Guitar - Songwriter

5 Tips For Using a Chords-First Songwriting Process

A chords-first songwriting process has a few challenges that need to be dealt with. One of the main problems is that there is a tendency to focus more on the chords than on the melody. That can lead to songs that don’t have enough of a tune to be memorable.

Hooks and RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

But this and all problems that come from a chords-first process can be solved if you’re aware of the issues at the outset. Here’s a short list of tips to keep in mind if you’re starting your next song by working out the chords first:

  1. Give your melodies a good shape. A song where you work out the chords first shouldn’t mean that the chords are its most important feature. Early on in the process, you should be turning your attention to the melody. Melodies that have a noticeable contour — lots of ups and downs — tend to be the kind that are easier for listeners to remember.
  2. Keep chorus chords simple and tonally strong. A tonally strong progression is one for which the tonic chord — the one that represents the key — features prominently. Simple, strong chorus progressions are great for developing a chorus hook.
  3. Switch your attention from the chord progression to melody and lyrics as soon as you can in the process. The idea here is that you need to focus on the elements of a song that are likely to truly attract an audience. Some chord progressions are unique, and can be an important part of why a song is interesting, but it rarely rises above the melody or lyric in importance.
  4. Experiment with the rhythmic treatment of a chord progression. Once you’ve got chords that you like, think about underlying rhythms that partner up with those chords. A great example of this is the interesting “drag” feel of the triplet rhythm underneath the chords and melody of Lennon & McCartney’s “Ticket to Ride.” Then you’ll notice that the bridge of the song uses a different backing rhythm. This kind of unique rhythmic treatment for each section of a song works well to develop and maintain the audience’s interest.
  5. Revisit and adjust chord progressions once you’ve added the melody. Don’t assume that you’ve got the best chord progression right away. Once you’ve added a melody, you may find that changing one or more of the chords gives you a better sense of support for that melody. So don’t stop experimenting with chords just because you’ve moved on to other song elements.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

If you want to get the most out of a chords-first songwriting process, you need to get a copy of “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It shows you how to avoid all the pitfalls. Get it as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle, or separately.


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