I’ve decided to take up the February Album Writing Month challenge again this year.  Even though the month is already started, I highly recommend you take part if you’d like a push in your songwriting productivity.

Last year, I found this exercise helped get me into a solid daily songwriting routine.  And if you write a song every day, that’s 365 a year.  There are sure to be some gems in there.

You can listen to my progress here.  If you want to take part but don’t know where to start, why not try out some of the songwriting exercises or avant-garde techniques from this site?  Be sure to let me know so I can link to any songs you base on these exercises.

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Today we continue our discussion of secondary dominants with a look at the VI7 chord. Remember the magnetic tunnel progression? The power of that progression came from the fact that we were moving from the v of V to the V of I to the I (ii-V-I).

That sequence can be extended to the v of ii, which is vi. Try playing vi-ii-V-I to see what I mean (in the Key of C, that’s Am-Dm-G-C). It makes sense to think of this as an extended tunnel sequence. Can you feel the smooth and direct motion, and the sense of inevitability when you finally return home?

Today we are going to use this extended tunnel sequence as a jumping-off point in order to introduce our next secondary dominant. Recall that we can journey to another harmonic world by replacing the ii with the II7. II7 is the V of V, and pulls us as forcefully to the V as the V pulls us to the I.

We can achieve a similar effect by bringing in the V of ii. Say you want to emphasize the ii, making it feel like a temporary home in your song. Simply play the VI7 immediately before it (VI7-ii in the Key of C is A7-Dm). It will function as a portal to the ii just as the II7 functioned as a portal to the V.

That’s useful on its own, but for today’s exercise I’m going to show how the VI7 can add new life to the vi-ii-V-I.

EXERCISE
Today’s exercise is a bit simpler than usual. That’s because we’re going to be playing a set chord cycle over and over. The purpose of this exercise is to develop a feel for the place secondary dominants can play in your songs.

Start out by playing the following progression and coming up with a corresponding melody: VI7-ii-V-I (in the key of C: A7-Dm-G-C).

Once you’ve got this tunnel sequence down, it’s time to add another part. Follow it with this sequence: vi-IV-V-iii (in the key of C: Am-F-G-Em).

Now play the entire sequence through, giving equal time to each chord: VI7-ii-V-I-vi-IV-V-iii (in the key of C: A7-Dm-G-C-Am-F-G-Em).

Try to come up with a melody to match the progression. Treat the first four chords as a question and the second four chords as an answer. Interpret that however you like. Somehow the first four chords should be setting the tone and the second answering or developing it.

“BUT THIS IS YOUR PROGRESSION, NOT MINE!”
Normally, these exercises are designed to help you come up with your own progressions. So why am I giving such rigid instructions this time?

Because this chord cycle illustrates a number of useful ideas:

1. The appearance of the vi chord here is unusually interesting because you’ve already introduced the VI7. It adds character to an otherwise ordinary move (the change from I to vi is a common way to change mood).

2. Switching between the major and minor versions of a chord can generally be an interesting exercise. Experiment with it!

3. The IV-V-iii at the end is a surprising move. IV-V often leads to I. The iii seems all the more colorful if it appears instead.

4. The return from iii-VI7 foreshadows our next installment in this series. That’s because iii is the v of VI.

5. On the last point, what this means is that we’ve extended our tunnel sequence by one more step. Now it’s iii-VI7-ii-V-I.

6. That’s not all: iii feels like the end of the sequence and VI7 the beginning. We’re establishing our home key in an unusually roundabout way! The I only shows up in the middle.

The lesson? Even though I’ve given you a rigid exercise, the ideas it illustrates can form the basis of a great deal of experimentation. Get to it!

Once you’ve developed a song employing the VI7 (whether with the recommended chord cycle or by experimenting with the ideas I’ve outlined), be sure to submit it as an inspiration to the rest of us!

