Piano and guitar - songwriter

How the Chords You Use In Your Songs Create (or Inhibit) Momentum

Forward motion, or momentum, is an important characteristic of songs. Simply put, momentum makes one moment of a song lead naturally — sometimes almost impatiently — to the next moment. If you hear a verse that seems to “beg for” the chorus, that’s an important characteristic of momentum.

Audiences aren’t usually thinking in terms of momentum when they listen to music. You’d rarely hear someone say, “I like the song, but it seems to lack the requisite momentum…”

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How you know that momentum is working well for you in a song is if you sense that you want (and almost need) to hear the next moment. A lack of momentum means you could easily turn away from the song and listen to something else; you’re bored.

The creation of musical momentum typically happens on an instinctive level. As you write a song, and you feel excited about the way it’s turning out, it’s likely that the song is using the “tricks of the trade” that keep people listening. These usually include:

  • lyrics where one line needs the next one to help the listener understand more about what’s going on;
  • melody lines that gradually move upward;
  • melody lines that end on non-tonic notes;
  • instrumentation that occasionally becomes thinner and more transparent (the audience can tell that a fuller instrumentation is upcoming)
  • chord progressions that end with an open cadence.

It’s that last one I want to focus on right now: chord progressions. Most songs will be sectional: verses, choruses, maybe also a pre-chorus, bridge, and/or other miscellaneous sections. What’s ideal, especially if you think your lyrics and melodies aren’t doing the job of creating forward motion, is to have a chord progression at the end of a section use an open cadence.

An open cadence, in its simplest terms, means having a progression end on a non-tonic chord. Play the following simple progression:

C  Am Dm  G7  C

The C chords are the tonic chords, and the G7 is a dominant chord. There’s nothing wrong with that progression, and as you likely know, it’s a very common one that happens in a large percentage of songs. The end of that progression, G7-C, is a closed cadence. It means that the G7, which contains a certain amount of musical tension, mainly coming from the fact that it’s a dominant chord.

Once you land on that final C chord, you feel a sense of “rest”. The feeling of rest is powerful, but if it happens at the end of the verse, let’s say, it might make everything stop a little too abruptly, killing the sense of forward motion.

You might try an alternate plan: end your verse with that dominant chord — the G7 — and then start your chorus with what would otherwise have been the end of the progression: C.

This ending of a song’s section with a non-tonic chord is often done instinctively at the end of a bridge or instrumental break before the return of a verse or chorus. (Lennon & McCartney’s “For No One” is a good example: McCartney places the dominant chord (F#sus4-F#) at the end of the bridge before returning to another verse that starts on the tonic (B).

It’s not wrong at all to end a song’s section with a tonic chord (and in fact, it happens a lot in “For No One”). But if you find that the end of your verse sounds a bit “blah”, and you wish that it had a bit more of a drive to the chorus, ending your verse on a non-tonic chord, like a dominant (G in the key of C), or supertonic (Dm in the key of C), might be all it takes to inject some helpful momentum.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Essential Chord ProgressionsSometimes all you need are lists of chords to get the songwriting process started. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle includes “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” Use the suggested chords as is, or modify them to suit your own songwriting project.

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  1. Pingback: The Daily Muse – May 15th, 2020 | All About Songwriting

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