If you start writing by trying to improvise random progressions, you’re likely wasting a lot of time.
Written by Gary Ewer, author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-ebook Bundle.
There’s nothing random about a good chord progression. Those with some knowledge of music theory will know that. If it sounds good, there are real, identifiable reasons for that.
That makes it sound as though improvising chord progressions isn’t going to do you much good, but that’s not necessarily true. True enough, it isn’t going to do you much good if improvising means strumming any chord that comes into your mind. That will only eventually work if you have a lot of time to waste.
If you like improvising on chords as a first step to songwriting, here’s a list of ideas that can get your creative juices flowing, and will also maximize your time:
- Use published chord charts as a first step. Using chord progressions that have already been written down and “tested” saves you a lot of time. The best chord progressions are predictable (in the best sense of that word), and so why try to reinvent the wheel? There are lots of books out there with hundreds of chords ready for you to use.
- Modify a working progression to create something unique. If using chord charts worries you because you fear you’re going to miss creating something unique or exciting, you’re missing the point of what makes a progression unique. Take a close look at any progression you’ve heard and enjoyed for its innovation, and you’ll probably find that it’s only 1 or 2 chords in that progression that are particularly ear-catching. The rest is pretty normal. So the best way to proceed is to take a working, simple progression, play it a few times, and then start improvising unique replacements for chords, one chord at a time. For example, something simple like this: C Am Dm G C can become C Am Bb G C, or C Bb Dm G C, etc.
- Improvise short progressions by using long progressions as a starting point. Try this: create a long progression – something like 7 or 8 chords in length, like this: C F Am G F G C (I IV vi V IV V I). Now, start with the final chord, jump backward into the progression to a chord near the middle, and then play forward (normally) through the progression. If the 7 or 8 chords make a good progression, then any part of that progression, from any midpoint to the end, will also work.
- Improvise short progressions by extracting 2 or 3 chords out of the middle of a long progression. If a long progression works, 2 or 3 chords from the middle will also work. So in other words, take the progression in Tip #3 above, extract the 3 chords Am G F, and try moving back and forth between those 3 chords before continuing onward.
- Steal progressions from great songs as a starting point. Chords are not typically protected by copyright, so take a progression that you really like from a song that you love, and modify it as in Tip #4.
The idea behind these tips is to give you something that works as a starting point. That eliminates a lot of time wasted trying to find a progression that works in the first place. Once you’ve got chords that you like, use them to help create a melody by reading this post.
Written 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.“)