The success of a song comes down to how the various elements connect.
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One of the things that immediately attracted me to the song, “How Come You Never Go There“, by Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, is the sheer simplicity of its structure, including what you might call the “efficiency” of the chord progression. By taking a simple alternation of two chords (Am and Dm), Feist creates several other related progressions that to most ears sound almost the same. In fact, most online chord progression sites miss them entirely.
The song is a good demonstration of what I’ve been talking about a lot lately on this blog: simplicity winning out over complexity. It also shows various ways to expand the number of chords you use, subtly controlling the mood and avoiding harmonic boredom.
The formal design of “How Come You Never Go There” is as follows:
- 0’00” Intro
- 0’24” Verse 1
- 0’58” Chorus
- 1’09” Instrumental solo (guitar)
- 1’34” Verse 2
- 2’08” Instrumental Bridge
- 2’33” Chorus (repeated)
Because of the vamp-like repetition of the chord progression (see below), and the sparse instrumentation, the song exudes a meditative but edgy quality that really works well.
The progression starts with Am Dm, switching to the relative major equivalent of that (C F) before returning to Am. So most of the song is built over that progression: Am Dm Am Dm/F C F C Dm. The inverted Dm chord (Dm/F) is really just an F chord, with Feist’s melody note supplying the D to change it to Dm.
And depending on the melody note of the moment, that Dm chord also appears as a modal mixture D (at 0’34”). And there are other times when, because of implied harmony (i.e., mostly bass, with little chord structure above it), the actual chord quality isn’t clear.
So while you often get Am Dm, you also get Am D, Am Dadd9, and then Am D?
The melody seems to be constructed to fit with the chord progression’s short toggling-back-and-forth effect. The song is in a slow triple meter (3/4 time), and the melody is constructed of short 3-beat phrases all strung together. The ultra-short phrase lengths enhance the hypnotic quality of the chords. Melody and chords are truly partners.
The norm of having a chorus pitched higher than the verse is barely evident here. What we do get is a sudden rising of melody right at the end of the verse melody, which builds song energy for the chorus. But the chorus melody largely mimics much of what we’ve heard in the verse. The beneficial effect of this is the enhancing of the song’s meditative, hypnotic quality.
On one level, it’s a simple love-gone-wrong kind of song, but with its use of metaphor, imagery and other poetic devices ,there’s lots of room for interpretation, debate and discussion.
The room’s full but hearts are empty
Like the letters never sent me
Words are like a lasso
You’re an instrumental tune
It’s a great demonstration that lyrics can be powerful while using simple, everyday words.
So what specific lessons can songwriters take from “How Come You Never Go There”:
- Repetition works. Audiences love hearing ideas, motifs, melodies, lyrics and formal elements returning throughout a song. Repetition rarely causes boredom, especially in the popular music world where songs are rarely longer than 5 minutes.
- Connect chord progressions together by finding and using related chords. Create a progression, then find its relative major or minor equivalent. Experiment with modal mixtures, implied chords, and other techniques to expand on that original progression.
- Try to match melodic phrase length with chord progression phrase length. We often think of melodies when we think of phrasing, but chord progressions can also be constructed in the same way. If your basic progression is 4 chords long (e.g., C Dm F C), try constructing your melodies to be 4 bar phrases.
- The complexity of your lyric’s meaning shouldn’t mean resorting to words no one uses. You can develop a more intriguing lyric by using common words, concentrating more on developing images and metaphors.
- As you compose, ask yourself, “How is my melody supporting the lyric?” “How is my lyric helping the chords?” “Are my chord choices enhancing the song’s meaning?”, and so on.
Always remember, no song element acts in isolation from another. “How Come You Never Go There” brilliantly demonstrates this.
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