Winnie the Pooh described it best when he found himself in a ‘mighty stuckness,’ wedged in a tree just inches away from a hive of gooey honey. For a songwriter, that honey is the sweet chord progression that elevates our everyday song to something special. The ‘stuckness,’ though, is all too familiar. It’s that feeling that no matter what we try, we just can’t seem to find the unique chord movements we revere in other songs.
My last post suggested four tools for luring out those amber-colored harmonies, and in this post I’d like to add four more. To find the remedies, we often need to start by defining the problems. Below are four ways songwriters describe feeling ‘stuck’ when it comes to writing better chord progressions.
5. Our melodies are becoming more static, passing responsibility onto the chords to make the song jive.
Sometimes we’re quick to point the finger at our chords when it’s our melody that could use some livening up. Long strings of static pitches, clustered notes with no real definition or long melodic phrases can put all the responsibility on the chords to create any real interest. A good tool to consider is to think more rhythmically when it comes to writing melody. Short, distinctive rhythmic hooks instantly give a melody shape. Conversely, melodies that are long and winding may provide very little shape, though they work well for very long-winded lyrics. Remember that melody is made up of both pitch AND rhythm. To ignore the rhythmic element of melody is to turn a blind eye to a very powerful tool.
6. We overlook the element of groove, putting all the weight on what chords we’re using.
Instead of searching for a better chord, we can search out a great groove to complement our melody and lyric. To do this, I sometimes spend hours listening to old and new music, imagining my song idea over each groove I find. Since I’m not a producer, I find my groove vocabulary trails behind my songwriting vocabulary, and to deal with that I utilize other people’s examples. I even brainstorm song ideas while listening to music faintly in the background. Their ideas inspire new ones in me, and help me see past my weaker points as a writer to embrace ideas I never would have considered.
7. We think using proven progressions is cheating.
Part of the value of taking a songwriting course is learning how to break larger concepts down into smaller tools. We focus on a single tool, using it once, then again, and again, until finally the tool is a recognizable part of our tool box. Without study, we don’t know how to distinguish one tool from another, much less what tools we have to choose from.
A great smaller tool is taking a chord progression from a song we love and simply using it as is to write our own song. Chord progressions are not copyrightable, and many songs across decades utilize the same progression to a vastly different end result. We’re getting the new sound into our brains and fingers, and most likely integrating just one or two new movements into our chord vocabulary. So if you love how the flat iii moves into the flat vi and then cadences from the major V into the major I, use it in your next song. Or, allow yourself to write the typical IV V I cadence in your next song, and then go back and edit. Substitute a simple flat III major to the IV major to the I. Or try a flat VI major to a flat VII major to the I. Just one change in cadence, or one single borrowed chord in a specific position can help us untangle why chords function as they do in a progression.
8. We’re not collaborating.
Nothing speeds up the writing process like a good collaborator. Writers with strong collaborative circles write more, write faster, and grow quicker. When chords are weighing us down, working with a good instrumentalist can unlock new songs. They get the benefit of working with you and your melodies and lyrics, and you get the benefit of their perspective on harmony.
Don’t let your songs go unfinished because they lack the perfect chords. We write the best way we know how at any given time, and nobody is equally exceptional at solving a song ‘problem’ from each vantage point of groove, melody, chords, and lyric. Our strengths always lead, and when chords are getting us down, that just means we’re looking for ways to refresh our sound in an area that may trail behind our other strengths. And remember: It’s not how many new chords we can employ that makes a great progression. It’s the purpose those chords serve to support the emotion of the song.