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I haven’t had much to say about lyrics on this site, but they obviously form a core component of songwriting. For those of you who tend to write lyrics before music, there’s some great advice available over on Nicholas Tozier’s blog Song Written.

I highly recommend you read the article and try experimenting with some of his ideas, whether you’re primarily a lyricist or not. If nothing else, the techniques he describes can help you generate melodies you might not have come up with using your normal methods. In this post, I’ll briefly describe what I take to be the core idea of his article and look at how to integrate it with some of my Practical Chord Progression exercises.

Nicholas suggests that in order to fit melodies to lyrics in a new way, we ought to adopt a new perspective on spoken language. He has us consider the difference between a sentence posed as a question and asserted as a statement. Try it out:

“You’re going to arrive?” vs. “You’re going to arrive.”

The first ends with a rising tone, the second with a falling tone. Melody in spoken language!

So how can this help us set lyrics to music?

Simple. Learn to listen carefully to the natural melodic ebb and flow of your speech. Then experiment with matching melodies that follow that ebb and flow. This works with rhythm as well as melody.

Like any interesting songwriting technique, this is going to take some trial and error. If you find that coming up with melodies without chord progressions is a daunting task, why not combine this approach with some of my chord progression exercises? As an example, I’ll discuss doing this with the Light and Shadow exercise.

EXERCISE
Before coming up with a chord progression, write two sections of lyrics, one positive and happy, the other plaintive, melancholy, or dark.

Sometimes verse and chorus involve a lyrical contrast of this kind. Perhaps the verse describes a time when everything was going well and the chorus an unhappy aftermath. Or it could be the other way around. The verse might describe a difficult period and the chorus a sense of accomplishment or joy in getting through it.

These are simplistic recommendations, so feel free to come up with more interesting ideas!

Now that you have your lyrics, go through the Light and Shadow exercise and come up with your chord progressions. But here’s the twist: Speak your lyrics as you come up with the corresponding chords.

What you’re doing is setting a rhythm to ensure that your lyrics will fit the progression. As always, this simply provides a solid starting point for further development.

Now, taking each part one at a time, start by speaking your lyrics and attempt to gradually transform them from spoken words into a melody. Do this by following the natural tonal ebb and flow of the sentences. Repeat this process until you’ve refined it into something you really like.

And don’t forget to head over to Song Written for more advice on lyrics in songwriting.

Once you’ve transformed words into melodies, why not submit your results as an example to those of us still staring at pages of lyrics, not sure what to do with them?

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Now that we have the V7 under our belt, we’re ready to dive into the world of secondary dominants. We’ve been imagining the harmonic landscape in terms of a home base, a surrounding neighborhood, and a shadowy area immediately beyond. Today we’re going to enter a portal to another world: the world of chords outside the home key.

BACKGROUND
Recall that our home key consists of the following chords:
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii°

Which particular chords these represent depends, of course, on which key we’re in. The following chart shows some common keys:

I ii iii IV V vi vii°
C C Dm Em F G Am
D D Em F#m G A Bm C#°
E E F#m G#m A B C#m D#°
F F Gm Am B♭ C Dm
G G Am Bm C D Em F#°
A A Bm C#m D E F#m G#°
B B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#°

 

So, the chords in the key of C are:
CDmEmFGAm – B°

At this point, we have covered all but the tricky diminished vii (written as vii°). These make up the immediate and surrounding neighborhoods of our home chord, the I. But as songwriters, we are not limited to this small set of chords.

We are free to be adventurous, free to explore other worlds. Playing with secondary dominants will serve as our first step in that direction.

Notice that each key has a unique V (or dominant) chord. In the key of C, it’s G. In the key of G, it’s D. And so on. And for each key, the V acts as a magnet chord, pulling us back to the I.

Secondary dominants are dominant chords borrowed from foreign keys. Just as the V can be used to emphasize and anticipate the I, so can a secondary dominant be used to emphasize and anticipate other chords in the home key.

