To describe a musical idea as “fragile” means that there is a certain measure of ambiguity. I like to use the term especially when describing chord progressions. A fragile progression is one in which any of the following are true:
- The chords do not strongly indicate the key. For example, moving back and forth from Am to Bm as the basis for your verse makes it difficult to discern the actual key.
- The chords imply a key different from the main section of the song. If the chorus is strongly in F major, but the verse seems to imply a different key — often the relative major (Dm) — the verse progression could be described as a kind of fragile progression.
- The progression uses lots of inversions, implied chords (1 or 2 of the 3 notes of the chord aren’t played), or uses lots of non-diatonic chords (chords that don’t belong to the key).
My descriptions above make it sound as though fragile progressions are unpleasant or defective, but that’s not the case at all. The most beautiful moments in music often use chord progressions with a pleasant ambiguity, or that avoid the understood key.
Writing a Song From a Chord Progression shows you the best way to start the songwriting process with chords. Chords-first writing has a way of making you forget about melody and lyrics. Follow the steps to better chords-first songwriting.
As I say, we typically use that term when describing chord progressions, but in fact, most songwriting elements can be described as being either fragile or strong.
Melodies, rhythms, lyrics, even instrumental ideas — these are all either strongly structured (and therefore often quite predictable), or they venture off the path, giving us interesting and pleasantly unpredictable musical beauty.
It’s hard to picket one song that ideally demonstrates this concept of fragile versus strong, because most songs need to demonstrate this, to some degree anyway, in order to be successful. But so that you can hear what I’m talking about, give Jack Garratt’s “Worry” a listen.
Garrett’s music tends to focus on rhythmic and melodic fragility, and you can hear in the verse how rhythms and melodic shape are complex in the verse itself. We then hear things “straighten out” a bit in the chorus, with the melody becoming more predictably structured, and the rhythms settling more into a groove.
The most important aspect of fragile versus strong that you need to remember as a songwriter is that fragile comes before strong in most songs.
In other words, it’s during the verse (and sometimes even the intro) where fragile, musically ambiguous structures make their best impact. During the chorus:
- chords should tighten up and become tonally stronger.
- Rhythms should become more predictable and make less use of complex syncopation.
- Melodies should become more repetitive and hook-based.
This moving back and forth from fragile to strong and back again is an important musical concept, and one that keeps listeners riveted to your song. It’s a concept that’s every bit as important once you reach the production stage of your song. A good producer will try to achieve that same fragile-strong move when considering volume, instrumentation, backing rhythms, etc.
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