Kris Kristofferson

The Power (and Danger) of Quick Changes Within Songs

There’s a concept in music that applies to chord progressions called harmonic rhythm. That term is used to describe how frequently (i.e., how quickly) chords change, especially in relation to how many notes of melody happen between changes. As you know, some songs use progressions where each chord is strummed for a relatively long time before changing to the next one: a slow harmonic rhythm.

A good example of this kind of song is Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Each chord is played for sometime 6, sometimes 8 bars, before moving on to the next one. And there are lots of melody notes — sometimes a couple of dozen — that get sung before the next chord change happens.

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Then there are the songs that feature quick changes, where there is only a note or two of melody before the next chord change. A good example of this: James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face,” in which the beginnings of many phrases feature a chord change on every beat, and only 2 or 3 melody notes happen before the next change.

Why is this anything to take note of at all? Isn’t it just a musical decision, like any other musical decision a songwriter makes in the writing of a song? Maybe, but there’s something important to consider with regard to harmonic rhythm: the quicker the harmonic rhythm (i.e., the quicker the chords change) the more energetic (possibly even frantic) the music tends to sound.

The fact that music can be made to sound relaxed or pumped up by virtue of how quickly the chords change is either a feature or a problem. If you’re trying to make your song sound relaxed but you’re changing chords every beat or so, you’re causing problems.

So good songwriters (like good composers down through the ages) have learned how to pace the changing of chords, using harmonic rhythm as a good way to generate or release song energy.

More Than Just Chords

But how quickly chords change is just one small part of a larger concept. It turns out that the quicker anything changes in music, the more energy is generated.

Here’s a short list of three musical features within songs that can make your song sound energetic and pumped up, or low-key and relaxed:

  1. Tempo. Though not always the case (because it sometimes depends on what’s happening in the backing rhythms), slowing a song down tends to relax the overall energy of the music.
  2. Backing rhythms. The Bee Gees hit single “Nights on Broadway” turns out to be a perfect example of this. In the first couple of verses we hear a backing rhythm (drum hi-hat, synth bass, and vocal lines.) that uses lots of 16th-notes, producing a very energetic feel. In the bridge, the tempo stays almost the same, but the backing rhythms greatly slow up and simplify (using dotted quarters and 8ths), cutting the song energy in half in the process.
  3. Melody. The number of melody notes with relation to chord changes is what we’ve been discussing, but it’s also useful to look at number of notes in general, regardless of what the chords are doing. This becomes a more complex issue because song choruses generally feature slower, more simplistic rhythms in the vocal line, even though we perceive a higher sense of musical energy. The higher energy comes from the elongation of melody notes particularly on the chorus title (usually incorporating that all-important hook). But in general, more notes equates to a more energetic musical presentation.

So this issue of rate-of-change becomes an important musical one to study in your own songs. Every song you write has an inherent level of energy that you hope the audience picks up on. But sometimes, if we’re not careful, we can be working at cross-purposes, trying to produce a relaxed sound in a particular song, without realizing that we’re changing chords every beat or two.

To produce a song that sounds relaxed and tension-free, you need to consider slowing the rate of change of some key song features. And chief among those are the rate-of-change of chords, backing rhythms, and melody notes.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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