Bob Dylan is explaining the importance of avoiding familiar habits when composing music. “There are ways you can get out of whatever you get into,” he said. “You want to get out of it. It’s bad enough getting into it. The thing to do as soon as you get into it is realize you must get out of it. And unless you get out of it quickly and effortlessly, it will just drag you down. You could spend years writing the same song.”
Among songwriting challenges, it’s one of the most frequent and formidable ones: how to overcome the natural tendency to repeat the same habits. Yet all musicians, after playing our instruments for years, fall into comfortable patterns based on music we have learned and written, and collect a toolbox of chord progressions, cadences and other musical elements over the years. Yet we don’t want to write the same song — or same melody — over and over.
As editor Caine O’Rear said, “You need to get out of the same old rut, so as to form new neural pathways.” Indeed. MIT scientists have very recently confirmed neural pathways in the human brain designed exclusively for music. The only way to alter these patterns is with active, conscious attempts to go different places, without which one’s subconscious instincts will rule.
Ry Cooder, in these pages, said, “It’s like mowing a lawn … You go down one way, you make a stripe in the grass. Go down the other way, make another one. That’s what music is doing, cutting these furrows into the neurological pathways. They stay there like a pathway that people walk on.”
So how best to avoid those furrows in order to create new ones? The simplest and most direct is to study chord progressions in songs you love, especially those outside of your usual musical realm. Learning standards from the Gershwin era, as well as modern sophisticated songwriters such as Steely Dan or Bacharach, have greatly expanded my vocabulary.
Several songwriters, especially when getting stuck composing on one instrument, will take the song to a different one. If you started on guitar, try it on a piano. Or vice versa. The nature of the instrument itself, and the way we view the chords, can greatly impact a melody.
Bacharach, however, said his secret is to avoid chords completely, and focus only on melody. The chords, he felt, can be distracting and limiting. This is rare though; most songwriters write melodies by experimenting with chords. Jimmy Webb said he created melodies by experimenting on piano, with chords, in every way: substitutions, alternate bass notes, suspended seconds and/or fourths. Anything to put him on fresh fertile ground.
Lennon & McCartney would often actively use chords outside of the norm, as in “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” in which the chorus begins not on the V, but a V minor, which is outside of the key and changes the entire feel. (In G, it does to Dm.) It’s a technique Cole Porter used often.
Paul Simon broke himself out of familiar patterns first by studying music with jazz musicians, which enriched his palette. And later by creating great tracks first, over which he would compose melodies, quite removed from his old guitar-voice method, which led to Graceland and more.
Yet new or unusual chords are not always the key to creating new melodies. Many of the greatest songs are built on the use of fundamental chords. Yet how those simple chords are situated makes a great difference. Tom Petty pointed often to Buddy Holly as the genius of this method. Most of his songs were in A major, and used the same few chords. But as Tom said, “He did a lot with basic chords,” Tom said. “He turned those chords inside-out, around, backwards.”
That wisdom can be seen throughout Tom’s songbook, in which while using those same I-IV-V chords, but often inverts them, so the V is the first chord in the phrase, leading them to the I and the IV. Try it. Actively experiment with simple chord progressions, but reverse them. Turn them around.
Tom also has written several songs, such as “Free Fallin’,” and “Learning To Fly” which are achingly melodic and infectious, yet built on only a three-chord progression that never changes. It’s a powerful effect, as the chords remain grounded while the melody leaps and soars. A limited amount of chords in no way means the melody is limited at all.
That progression, Tom said, was “not because we did not know any more chords. It’s because that was all that was needed.”
It’s a lesson he learned early on, paying serious attention to the delicate dynamic of using chords sparingly. Never did he veer far from this understanding, not to write clever music built on the novelty of its chords, but something timeless, something that sounds right. This requires a healthy respect for simplicity. We don’t write songs to impress other musicians.
“Songwriters come to me,” Tom said, “and say, ‘Check out this chord I put in here! It has never been used in a song before!’
“And I tell them, ‘Yeah, it’s never been used because it does not sound good!’”
Woody Guthrie, long known for the expansive brilliance of his lyrics, was also quite wise when it came to the use of simple, appealing melodies. “Any damn fool can be complicated,” Woody said. “But to attain simplicity, that takes genius.”