, so much that I seem to be abusing them, even while accompanying an unsuspecing singer( one particular singer detested the diminished chord as he said it sounded “ugly”).
This is a great post. I had a piece that used a i-iv chord progression in A minor that I needed at touch of inspiration for. I basically used the Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Cellos in G minor progression (transposed the key to A minor) and got a flood of ideas for it, all loosely based around that and with a bit of a Stravinsky idea to finish it off!
Taking inspiration from classical chord progressions is something that can instantly improve a typical pop or rock piece yet not many do it.
Thanks for a great lesson!
Thanks for writing, Dan. And as you say, one of the best uses of tried & true progressions is to let them serve as an inspiration for something new you’d create.
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