Songwriter U: How To Use Chord Progressions In Your Songwriting, Part I

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Often when discussing songwriting, we divide it into its two main elements, words and music. But just as lyrics contain a multitude of sub-categories and considerations, so does music. It contains the melody of the song, of course, the single-line sung tune which transports the lyrics. But unless a song is a cappella, though, that melody does not exist on its own, but within the harmony – the pattern of chord progressions — that surrounds it. So all savvy songwriters develop over time a vocabulary of chord changes, and one that is hopefully always expanding, to inspire, empower and enrich melodies.

Because not only will the chords enhance a melody with momentum — the propulsion of the tune –- and a foundation, they also are vital to the generation and discovery of new melodies. Although some legendary melodists, such as Burt Bacharach, have spoken of their inclination to compose melody apart from any chords, the majority of songwriters discover and invent melodies by playing chord progressions, both ones they knew and new ones they devise.

The best way to learn about these progressions and see them in action is to reverse-engineer songs you love. How did John Lennon, for example,  create that greatly visceral and swampy vibe of “Come Together”? All you got to do is go online to find its chords, as you can now with virtually any famous song, so as to ascertain immediately how he did it. As you can with any famous song, from Cole Porter through Sia and beyond.

What becomes quickly evident if you do this much, is that all the songs we know are either diatonic (staying in one key only) or chromatic (moving in and out of more than one key).  Both camps are tonal – meaning that they are always rooted to a key. But in diatonic chord progressions, which are fundamental to most blues, country, folk and rock & roll, every chord is in the usual tonal toolkit. If you’re in a major key of C major, for example, the diatonic chords are the I (C major), II (D minor), III (E minor), IV (F), V (G), and the VI (A minor) and VII (B diminished). This pattern of chords is identical in every major key. Countless famous songs are built on diatonic progressions of these chords, showing that with a good tune and groove, many chords are not necessary.

Blues are mostly composed, essentially, of the I, IV and V, as are so many folk and country songs. Chuck Berry cooked up genius with only two chords sometimes, as he did it in his classic “You Never Can Tell,” which is only I and V.  James Brown and other soul purveyors taught us with the right groove and bass-line, such as the classic “I Feel Good,“ only one chord is needed, a lesson John Fogerty said he learned. Fogerty, who has written whole songs like “Commotion” all on one chord, often will use only two, explaining that by staying on one chord so long that the move to another becomes monumental.

Tom Petty understood this. He understood that, in the wake of Hendrix especially, a lot of guys became serious guitarists, and wrote songs more about the chords than the song itself. 

“So many times,” he said, “a guy would come up to me and say, ‘Tom, you have got to hear my new song. I used a chord in it you have never heard in a chord progression ever !’ So I would listen to the song, and tell them, ‘You want to know why you have never heard that chord in a song? Because it doesn’t sound good! Take that chord out.” 

It’s a funny story, but instructive. We don’t write songs to impress other guitarists with our use of strange chords. If those chords don’t propel a melody in a compelling way, and if they don’t serve the song, they are not helping. Whereas, as Tom said, you can write a great song with two chords. Often in his songs, as in “Free Fallin’,” written with Jeff Lynne, he would use one chord pattern, which repeats through the whole song, both verses and chorus. Yet over that foundation, the melody would soar. 

And that is the important lesson. In songs it is the melody which matters, not the chords. 

But chords can be used as a great tool by which to discover compelling melodies. Learning every chord, and every variation of chord, is a vital way of discovering, and supporting, melodies. 

And every chord matters. There are those who suggest certain chords, such as diminished ones, are “ugly,” and to be avoided. But the opposite is true. They are not ugly, but they contain dissonance. Notes that clash. One cannot resolve a melody with a diminished chord. But dissonances create tension, which can be resolved. And all of music has to do with this dance of tension and release. So that chords color and underpin melodies in vivid ways, and also serve as “passing chords,” working as connecting tissue between chords that allow a melody to move into new places.

Among previous generations of songwriters, such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter, a great love and brilliance with chromatic chord progressions abounded. Study any Cole Porter song, such as “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” and you find beautifully adventurous chromatic chord progressions which shift between others keys, as well as between the major and minor version of the tonal center. These songs represent what many consider the “golden age of melody.” These progressions were never designed to draw attention to the chords themselves, but to propel and enrich the melody. Always it was the melody that mattered most.

Most early rock and roll was diatonic, often three chord songs like blues, but sped up, or the classic 1950s progression of I, VI, IV, V (In C: C, Am, F,G). But when Lennon & McCartney started writing their remarkable Beatles songs, they instilled chromatic progressions, all very much in the Cole Porter tradition, into almost every song. Though some were ballads, more of them were up-tempo rockers, which were extraordinarily enhanced by enthralling melodies wrapped in chromatic progressions. Even before they became sophisticated lyricists, their chords were sophisticated:

“I Want To Hold Your Hand,” their debut American single in 1964, goes by so fast one barely realizes its complexity. In G major, its verse goes I – V – VI  (G – D – Em) but then ends the cadence with B7, a major version of the minor III, Bm. By substituting a major here instead of a minor (known as a “sub-dominant” chord because it acts like a dominant V chord), the tune lands on a moment of melodic tension, which is propelled forward towards a melodic release back to the I, or G.

But that’s not all of it. For the bridge it goes to the minor V,  which is D minor. Since the true V chord is D major, by going to the D minor, the tune remains rooted in place while also shifting to a whole other direction. Which is not hard to do. One substitute chord will do it. The hard part is how you get back. To return to the original key in an organic way that best suits the melody, after moving out of it, is always the challenge.

Here they do it by building the bridge tune on the minor V (D minor) till it shifts back at the bridge’s end by returning to the actual V chord, D major, which propels us back to the key of G major.

All of which is dry and complex on the page, but in the song goes by with rock and roll perfection. Once you master such changes, you can use them to add interesting colors to your melodies, or to open up new avenues of melody one would never reach with usual chord patterns.

In Part II, we will explore other examples of chromatic changes in famous songs, such as the aforementioned “Come Together,” as well as look at how diatonic progressions are used to create a simplicity and purity which is best for certain songs.

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