The Music Lab: The “Instant Melancholy” Chord Substitution

Welcome to “The Music Lab,” a new column powered by SongTown and featured in American Songwriter every month. 

I’ve been blessed to get away with some interesting chord changes over the course of my songwriting career. Those songs found their way onto pop and country mainstream radio—two formats that, right or wrong, have a rap for simple chords. 

Whether it was sneaking in a 2 Major Sus chord at the top of the pre-chorus for the #1 song “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” by Darius Rucker, or adding a 6 Major chord in the bridge of “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio, my best successes come when I stretch boundaries and tastefully incorporate chord substitutions.

In my last Melody Masterclass for SongTown.com, an aspiring writer asked if I would explain why some substitutions work. He was looking for the theory behind it all. Now, I am not opposed to learning as much as possible about music, but I had just enough formal training at Berklee College of Music to get in my own way for a while! 

In the pro songwriting world where I’ve created in for the last two decades, theory is rarely discussed. On the real-world streets of songwriting, practicality and effectiveness are where the rubber meets the road.

Let me give you an example: Paul McCartney wrote some of the biggest songs in musical history, and he once stated that when he wrote those hits, he couldn’t name a Major 7th chord. McCartney said that he and John Lennon simply called a G Major 7th the “pretty chord.” So in that spirit,  let’s discuss one of my favorite chords, one in particular I like to call the “Instant Melancholy” chord.

Chords play the role of “mood setter” in my songs. A melody can have a lot of different chord choices and progressions underneath it. So in choosing the right chords for a song, I listen for the the mood– or feeling—I’m getting from a chord. We all understand that major chords sound bright and happy while minor chords often feel sad; it’s in our musical DNA.

One of my favorite song “moods” is melancholic. You know that looking back, reminiscing feeling? Perhaps even a little bit of longing gets thrown in the mix. And, no chord progression captures this feeling better than the 4 major to 4 minor to 1.

For example, in the Key of C, that would be:

F maj – F min – C maj
This chord progression is the perfect mood alternative to the classic 4 – 5 – 1 chord progression:

F maj – G maj – C major
Try it. Revisit any of your songs that end the chorus with 4 – 5 – 1 and substitute the 4 min chord for the 5 chord.

Instant melancholy!!

Of course, we could get into a long discussion on how the 4 minor substitution is borrowed from the parallel minor or about the chromatic movements, etc. etc.; but essentially all we need to know as writers is that this combination of chords will pull on the listener’s heart strings!

There are many more ways a 4 minor chord can be used, but this one (4 maj – 4 min – 1) is an instant technique to try while developing or rewriting a melancholy song from your catalog.

Good Enough for the Beatles:

In My Life”: (1 – 5 – 4 – 4min – 1)

                 A        E    F#m     A        D -Dm   

There are places I remember all my life  

               A

thoughsome have changed

Hello Goodbye”:  (4 – 4min – I)

                     F                           Fm/Ab          C

I don’t know why you say good-bye I say hello

Lady A Rocks the Minor 4 Chord:

Check out my song “One Day You Will,” sung by Lady A, for yet another use of the 4 minor chord. We wrote it into the last chord of the bridge as a transitional chord to a new key. Listen how it springboards the emotion into the last chorus!

So, If you’re sitting down to write a sad song today, go all in and stir up some “Instant Melancholy.”

For additional details on the 4 Minor Chord Substitution, watch the video below. See you around The Music Lab.

Write on!

Clay

Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter/producer. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks. Clay Mills co-founded SongTown.com, the worlds leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Marty Dodson. Clay is as passionate about teaching songwriting as he is about writing himself. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos!

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