A Song’s Harmonic Journey

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Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So WhatTrying to write a song that’s in a verse-only format? How you craft the chord progression is a vital part of keeping the listener interested. Usually, songs that are verse-only usually start on a tonic (I) chord, move away so that at its halfway point it’s somewhere else, after which it spends the rest of the verse getting back to the I-chord.

It usually doesn’t take many chords to get the job done. While some songs, like “Beth“, a huge mid-70s hit for Kiss, use no less than 19 different chords, others, like Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful Or So What“, from his 2011 album of the same name, barely give you more than one. Most songs in popular genres are going to fall somewhere in between — anywhere from 4-8 separate chords per song section.

In a very real sense, the chord progression defines a song’s harmonic journey. That journey usually starts at home (the tonic chord), wanders away, and then wanders back. That wandering-away-and-then-wandering-back quality of chord progressions is a vital part of keeping a listener hooked on your tune.

A verse-only design usually means that you’re writing one of the following:

  1. A verse that serves as a complete structure, where there’s no refrain or other kind of repeating line that finishes each verse. Amanda McBloom’s “The Rose” is a good example.
  2. A verse that ends with a refrain. (“God Only Knows”, by The Beach Boys).
  3. A verse that uses a bridge (either vocal or instrumental) for contrast. (“A Hard Day’s Night”, The Beatles).

In most verse-only songs (but not all), you can often look to the mid-point of the verse to see how far away from the tonic the verse has wandered. Some songs make this clearer than others; songs that demonstrate the extent of the journey more clearly are songs that have long verses. With “Beth”, which is a very long verse melody, you can clearly see this. The song starts in C major, on the tonic chord. Halfway through the verse, you’re sitting on Am, and the second half of the verse represents the journey back to the tonic.

If you want to create that kind of verse melody — the “wandering-away-and-wandering-back” kind, here’s a step-by-step. With this, you’ll create two chord progressions that will get joined together to form the complete verse:

  1. Choose a key for your song. Let’s use C major for demonstration purposes.
  2. Create a first-half chord progression that starts on the tonic chord (I), and then ends on some chord that will join nicely to the chord Am. Let’s end our progression on a G chord: C  F  Dm  G  Am  Dm  F  G (4 beats per chord).
  3. Now create a second-half chord progression that starts on Am, and then wanders back to the tonic chord. You’ll see that the first part of this second-half chord progression will “feel like” A minor, but you’ve got to get the progression moving toward C major for the last 4 chords: Am  Em  Am  Em  F  Dm  G  C.

What you’ve got is a verse progression that starts solidly in C major, moves into Am to start the second half, and then back to C major.

The reason this works so well is that when the listener hears what’s called the “internal cadence” on Am, they experience a strong musical curiosity, a kind of tension, that makes them want to hear the journey back to the tonic chord.

Many songs, no matter what format the writer uses, display some variation on this harmonic journey. If you analyze the progressions of most hit songs, you’ll see that most of them can be condensed to that kind of harmonic structure.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. With regards to chords and their Harmonic Function, it’s worth adding that
    besides The Root Chord of any key , being a Tonic triad built with three
    stable tones, example key of C Major built with 1 3 & 5 – C E and G .
    There are two other Tonic chords in most keys
    therefore The Primary Tonic of the key of C Major is A minor as it is built
    with two Stable tones the C and the E .The Secondary Tonic is the 3rd minor
    (E minor) this chord has one stable tone the E

    The harmonic function of any key has TONIC, SUB DOMINANT, DOMINANT.
    CHORDS .

    Knowledge of these facts is a must for a Music Composer, who wants to
    advance his or her Chord Structure knowledge using “Substitution By
    Function” something The Beatles did naturally in some of their songs,
    Songs that have become All Time Standards.

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