We know a great chord progression when we hear it. We shush our loved ones over it, wade through mind-numbing verses to get to it, and try to lure these progressions out with a guitar in our skivvies at 2 in the morning. For the everyday songwriter, great chord progressions are rare gems buried just under the surface. We know they’re there. We know because other songs have them. They make crowns out of them.
Chords are a driving element of many songs. When we’ve got four elements of songwriting to manipulate (melody, chords, lyrics, and groove), it’s natural to credit them or blame them for a successful song. But how do we songwriters find and use great chords? Is the answer to delve deep into music theory? If it is, are we fated to forever feel stuck if we don’t crack the chord code? In this and a subsequent post, I’d like to offer specific tools that songwriters—not composers, arrangers, or jazz harmony graduate students—use to write songs, using a richer chord vocabulary.
Music theory is a powerful tool, but it’s not the answer for everyone. Having a healthy understanding of basic theory can make identifying chord progressions in other songs quicker and easier. It can enrich our feeling for utilizing new chords and pushing the envelope as we understand the function of our chords in the broader context of the progression. But writing is more than a theoretical process, and so theory is a tool like any other learned skill to inform and guide our natural creativity. Furthermore, theory just isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Without the motivation to get a strong handle on it or an innate sense for how music flows, most writers never get to the point where theory knowledge is a useful tool. But by all means go ahead, be the exception.
I believe the secret for songwriters looking to harness the power of chords lies in the answer to this question: What are specific tools songwriters use to break the monotony of our standard chord progressions?
To answer this question, we need to look individually at what is happening in our writing process when we’re dissatisfied with our chord progressions.
1. We gravitate towards the same chords and the same keys.
When we’re tired of what we’re creating, it means we’re aware that what we’re creating is a recreation of what we’ve already created. Or said without redundancy: we’re copying ourselves. Pat yourself on the back because that means you’ve grown. You’re no longer satisfied with the status quo.
But don’t stop there. Make some concrete changes to encourage a new direction. A few of the changes songwriters can make are:
A. Choose a new key to write in.
This might mean a capo on the guitar, a new tuning, or switching over from major keys to minor keys. It might just mean writing in the key of Db when you typically write in D major or G major.
B. Start on a new chord.
This means being aware of the fact that we may typically start a verse or chorus on the tonic. Or perhaps we start on the vi minor and move to the IV chord. Whatever the tendency, the earlier in the section we break the pattern, the easier it will be to hear a pull towards something different.
C. Change the tempo.
Instead of that middle-of-the-road strumming pattern, we can slow way down or speed way up. This jars the brain, and we no longer have assumptions for how the song is going to progress. If we re-imagine the song early on, it inspires some new chord movements too.
2. We try to involve new chords like our favorite songs do, but we end up sounding like a copy of the original.
I remember a time before I had written my first 150 songs when I struggled with feeling ordinary. The fact is, I was. Pretty much everything I wrote was heavily influenced by those who came before me. The secret was to finish songs, and not dwell too long on the writing of any particular one, so that I could feel in my mind and my fingers what it’s like to emulate lots of different grooves, melodic shapes, and lyric lines. I’ve got my Sheryl Crow songs, my Sting songs, my Coldplay songs. I’ve even got my songs-that-people-say-are-Broadway. It’s okay. Stepping back, I can see them as threads in the tapestry of my sound. It’s not clear by looking at any one thread what characterizes my music. Weave them all together though, and that’s where the originality emerges. Lucky songwriters, or resourceful ones, find collaborators and producers who can identify and augment that thread.
3. We write a lot of little sections of songs and then can’t find a chord progression to follow them.
The trouble here can come down to contrast. A few simple tools to help with this problem are illustrated beautifully in John Mayer’s tune “Daughters.”
A. Keep the Chords, Change the Frequency
The verse of “Daughters” has four chords. And for a guy who can play every chord in existence, this verse is as simple as it gets. With one chord per measure, we hear a vi followed by a ii, then a V and the I. In 6/8 time, the whole verse is just four revolutions of this progression.
What’s remarkable is the energy and contrast he’s able to bring to the chorus with merely one new chord. He switches out the ii chord for the II chord, a borrowed chord. But there’s one other tool that’s even more important than the kind of chords he’s playing: the frequency with which he changes chords. This tool is so simple, and so overlooked by songwriters. In the chorus of “Daughters,” the chords change two times per measure instead of just once like they did in the verse. Try this tool in your own writing. Instead of searching for a brand new chord, try simply using the same chord progression and changing chords more or less frequently than you did in the prior section.
B. Find a Borrowed Chord
Borrowed chords are those that don’t belong to the key you’re writing in. To identify the chords in the key you’re writing in, you’ll need a bit of theory. I’m sure there is even an app out there you can input your chords into and it will tell you the key. Once you’ve got the key, you can move on to finding a few borrow chords.
Borrowed chords should be used sparingly and with intention. Too many and they hijack the song to make it all about them. But used at the right moment, they create a beautiful moment for the section and add meaning and emphasis to a lyric line. In a mostly diatonic progression, try the simple action of switching out a major chord for its minor, i.e. instead of A major, play an A minor chord. A favorite song of mine that utilizes a simple borrowed chord switch is “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. They play with the i suddenly becoming a I and then it switches back again. It’s a moment in the song where the shadow of a minor suddenly brightens under the effect of a major chord.
One very common borrowed chord to try at the end of a pre-chorus or chorus is the II in place of the ii chord. It signals to the listener that something important is just around the corner: either the first line of the chorus, or the last line.
I recommend writing a whole song around just one borrowed chord in a progression. Get the sound of that borrowed chord and its potential to highlight the lyric and create a musical moment under your belt. Then write another song with the use of a different borrowed chord. The key for songwriters is to break down these larger concepts into smaller pieces. That way we can clearly identify the effect of the borrowed chord, and recall by muscle memory the way it feels to move into that borrowed chord within our progression.
4. We’ve stopped listening to a wide array of music
There’s no better way to stop growing than to stop immersing ourselves in a variety of music. The smaller the world we expose ourselves too, the smaller our sound becomes. Conversely, the wider our listening pleasure, the more pathways we’re forming to channel all those different perspectives into our own lyrics, melodic shapes, chord progressions, and grooves. That doesn’t mean we won’t go weeks or even months at a time when we’re focused on creating something specific. But after a project is done, don’t forget to open up again with a curious spirit and refill the well that may have run a bit dry.
These first four concepts are a good start. However, there are four more that delve into melody, groove, establishing a creative habit, and collaboration. For now, try involving these initial ideas into a weekly process. After a few weeks, consider how they enable you to grow out of spaces in which your creativity feels stuck.