In the key of C, the V is G major. What if we want to emphasize that chord in our song? We can use its own V. Look at the chart: the V of G is D major. But D major is not in the key of C. That’s because the ii of C is Dm. So if we want to play the V of our V chord, we have to play a II chord.

A II chord acts like a portal to another key. It has an unexpectedly bright sound, and noticeably changes the feel of our song. Our environment is suddenly tranformed when we play it. If we use it to emphasize the V, we are using it as a secondary dominant.

It is common in rock and jazz music to play secondary dominants as seventh chords. So in our exercise for today, we are going to play around with the II7.

Remember from last time that the V7 is like a supercharged magnet leading to the I. Well, the II7 is like a supercharged magnet leading to the V. And it will add a whole new color to your songwriting palette.

THE EXERCISE
In order to get a feel for the II7 and the power of secondary dominants, begin by creating a progression that establishes the home key. You can follow any of the methods described in past exercises.

Once you have a progression you like, try ending it with II7-V-I (in the key of C, that would be D7-G-C). Notice how the II7 introduces a bright and unexpected sound into your song. That’s the portal effect.

Now write a melody for your progression. You’ll notice that the II7 will force you to come up with new kinds of melodic ideas. A simple chord change can bring out ideas you’d never have come up with otherwise.

Change things up by replacing II7-V-I with II7-V-V7-I. Notice how the progression from V to V7 sounds very natural here. This is a way of supercharging your magnetic tunnel, building more and more tension and expectation for the I.

SOME VARIATIONS

  1. Write a song using only the home key chords and then replace V chords with II7-V pairs. This is a common technique in jazz.
  2. Try using the II chord instead of the II7 in these exercises. In the key of C, that would be D.
  3. Create surprise by moving from II7 or II to a different chord than the V. This is a trickier technique, so it will take some trial and error. Try II7-IV first.

Once you’ve taken your first steps into another harmonic world, submit your results as a record for those of us who are still stuck in more familiar territory.

Next: VI7 (V of ii): A Chord Cycle

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With the exception of the tricky diminished vii (which I’ll cover later down the line), we’ve now played around with the core major key chords. With these under your belt, you should be able to

  1. establish a sense of home,
  2. explore the immediate neighborhood,
  3. play with tension and release, and
  4. create depth and surprise with shifts between light and shadow.

Not a bad start.

But now it’s time to get even more adventurous. Remember how the V builds a sense of expectation for the I? This is a simple but powerful device. And the exciting thing is, it can be used to emphasize other chords as well.

Say you want to place the emphasis on the V itself. One method for accomplishing this is to begin from what’s called the V-of-V. The V-of-V is not one of the core chords we’ve covered so far. It comes from outside the home key. And it’s known as a “secondary dominant”.

For the next several entries, I’m going to discuss a variety of secondary dominants and provide exercises you can use to integrate them into your songs. But before we can get to that, we should go back to the old familiar V-I progression, since it’s the prototype for the secondary dominant progressions.

In particular, we need to look at a method for making the magnetic pull of the V even stronger. We do this by turning it into a seventh chord.

Since my emphasis here isn’t on the details of music theory, I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty about what makes a chord a seventh chord. For our purposes, what’s important is that it’s a modification of a more familiar chord that gives it a new feel. We’ll be looking at one seventh chord in particular: the V7 (in the key of C, that’s G7).

FIRST EXERCISE
Let’s start simple to introduce the sound of the V7. Get comfortable playing a familiar I-IV-V progression. Come up with a melody and repeat it a few times.

Now, as you round the IV, play a V7 instead of a V. Notice the difference?

Notice how it forces you to change your melody? As you move from the V7 to the I you should feel an even stronger pull than normal. You’ve just tapped into a supercharged magnet.

SECOND EXERCISE
Now that you have a sense for the difference changing V to V7 makes, it’s time to experiment. Try coming up with a song using any of the methods we’ve explored so far. Use the ii-V-I magnetic tunnel to get back to home. But instead of ii-V-I, play ii-V7-I. Hear the difference?

