When we talk about progressions, the automatic assumption is that we’re talking about chords. But the reality is that in good songs, practically everything progresses.
The reason for the assumption that we’re talking about chords is that they will quickly sound disorganized and confusing if we don’t pick up that all-important aspect of progression. Simply having one chord following another with no particular sense of organization would amount to a succession, not a progression, of chords.
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But in fact, practically everything about a song progresses to some degree. For example, if you’re writing a melody, and you have, let’s say, four notes written, that fifth note isn’t going to be completely random: you’ll notice that the note that makes sense is usually somewhere near the last note you wrote, and belongs to the same key.
Chord progressions shouldn’t be a difficult thing to come up with for your song, if only because you can write a pretty good song using very simple progressions, even ones that have been used by other songwriters in other songs.
But what about melodies? Or instrumental choices? Or lyrics? How do you give these aspects of your songwriting the sense of progression that’s required to make them good? Here are some ideas:
1. The Progression of Lyrics.
All good lyrics progress. The most noticeable characteristic of a song lyric is its emotional content: it’s either going to be mainly descriptive, telling the listener what’s going on, or it will be mainly emotional, generating an emotional response in the listener.
A good lyric will usually progress from one characteristic to another. You’ll notice, for example, that although a verse lyric will be mainly descriptive, that there’s a gradual evolution from from descriptive to emotional as the verse gets ready to tag onto the chorus.
Lennon & McCartney’s “She Loves You” gives us a great example of this. The verse starts with lyrics that tell us what’s going on (“You think you lost your love/ Well I saw her yesterday…”), moving on to transitional lyrics that start to build up the emotion of the situation. (“Yes she loves you, and you know you should be glad…”)
The chorus doesn’t add to the story per se, but is meant to generate emotion: (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”)
That transition — the progression — of lyrics is an important part of what keeps people listening, wanting to experience that up and down of emotion.
2. The Progression of Melodies.
Melodies move up and down, but for the good ones, it’s not a simple random choice. In Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run“, you hear a verse melody that starts low, then moves with a kind of musical logic in a mainly upward direction.
The first phrase is low, the second phrase sounds like it’s going to repeat, but takes an upward leap at the end. The next phrase starts where the previous one left off.
This kind of melodic progression certainly doesn’t mean you’re limited as to where your melodies can move. Just because a melody moves higher doesn’t mean your melody must continue to move higher.
But with each new phrase you write, you’ll want to be sure that the start of that phrase makes some kind of musical sense to you, and is a “logical follower” to what came before.
3. The Progression of Song Energy
Song energy is a bit hard to define, because it’s not just about how loud a song is. Very quiet ballads use carefully contoured musical energy. Lots of things contribute to what we perceive as song energy:
- Vocal quality
- Rhythmic activity
What you should be noticing here is that song energy takes the general sense of progression from all aspects of a song and combines them, giving us a kind of composite progression.
How might this work? Here’s one example: In “Born to Run”, as the melody moves higher, the lyrics generally become a bit more emotional, Springsteen adds a bit of high-register “rasp” to his vocal quality, we hear more rhythmic activity (syncopations in the backing instruments), and everything gets a bit louder.
So one element of a song needs to partner up with other elements to give the audience a kind of composite progression that they’ll notice and appreciate.
At the start of the next verse, everything comes back down, so that he can start the progression again.
I’ve always felt that when we talk about progressions in songs, it’s important for composers of music not to limit that discussion to just the chords. In good songwriting, everything progresses.
And the quality of a song usually comes down to how good you are at partnering all of the various aspects of a song so that they’re progressing together.
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