Writing a Chords-First Song: Creating Layers

Written by Gary Ewer, author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-ebook Bundle.


Guitar duoMany songwriters like the chords-first approach to songwriting. That’s mainly because the chords do such a good job of establishing a mood, and for many, getting the mood right is an important first step.

No matter how you start, songwriting usually becomes an exercise of creating layers of musical elements. In so doing, it’s normal to switch from focusing on one particular layer to focusing on another.

If you like starting with chords, here’s a few steps that can get you going:

  1. Create a short 2- or 3- chord progression. Find something that’s catchy and satisfying, and then experiment with it. Try different rhythmic patterns, different time signatures (4/4 and 3/4 are the most common ones). And alter your playing style, from strumming to picking to everything in between. All of these ideas will keep subtly changing the mood of your song. The possibilities are endless. Suggestions to get you started: 1) Dm-G-C; 2) Bb-C; 3) Em-Dm-F-Dm; 4) F-Dm-F-G; 5) C-Eb-Bb-C; 6) C-G/B-Am.
  2. Create some melodic fragments that work with your chords. You’ll find that every time you revoice a chord, a new melodic idea will occur to you, because revoicing usually means that a different note comes out on top. Don’t worry about creating a full melody at this point. Just hum some ideas. Be sure to record everything you come up with.
  3. Choose a song topic, and then create word lists. Even if you’ve only got a rough idea of what you want to write about, you can create lists of words that pertain to that topic. For example, if some aspect of social justice is your topic, creating lists of words will give you the song’s basic vocabulary. My suggestion is to create two lists, one with words and phrases you might find in a verse (descriptive, narrative-style words), and the other with words you might find in a chorus: emotional ones. As melodic and lyrical ideas appear, start to fuse them together into lines of music, with complete chords, melody and lyrics.
  4. Expand your chords. So far, you’ve only been working with those original 2 or 3 chords. Expanding on those chords means:
    1. Figuring out where in your song those 2 or 3 chords go. Are they tonally strong? (i.e., do they strongly indicate a key, like Dm-G-C?) If so, they may work best in a chorus. Are they tonally fragile? (i.e., do they sound a bit more ambiguous, like Am-Bb-F-G?) If so, they may work best in a verse.
    2. Finding other chords that sound like they could either precede or follow those chords.
    3. Creating more melodic and lyric bits that work with your new chords.
  5. Bring sections together. The normal way to work is to move back and forth between layers: from chords to melody to lyric. There’s no one right way to do it, but as you work on one layer, ideas for other layers should become obvious.

At this point, you should have all the guidance you need. There comes a point at which your songwriting process gains its own momentum, and you simply keep going in however that process dictates.

It’s wrong to think that there is one best way to write. You may be a lyrics-first songwriter, needing to get most of the text working for you before you start in on the music. Or you may need to get the melody and chords close to finished before you can even know what the song is going to be about. There is no one right way.

But if you are a chords-first writer, I truly believe that layering all elements together as you go is the best way to get a good song working for you. Chords will produce a mood, mood will produce melody and lyrics, and then it’s simply a matter of bringing all those layers together.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-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. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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