What happens if you change from V-V7 within a phrase? What does ii-V-V7-I sound like?

What about a deceptive cadence from V7-vi instead of V-vi? Or what about ending a shadowy chorus on the V7 in order to supercharge the return to the verse?

The best way to get a feel for the V7 is to try it in as many contexts as you can. It’s not a surefire method. Sometimes it will break the feel of your song. Sometimes it will sound awkward. But with a little practice, you should find a place for it.

Once you’ve got this supercharged magnet up and running, why don’t you submit your results as an example for the rest of us?

Next: II7 (V of V): Portal to Another World

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Many people I’ve talked to think of songwriting as a dark art practiced only by people with the magical ability to conjure fully formed songs from thin air. There’s a lot that’s mistaken about this, but for now I want to focus on one simple point: anyone can write a song. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s (relatively) easy.

“Songwriting isn’t easy,” you might think as you sit making random noise on the guitar or piano, “It’s impossible.”

Well, riding a bike is easy, but that doesn’t mean you can just hop on and ride. It takes practice and it takes concentration. But anybody can do it. They just need to follow some simple steps.

Today I’m going to lay out two very simple methods for writing songs. Think of these as your training wheels. If you rely on them for the time being, you’ll be riding on two wheels before you know it. But in the meantime, you’ll get to enjoy the experience and build a foundation from which you can continue to develop ideas.

FIRST METHOD: A SIMPLE PROGRESSION
The first method I’m going to suggest might strike you as cheating. It might strike you that you’re not writing at all. But I assure you you’d be mistaken. Not only will this method get you writing songs, it will start you off on a very promising foundation, demonstrating that writing songs is anything but creating new material from thin air. Here goes:

First, play the following chords over and over: C-F-G-C. Listen carefully as you play them and try varying the time you spend on each chord. But don’t stop repeating the sequence.

Second, once you get a feel for the progression, start humming or singing whatever notes come to mind. Take your time. Try out new ideas until you land on something you kind of like. Don’t wait for a masterpiece, just something that sounds right.

Third, sing some nonsense lyrics to the melody you’ve come up with. Or sing about heartbreak. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re fitting words to melody.

Congratulations. You just wrote a song!

“Wait a minute,” you reply, “I just stole your song!”.

Actually, you just used a set of chords heard countless times in songs from every genre of popular music. And then you came up with an original melody over those chords, just like professional songwriters have done time and again. Reusing chord progressions isn’t stealing; it’s what musicians do.

SECOND METHOD: A LITTLE MORE VARIETY
The three chords you just used form a progression called the “I-IV-V”. If you’re interested in how chord progressions work and what these Roman numerals mean, take a look at my Practical Chord Progressions series. If you just want to write a song, then all you need to know is that this is one of the cornerstone progressions in a wide variety of musical styles. Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be ready to kick away the training wheels and explore a richer musical landscape.

The first method was just to play these chords through and write a melody over them. But this only gave you a single musical part. Don’t most songs have at least two parts?

Most do (though it isn’t absolutely necessary). So let’s add a second part:

First, play and sing your song from above a few times until you really internalize it. Maintain the C-F-G-C sequence.

Second, go through your part and stop on the last C chord. Now, instead of starting again, move to either F or G. Then, if you moved to F, move to G. Or, if you moved to G, move to F. Play those two chords over and over.

Third, hum or sing notes over those two chords until you find something that sounds right. Now sing some words to that melody.

Presto! You have a chorus. Now you can return to the C-F-G-C, singing your original part. That’s your verse. Alternate between these two parts, and you’ve got a regular verse-chorus tune.

WHAT NEXT?
Try this exercise a number of times, coming up with a variety of songs. Once you get a handle on it, it’s time to mix things up. Feel free to try these three chords in any order you please. Experiment. Have fun. Throw in an Am if you really want to change it up.

