Songwriter U: How to Avoid Repeating the Same Musical Patterns

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performing at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles for the final show of his 40th Anniversary Tour, September 25, 2017. These are among the last photographs ever taken of Tom Petty playing with The Heartbreakers. All photos by Paul Zollo

Breaking new musical ground requires taking a new route

Among songwriting challenges, it’s one of the most frequent and formidable ones in regard to writing music: how to overcome the natural tendency to repeat the same habits.

For those songwriters who discover and develop melodies by playing an instrument – a guitar or piano usually – our motor memory leads us to return to the same comfortable physical patterns we know so well. Playing a guitar or piano is a fundamental example of motor memory, not unlike riding a bicycle. Once that pattern is learned, it becomes a primal part of you. Consider if you tried to ride a bicycle in a different way than you ever had. The difficulty in even thinking of any other method shows you what we’re up against writing music. 

Fortunately, when writing music, falling off or crashing isn’t a risk. But it still is not easy. Our motor memory creates imprints of those familiar physical patterns our fingers form, connected directly to the immediate effect of hearing those forms played. 

These patterns are based on music we have learned through the years, and music we have written. We acquire a toolbox of chord progressions, cadences and other musical elements over the years.

Based on what we’ve done and what we love, our musical souls steer us in the same direction we’ve been before. To take a whole other route isn’t easy, especially if you fear you will get lost. You’re out of your comfort zone. Yet we don’t want to write the same song — or same melody — over and over. So we got to take action. 

So many songwriters we’ve interviewed, when asked if they had certain chords or changes they return to often, said yes. 

Even Bob Dylan struggles with this challenge, as he explained in our interview. Getting free of those same patterns, he said, is necessary.

“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.”

While we navigate through life by learning how to react to similar patterns, we form  neural pathways which are strengthened by repetition. To get out of these same creative ruts, one must  forge  new neural pathways. Indeed, MIT scientists have recently confirmed that there are 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, can great augment your 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. 

Other songwriters, like Marvin Etzioni, often think of songs and their melodies separate from an instrument. It is a good method, and one I’ve used myself on a few occasions. Unmoored from chords, a melody can develop in its purest form, which can bring you fresh results. 

John Prine told us, in these pages, that he wrote his song “Souvenirs” this way, just pure melody, separate from the guitar. He was in his car en route to a gig, and feeling the need to add new songs to his set, wrote the song while driving.

“And I thought I had come up with a pretty sophisticated melody in my head,” he said, “and I was surprised to find out it had the same three chords that all my other songs have. [Laughter] Really surprised. I thought I had written a jazz melody.”  

John usually wrote songs with his guitar. Most songwriters write melodies by experimenting with chords, and singing against them. 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. It is the melody – and not the chord progression – that matters most. But use of these progressions can often lead us to new melodic ideas.

In the same way, a new pattern of very few chords in a progression can also lead to new melodic patterns triggered by how few chords change in expected places.

The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by John Lennon. A song with one chord only, C major.
Steely Dan, “Show Biz Kids,” which is all one chord: Dm7
Harry Nilsson, “Coconut.” All based on one chord: C7

A good example is The Beatles’ song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” by John Lennon. Unlike many of his songs, which use a remarkable and brilliant range of chords, and often many in one song, for this one he uses one chord only – a C major – the simplest of all simple chords as it has only three notes, with no flats or sharps: C-E-G.

And yet the melody that Lennon sings over this one chord is not limited or static. It is forever moving, ascending and descending, and shows it is the songwriter, and not the chords, which propel a melody.

Similarly, Lennon’s great friend Harry Nilsson wrote his song “Coconut” all around one chord. Also a C major chord but with a 7th so it is C7: C-E-G-Bb.

Even Steely Dan -Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – who are as brilliant with chord usage as The Beatles – also have one song with a single chord only, “Show Biz Kids.” All of which is built over the single chord Dm7. D-F-A-C.

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. He turned those chords inside-out, around, backwards.”

That wisdom can be seen throughout Tom’s songbook, in which he uses 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.

In “I Won’t Back Down,” which is in G major, the chorus is kicked off by one of Tom’s signature inverted progressions. Quickly we hear IV-I-IV-I-V-I-IV, or C-G-C-G-D-G-C

Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down”

[Actively experiment with simple chord progressions, but reverse them. Turn them around. The I, IV, V in E major is E, A and B. The inverse, V, I, IV would be B-E-A. 

Tom Petty also wrote 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, because though the chords remain grounded and do not change, the melody does change, and moves in leaps and soars. A limited amount of chords in no way means the melody is limited at all. And the effect of the same chords as the melody covers a big range is a magnetic sound. 

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 Petty 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.”

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