So you’ve got your little melody/rhythm/chord change that you think can be further expanded upon into a full length song. Great! But you don’t know where to go next? Try some of these ideas.
The following are sets of chords that are mostly derived from the C Major scale. Terms such as I – IV – V refer to the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees of the chosen scale with diatonic 3rds stacked on top of them to create chords. If you have any trouble with this theory let me know and I’ll gladly do a lesson on it.
Over the years some chord progressions have prevailed as more popular than others. The following are just a small selection or examples you could use.
I – IV – V:
Seen in most blues music it is arguably the most popular chord progression around, Listen to Crossroads by Cream and you’ll notice the only chords used are the Dominant (7th) versions of I – IV – V in the key of A.
II – V – I
The most popular progression for Jazz, just listen to Autumn Leaves or Fly Me To The Moon and you’ll hear nothing but a series of II – V- I chords! Some songs will rock between the II – V for a long time before going to the I. Billy Cobham’s Red Baron can be seen as a constant series of II – V's in F Major. However, F is never played meaning that G minor 7 is heard as the de facto I chord throughout the song.
I – VI – IV – V
The four chord song is a much parodied song structure but still has relevance today with songs such as Baby and Every Breath You Take using the sequence. The I – VI – IV – V Progression became popular in the 50’s as watching Back to the Future will show you: it’s the chord sequence in Earth Angel (also, Johnny B. Goode is a I – IV – V progression in B Flat, not B like Marty says).
Try putting these sets of chords into your songs by changing the key signature and seeing how they fit. For example a I – VI – IV – V in G Major would be:
And the same in G Minor would be:
Did you notice that the last chord was a D7 instead of a Dm? This is called a substitution and is used to create a little bit more tension to bring us back to the I chord that the diatonic V chord doesn’t provide. As a result the sequence would be written out at I – VI – IV - V7. Substitutions are a lesson all on their own but remembering their purpose and what chord has been substituted make using and understanding them a lot easier.
That’s all for this lesson, next time we’ll look at how to make a melody work and not sound like a jumbled mess.
Songwriting can be a difficult process and I have often found it the hardest subject to teach in lessons. It can’t be quantified as easily as learning a chord or scale which has a clear beginning (you didn’t know the thing) and a clear end (now you know the thing) whereas in writing a song you only have a beginning (you don’t have a song) or an end (you do have a song). Songwriting is all about implementation; how will you use the tools you have learned to create something bigger than the sum of its parts?
Before we go into actually making a song I would like to address a few things that I find get in the way when trying to write and some ways I’ve found to get around them.
Not Knowing Where To Start is usually the place most novices to writing can fall down. It’s not surprising: if you’ve never done something before you can’t be expected to be able to do it right off the bat! My first advice for this is to just play. If you have the ability to improvise to any level just pick up your instrument and play whatever. Eventually you should find something that sticks, something you like to play again and again. This is the beginning of a song, write it down! Even if you can’t write music you should write down something that will remind you later what to play.
If you can’t improvise or lack the confidence to just play something then the other way around this is to learn a song that you like and when I say learn i mean really learn it. Learn all the parts: bass, guitar, drums, keys, singer (if it’s a pop song) and try to work out what they’re doing in relation to each other. For example: the bass may stay on one note while the guitar plays a chord, the singer sings a melody that goes up and the piano plays a melody that goes down. The drums are a little bit more archaic for non-drummers to work out but listen to them! Do they repeat the same every bar? Every 4 bars? Do they follow the singer or a different instrument?
Writer’s Block is often cited as the reason many people find songwriting hard, I have certainly had it before and it can be very annoying! I must be said that it takes a number of different forms and, in my experience at least, a true lack of any creative ideas whatsoever is very rare. Often I come up with ideas that just don’t match the sounds I have in my head and I attribute this to a writer’s block, of sorts. In these situations I will:
Listen to some music that sounds like what I am trying to write.
Play some music that is similar to what I am trying to write.
Analyse some music that is similar to what I want to achieve.
Play computer games
Talk to my girlfriend
Listen, play or analyse some music that has nothing to do with what I want to achieve.
Getting some time away from your craft is usually the best bet, it helps you to relax and you can come back with a fresh mind. However, this is not always possible in situations such as when you are on a deadline. At these times actively immersing yourself in some music can really help to bring new ideas into your writing that you might not have otherwise had.
Next time we will look at some common structures in music, where they crop up and how to use them.