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Why So Many Songwriters Start By Working Out Chords

The basic mood your songs convey is one of the most important aspects of songwriting. Before anyone figures out even what your song is about, they can pick up a mood pretty quickly. And the one element that often conveys mood quicker than any other is the chord progression.

That, in a nutshell, is why so many songwriters start their songs by working out the chords. Chord progressions, and the way they’re communicated with tempo and rhythm, will convey a mood to the audience in very short order. You’ll find that it’s often easier to write if you start with the chords, because you’re guided and influenced by the mood they imply.

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There’s another reason we love the chords-first method. It’s because of all the components of a song, the chords are the least unique. Because many different songs (even different kinds of songs) will use similar chords, starting with chords gets you going pretty quickly, with great potential for then going in almost any direction.

There’s a downside to the chords-first method if you’re not careful, which is that your song’s melodies can take a hit. Once you’ve fallen in love with a chord progression, you’re more likely to modify melodic ideas to fit the chords than the other way around. A successful melody will take your song further than a successful chord progression.

And there are two few other pitfalls you need to try to avoid:

  1. A chord progression doesn’t give you a lot of ideas for melody, in part because most progressions are short.
  2. Because the focus is on chords, there’s a temptation to create longer, more creative progressions. But in most pop songs, a long progression can become aimless and long-winded. (This then makes for long-winded melodies that are similarly aimless.)

But I actually believe that, once you know about these potential shortcomings, you can avoid them and make good use of the chords-first songwriting method. While I’ve always believed that creating a melody first has a better chance of giving you something hummable and memorable, here are some tips for making sure the chords-first method works for you:

  1. Once you’ve created a chord progression, try different tempos and backing rhythms right away. The sooner you get to hearing all the possibilities, the better the end result can be.
  2. Take your chord progression and immediately try to find substitute chords. Chord substitutions can ensure that you’ve got chords that convey the exact mood you’re looking for, as well as giving you ideas for later verses.
  3. Play your progression over and over, and improvise new melodic shapes each time. Start low if you’re working on a verse, and start higher if you’re working on a chorus. Try scale passages, arpeggios (“broken” chords), leaping up and down — anything you can think of to generate ideas that will go along with your chords.
  4. Play your progression using different performance techniques. Try banging out solid chords on the piano, or gently arpeggiating them. Switch instruments — what does it sound like on a mandolin? A banjo? A 12-string guitar?
  5. Try different harmonic rhythms. The harmonic rhythm is a term that refers to how long you hold on to a chord before moving on to the next one. Try strumming a chord for 2 beats, then see if it changes the feel by holding on to it for 4. Or try mixing your approach up a bit: perhaps strum your first chord for 4 beats, then switch to 2 beats each for the next two chords… that sort of thing.

I think the key to getting the chords-first method working for you is to try experimenting with your chords as soon as you generate them. Don’t wait until you’ve got one single approach solidly cemented in your musical mind. The quicker you modify and change things, the more possibilities you’ll discover.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” takes a close look on getting the chords-first method to work properly. It includes a 5-step process for making the most of this favourite songwriting process. Don’t succumb to the pitfalls!

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