Andy Grammer

A Chords-and-Melody Troubleshooting Guide for Songwriters

Is putting chords and melodies together one of your biggest challenges as a songwriter? Every song is unique, and uniqueness can sometimes make it hard to understand how chords can and should be supporting the form of your songs, and the melody notes above them.

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Take a look at the following tips. They’ll help guide you as you troubleshoot your songwriting projects.

  1. A fragile progression is one where the key may be slightly (or more-than slightly) ambiguous. (Ex: Em-Dm-Bb Am).
  2. Fragile progressions work best in a song’s verse and bridge sections.
  3. A strong progression is one where the key is clear and obvious. (Ex: C-F-G7-C)
  4. Strong progressions will work in any section of a song. (Ex: “Blank Space” – Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Shellback)
  5. Chorus sections almost always use strong progressions. (Ex: “Honey I’m Good” – Andy Grammer, Nolan Sipe)
  6. To apply chords to melodies, play your melody, tap what seems to be the obvious beat, and then make sure that any chord changes happen on strong beats.
  7. The melody note that happens on a chord change should usually belong to the chord of the moment.
  8. Melody notes in between chord changes don’t necessarily need to belong to the chord that’s happening at that moment.
  9. A verse that uses mainly minor chords can be a nice contrast to a chorus that uses mainly major chords. (Ex: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”)
  10. A chorus progression should usually be shorter and more tonally concise than a verse progression. (Ex: “My Little Town” – Paul Simon)
  11. In most songs, chords should change regularly — either on every beat, or every 2 beats, or every 4 beats, etc.

In spite of those guidelines, there is room for innovation; they aren’t rules. For example, songs that move from minor to major are common, meaning that songs that move from a major verse to a minor chorus are not common.

But some songs do that to great success: “Tragedy” (The Bee Gees), for example. And “Too Hot” (Kool and the Gang) uses a minor verse that moves to major for the 2nd half of the verse, and then back to minor for the chorus.

So don’t think of these tips as being rules. As with most guidelines in music, it’s best to consider them if you’ve written a song where something seems wrong. In that regard, they can act as a useful checklist to fix songs where something seems amiss.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Essential Secrets of Songwriting 9-Lesson CourseExcellence happens when you practice your technique. The 9-Lesson Course takes you through the fundamentals of writing good lyrics, melodies and chords, and helps you understand the concepts of great songwriting structure. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”

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