Most contemporary recordings of songs aren’t unaccompanied single melodic lines. They will sit in well-supported beds of chords played by supporting instruments or vocals, whose combinations can provoke deep emotional responses in us. Harmony is not just a musical metaphor - it really underpins the social aspect of what we’re doing.
From a songwriting point of view, having the ability to use a chordal instrument, like a guitar or piano – instruments that can play several notes at a time - is a powerful tool. The chords you use and the way they’re ordered (the progression) can point how a melody will literally come into existence.
But before you flinch and say ‘but I’m a singer/drummer/saxophonist – are you saying I can’t write songs because I can’t play chords?’ – no, I’m not. I’m saying that learning chordal instruments even at a really basic level can enhance your understanding of what makes songs work. It introduces you to some secret infrastructure – let’s you look under the hood of your favourite songs and influences how you can write your own music more readily.
If you’re a parent and your kid wants to play something, this is one of the reasons why learning either keyboards/piano or guitar is a really good musical starting point. They are one stop shops for creating rhythm, melody and harmony.
If you’re a vocalist, singing harmonies is one of the most joyful things you get to do. And it’s no surprise that many of our most successful musicians come from backgrounds where collective singing was commonplace in their childhood, from church to amateur theatre to the marae. Creating chords from your vocals is also an interesting way to use what you’ve got to develop a song.
Other entry points into what chord progressions can do are online chord generators like ChordChord and Autochord.
But hang on a minute – won’t I be using the same chord progression as other songwriters?
Quite likely, yes. You can’t copyright chord progressions, unlike melody and lyrics. Music education site Hooktheory.com undertook a detailed study of over 1300 songs charting on the US Billboard top 100 and found overwhelming that the most common pop song chord progression was:
I –V- vi –IV
The most common key was C major so this became:
All over the internet are debates about the tyranny of this, the control that a handful of songwriter/producers have over popular music and the undue influence it gives them. I’ve linked two but you can google all pop music sounds the same and you’ll go down a rabbit hole for a while.
What I want to do is show you how manipulating the ‘magic formula’ can quickly give you a myriad of combinations that can change the music you write by changing your chord progression, yet still use the same ‘alphabet’.
I –V- vi –IV
Look what happens when you alter the order of chords but still start with the tonic or root note.
If we stay in C major it looks like this, your options look more like this:
The other thing you can do very quickly is vary the length of time you stay on a particular chord – there’s no rule to say each chord needs a whole bar of it’s own. Try two beats on the first two chords and four on the second two. Or whatever combination you may like to try.
The point is not to feel stuck in a rut or trapped, but get comfortable shuffling chords around so they work for you and your songs to create the sound you want.
Talk more soon
ps To read more on chord progressions, here’s a more detailed article I wrote for Musician on a Mission
pps To join me on a songwriting workshop, here’s a really great opportunity at Hanmer Springs, May 17-19.
Hi, I'm Charlotte Yates and I can help you get better at writing songs.