Peter Gabriel

The Best Songs Fluctuate Between Fragile and Strong Moments

I talk a lot about the concept of “fragile” versus “strong” in songwriting, and particularly when I’m talking about chord progressions. In that regard, “strong” means “clearly indicating the key with a short, unambiguous set of chord changes.”

With chords, “fragile” means the opposite: making the key less clear — less obvious, by creating a progression that doesn’t give you those chords that make the key clear. So while I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C) makes the key of C major crystal-clear, something like ii-vi-bVII-IV-V7-I-IV-I (“Dm-Am-Bb-F-G7-C-F-C”) is fragile because part of it makes F sound like the key, while part of it sounds like C major.

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As you can see, the term fragile is not meant to be a negative assessment at all. In fact, some of the most beautiful chord progressions in music are beautiful specifically because of their vagueness and wandering quality.

Applying “Fragile” and “Strong” to Other Song Elements

Even though I use those terms mainly to describe chord progressions, the fact is that the best songs are the ones where all of the components (or certainly at least most of them) fluctuate between strong and fragile.

Take a good look at song lyrics, and compare the words and phrases used in the verse to the ones that are used in the chorus. You’ll find that, just as with chords, verse lyrics tend to be the ones that are most creative and most imaginative — the ones that make images in the mind.

Contrast that with chorus lyrics, and that’s when you’ll see words and phrases that are more straightforward, clear, and descriptive of some fairly obvious emotions.

An example from Peter Gabriel’s “Come Talk to Me” (from “Us” – 1992):


The wretched desert takes its form, the jackal proud and tight
In search of you I feel my way through the slowest heaving night
Whatever fear invents, I swear it make no sense…


Ah please talk to me
Won’t you please talk to me
We can unlock this misery
Come on, come talk to me

When you listen to the melody and the chords, you hear the same quality: long, wandering verse melodies supported by progressions that include several non-diatonic chords. Things tighten up considerably in the chorus, where the melodic phrases become shorter, more repetitive, and the chords become stronger, more clearly outlining the key of A major.

In your own songwriting, take a good look at as many elements within your songs as possible, and compare what you do in the verses with what you do in the chorus. In most cases, verses should feature “fragile” elements, ones that seem very imaginative. The chorus should stand in fairly clear contrast: shorter musical ideas that are clearer and less ambiguous.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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