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Songwriting Simplified: The Power of Chord Progressions

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

I will eventually collate all of my songwriting thoughts into one place. But the one thing I was thinking about this morning as I was perusing Facebook and the songwriting and music groups I have joined lately, is chord structure.

I wish I had learned the basics when I was younger but youth has a tendency to make you want to ignore what is working and be unique and original. At least in my younger, sex, drugs, and rock n roll days that is what I seemed to think.

Oh I can't use that chord structure, I need to change it or somehow make it different. Well, experience has taught me that good chord structure and the basics is what people, myself included want to hear. Some predictability is necessary to create some common connection and flow of the music. Not to say you can't be creative with the elements, but the basics really need to be there unless you want to write something that no one understands or can connect with. That's OK too. But today, I am not thinking that way.


Picking up again...

So, what I have known for a long time but never really internalized about chord progressions is that our ears like to hear what is predictable as I noted above. So instead of trying to re-invent the wheel as I was wont to do for a long time, go back to basics.

I was re-reading Jimmy Webbs book Tunesmith. Highly recommended for anyone interested in songwriting. You do need a basic understanding of music theory to really get the most from the book but not necessary.

The gist of chord progressions is knowing how they connect with scales. Once you understand how to build a chord from 2 or 3 notes of any scale you will have a much better grip on how to use progressions to fit your purpose.

I like to listen to my favorite songs and hum along until I can get a general feel for the main melody. This will generally point you to the scale and key the song is in. Then determine the chord progression. I find the best way to nail this is to count how many chord changes happen in the chorus and verse. If there are 3 or 4 you have a pretty good bet that it is a I-IV-V or the I-V-Vi-IV. These are the two most common chord progressions of all time.

Take a musical interlude here and listen to Axis of Awesome, and they are awesome to show how simplicity works in our favorite songs.

These guys use the I-V-Vi-IV. It will blow you away how many well known songs use the same progression. And, it will show you how creative one can be with the same raw materials, the progression.

So once you have hummed your tune and figured out the basic melody, write down the notes or simply play them on a keyboard. That will be the scale and the key of the song usually. The chords used in the progression is some combination of these notes. There are a bunch of videos describing this process so I will put some here as it is easier to watch it than to describe.


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