The Danger of Chords-First Songwriting, and Other Thoughts

“From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro” is an 82-page eBook that explores many of the important questions that you need answered if you’re looking for a career in professional songwriting. It comes free with your purchase of  “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle."From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro" Read more..


Piano Guitar Bass chording instrumentsMany songwriters get stuck at the chord progression stage of writing. That’s usually because most songwriters have an innate desire to be creative and unique, and chord progressions actually work best when they are predictable. In that sense, many writers go looking for “the killer progression” when in fact the simplest, most common progressions will often grab more attention.

In my eBook “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro“, the second chapter deals with chord progressions, and deals specifically with the myth of the killer progression. In fact, the point is made that a progression is only killer if it makes other song components sound better. It reinforces the point I made on this blog yesterday, that all elements within a song need to work well together.

Each chapter in “From Amateur to Ace” ends with a series of short snappers. Here are the 11 quick thoughts that come from the end of the chord progression chapter:

  1. In pop music, most chord progressions are relatively strong, not fragile (ambiguous).
  2. Good chord progressions will have a relatively obvious goal.
  3. For any one key, there are 7 chords that exist naturally in that key. All other chords are considered altered chords.
  4. The strongest progressions use chords whose roots are a 4th or 5th apart. That’s why circle-of-fifth progressions (C F Bdim Em Am Dm G…) are so strong and so common.
  5. All chord progressions can be described by using Roman numerals, where the tonic chord (the one representing the key) is called ‘I’.
  6. All chord progressions can be transposed to any key.
  7. Predictability in chord progressions is not a bad thing.
  8. Slash chords (inversions) need to have a reason for being used. Don’t just toss them into your music. The two most common reasons: 1) smooth out a jumpy bass line; and 2) provide a bit of chord variety if you’re using too much of the same chord.
  9. Songs that begin with the writer working out a chord progression run the risk of having boring melodies.
  10. Good chord progression contrast can happen as simply as using mainly minor chords in the verse, and major chords in the chorus.
  11. Most songs need a constant harmonic rhythm, which means a sense of regularity to the frequency of chord changes.

Thinking about point #9 above: starting the songwriting process by working out a chord progression is fine, but if you use that starting process for every song, you may notice the detrimental effect of having your melodies always taking a back seat to the chords. Melodies that are constructed after the chords can lead to melodies that lack structure.

The benefit that occurs when melodies come first is that you have a better chance of working out something that sticks in the mind and memory of the listener a little better. Also, good melodies imply good chord progressions.

Another way to say this is: songs will tolerate boring chords more so than boring melodies. The solution is to concentrate on creating melodic ideas that are strong, hooky and memorable, and then build chords that allow the melody to shine.


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One Comment

  1. Learnt new things from this post. Thank you.
    Anyway, can you write something about types of accompaniment? For example like, Alberti bass, chomping chord, or jumping chord? Would like to know more about those types of accompaniment.
    Just asking. ^^

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