In the past ten years or so of pop music, it’s become much more of a thing to write hit songs that are mostly based on one single chord progression. It sounds like it would just result in music that is repetitive and boring. Or perhaps the better way to say that is: the job is to create a song that uses one progression without the song sounding repetitive and boring.
So let’s take a look at such a song and see what songwriters and producers do to keep boredom from setting in.
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Except for a short bridge section, Ellie Goulding’s “On My Mind” (written by Ellie Goulding, Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, and Ilya Salmanzadeh), uses the same progression for the verse, pre-chorus and chorus:
Bb C Dm |Bb C Dm |Bb C Dm |Gm
The song is a top-ten hit in several countries, and so it’s successful on a commercial level. But since songwriters are usually strongly aware of the need for contrast between verse and chorus, how does using the same chord progression result in a song that works?
The main difficulty with music that uses the same progression throughout is sameness. You can wind up with music that makes the listener feel that they’ve heard it all before they even reach the one-minute mark.
So why does “On My Mind” work? One reason is production. Musical instincts will tell you to keep verses sparse and transparent, allow pre-choruses to build, and use your thickest textures in the chorus. And we certainly get that here.
But there’s something more subtle going on with this song, and it has to do with the differing characteristics of the verse, pre-chorus and chorus melodies.
So let’s look at how the seemingly insignificant differences in each section’s melody amount to being enough to build song energy and keep the music interesting. Mainly, it has to do with symmetry.
Mainly based on one note repeated several times, with a small leap upward:
Begins with a large upward leap of a 6th, followed by a mainly descending melodic line:
Returns to the same melodic structural idea of the verse: one note repeated, with a small leap upward:
When melodies are sketched out in line-drawing form as you see above, it becomes easier to see similarities and differences. And the first striking similarity is that the verse and chorus melodies are built on the same idea: several repeated notes with a slight rise at the end. And it’s the very different pre-chorus shape that saves the day.
It’s not the kind of thing that listeners are overtly aware of. No audience member listens to the pre-chorus and finds themselves thinking, “I sure hope we hear a return to the repeated note characteristics of the verse.”
But without some structural element such as symmetry, songs with the same progression over and over again can have audiences turning away in search of something more interesting.
Symmetry isn’t the only possibility here. If you’re wanting to create music that uses the same chord progression throughout, here are some other ideas for structuring your melody successfully:
- Keep melodies moving upward. With a low verse, a pre-chorus that moves upward, and then a high-pitched chorus, audiences hear that melodic progression, and it builds musical energy in a natural way.
- Use active rhythms in the verse, less active in the pre-chorus, and then simple in the chorus. Verses can use lots of syncopation and shorter, faster rhythms in the verse. By using simpler rhythms in the chorus, you enhance the emotional value of your lyric.
- Keep instrumentation/production moving toward fuller textures as you move from verse to chorus. That provides an important energy build, and draws attention away from the never-changing progression.
- Use bass pedal point in the verse or the chorus. You can try keeping the same bass note underneath the verse and pre-chorus chords, and then switch to “normal”, root position chords in the chorus. That’s a great way to create the impression of the chords being different.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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