Song Doctor Blog
Read how to write better songs
Today's blog post is in answer to a reader's question. She wondered whether to "include interesting jazz chords" in her songs, but worried it would limit the number of capable musicians available to play them. Or should she "simplify them?" The chords - not the musicians!
I think there's no particularly right or wrong answer here, but I would like to offer two framework to think this through.
This first is who are you writing your songs for?
If you already have a significant audience who have enjoyed your previous work live, online or on air, then there's an level of expectation on the style of music you'll produce. Established artists will very often moonlight or do side projects, but their audience will very often follow them into another genre because the relationship between audience and artist is already well formed. Julia Deans singing opera in the Hawke's Bay earlier this year did not hurt her long held career as a rock chick, and neither is Troy Kingi going to suffer by recording his 'Folk Album' currently. He has enough sales and awards to warrant experimenting further down his stated path of ten albums in ten genres.
But if you have no label or long term audience to attend to, then my advice is write what you want to play. If you love ska, then eat it up with an upbeat! Your commitment to the songs will be stronger, your process more productive, your chops more sound and your enjoyment will be infectious. An audience feels that and so will other musicians.
Musicians don't just want to play the best paid gigs - although how nice a thought is that! Musicians want to play - that is connecting with other true 'soldiers of song' - in that fine, fine time on stage in front of a live audience. It's different from streaming live, different from rehearsal and from recording. If the quality of songs and performance is high, it doesn't matter what the genre is - it's the bus you wanna be on!
If you love playing 'jazz chords', use them write great songs you're proud of. Then enthusiastically seek out musicians to help play and perform them. Preferably, play with people who are better musicians than you - it ups your game and will encourage you to write even stronger songs. (On a personal note, I'm usually now the least fluent musician technically when I play live in an ensemble. It makes me work harder to keep up, and I utterly look forward to those bigger shows!)
The second framework to consider is how do the chords you choose serve the song?
Are they providing enough harmonic support for your melody to take shape within the verse-chorus structure? Is the harmony operating as infrastructure to the lyric? Is there enough accessibility, yet some welcome surprise that keeps us hooked into the vibe, the story, the message of your song?
You can write terrific songs with only one chord while at the other extreme you sink the entire ship in a mass of fusion confusion that loses the listener by the end of the intro.
There are also certain conventions and signifiers that indicate roughly what genre your songs sits in. Using chords extensions and non-diatonic chords for more complex harmony is considered part of the jazz grab bag, but pop music is a magpie's lair and plenty of current artists from Adele to Khalid are working wonders incorporating diminished chords, major sevenths, minor ninths and thirteenths into their hits. And it comes across as effortless.
Your own sense of aesthetic and musical taste is a huge influence on the type of songs you create. But the clearer you are about what you want your song to project, then all the elements that go into writing that song need to interconnect and align to present that vision. This includes the chords and their progressions.
The decision to include a particular chord is not dissimilar from the decision to include a particular word. Does it fit the song? If not, then outski! But having a broad palette of chords at your fingertips is a great resource for any songwriter, because then the choice is truly yours to make.
Talk more soon and thanks for the questions!
ps Chord Spice is one of the sessions in the Next Level Songwriting Retreat held at beautiful Tahora over Jan 22-25 2021.
We'll be talking more about song harmony, how to progress your progressions and add to your chord catalogue to level up your songwriting.