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Of all the elements that go together to create a song, most people will tolerate predictability in chords more than in any other element. Predictability in lyrics usually amounts to triteness or corniness, and we don’t want that. Predictability in melodies means it’s been done before, and you definitely don’t want that.
But predictability in chords, though it means it’s been done before, usually has little or no negative impact. The progression I-vi-IV-V-I (C-Am-F-G-C) has been done thousands of times, you can still write a unique song using that progression, as long as it’s the melody and lyrics that are unique.
Mind you, if you are using I-vi-IV-V-I all the time, then there is a negative impact. That kind of predictability, where your listeners can guess what you’re going to do next, might not work well for you.
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Let’s try a little chord progression experiment. Let’s say you’ve got the following melody. (The letter names of each note have been added):
How do you begin the task of adding chords in such a way that it makes sense?
The most important task is to look at the notes on strong beats. If you don’t read musical notation, click above to listen to the melody sound file. You’ll quickly get a sense of the strong beats by noticing that the weak beats are punctuated by the snare drum.
It’s relatively clear that a C chord is going to work well for the first bar. For the second bar, there are several choices. You could continue accompanying the melody with a I-chord (C), as most of the notes in the melody come from that bar. But you could also choose a ii-chord (Dm), which accommodates the F and D, or even a V-7-chord (G7), which again works well with the F and D notes. The final bar looks a lot like a C chord.
But what do you do if those rather tame chord choices aren’t exactly what you want. What if you want to do something more creative? How do you choose chords that will still work with what you’ve got for a melody?
Here’s a way to work that often give the most musical satisfaction to your audience: Consider the beginnings and ends of a melody or musical phrase to be the tamest and most predictable, and leave the creative stuff for the middle.
As it shows, that diagram above can apply to a musical phrase (which is simply a line or two of melody/lyric), or it can apply to a longer melody, like an entire verse or chorus tune. It could also apply to an entire song section.
Simply stated, that diagram says: start your chords on something relatively simple, easy for an audience to grasp, then move on to something that might be a little more surprising or unpredictable, finishing up your phrase or melody by going back to more predictable chords.
In other words, if you’re going to add chords to your melody that provide a pleasing musical challenge for your listeners’ ears, stick it in the middle, and end with something a bit more predictable.
So you could take the melody I gave you at the top of this article, and harmonize it with the simple I-ii-V-I (C-Dm-G-C) suggestion (LISTEN), or your could use the middle of that melody to do something more creative: I – iv(minor) – bVII – I. (LISTEN).
You’ll notice that the “creative” part isn’t overly odd. The point is not necessarily to find a chord sequence that startles the audience, but simple provides something a bit off the mainstream chord map.
This also applies quite well, by the way, to the overall structure of most pop songs. The verse-chorus section together is usually fairly predictable, the bridge is where most of the creative chords happen, and then the return to the chorus repeats at the end is the move back to simple.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.