Hopefully this exercise gets you excited about the possibilities. If so, check out my series of songwriting exercises that’s aimed at gradually building your songwriting knowledge, step by step.

If you come up with something you like by following these suggestions, feel free to submit it to the site. Be a shining beacon for all those people who think writing songs is only for people with magical powers!

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In the third installment of the Light and Shadow mini-series, we look at a strange technique that will ensure contrast between two parts of your song. This may take a little tweaking, but it’s sure to bring about surprising results.

THE EXERCISE
So far, we’ve looked at two ways to work with light and shadow in our songwriting. First, we contrasted an all-light section with an all-shadow section. Then, we added depths to a single section by adding a light chord to shadow chords and a shadow chord to light chords. Now, we are going to create a “negative” of our chord progression by reversing light and shadow from one section to another.

This exercise is simple to explain, but a little tricky to implement. So let’s start by getting our hands dirty and then worry about working out the kinks.

Start by coming up with a chord progression mixing major and minor chords. You can use one you’ve written for another exercise (such as the last one), or just write something new. Use at least four chords. This is your first part.

Now play the “negative” of this: reverse the polarity of every chord. Major becomes minor; minor becomes major; light becomes shadow; shadow becomes light. This is your second part.

You have at least two options for the melody, and I recommend you try both. First, try to write a unique melody for the second part to stress the contrast. This could serve as a chorus or a bridge.

Second, try to write a similar melody. This will prove to be a challenge because of the new chord relationships, but it just might produce something interesting. You could treat it as a continuation of your verse. There’s no reason why a verse always has to be simple!

HELP! THIS JUST SOUNDS RANDOM!
If you’re lucky, you’ll immediately hit on an interesting change and come up with a great new part. But you might find that the change just sounds random or ugly. If this is true, then just use the reverse polarity chord progression as a starting point.

Try to sculpt it into something that fits better with your original part. The more you play around with it, the more ideas you’ll discover. And there’s a good chance you’ll come up with something you wouldn’t have written otherwise.

Once you’ve transformed light into shadow and shadow into light on your own song, submit it to the site to surprise and delight the rest of us.

Next: Secondary Dominants: Introducing the Seventh Chord

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In the second installment of the Light and Shadow mini-series, we’re going to develop on the idea of writing separate light and shadow parts. This time we’re going to add depth to these parts through contrast.

BACKGROUND
In this mini-series, we’re trying to think of songwriting on analogy to painting. Just as a painter works with light and dark shades, so are we working with major and minor chords.

Sometimes painters will focus on one or the other in a composition. Imagine a dark and mysterious image bathed in shadow, for example. But a painter can add depth to the images depicted by contrasting that shadow with light. Musicians can learn from these techniques as well.

In our last exercise, we focused on using only one of these elements at a time. This time we’re going to try to add some depth through contrast.

The exercise will be divided into two parts. In the first, we will begin with light chords; in the second, we will begin with shadow. Again, the results can serve as a verse and chorus for a complete song.

THE EXERCISE: LIGHT
Begin by writing a progression using only the light chords we’ve covered so far: I, IV, and V. We’ve already covered a variety of ways to do this.

Now it’s time to add some depth.

First Approach: The Contrast Chord
We are going to approach this in two ways. First, choose one chord from among our shadow chords (ii, iii, and vi). Now simply insert that chord in between each change from your original progression.

So, for example, say your original progression was I-V-I-IV-V-I. If you chose ii as your contrast chord, your new progression will be I-ii-V-ii-I-ii-IV-ii-V-I. I left out the ii on the last change to keep the magnetic tunnel effect in place for a satisfying conclusion.

Be sure to place the emphasis on the major chords and treat the contrast chord only as transitional. What you’re trying to do is deepen and add interest to the feel of the major chords. You’ll have to experiment to really understand what I’m talking about here.

Second Approach: Various Contrast Chords
The second approach is similar to the first, except that now we will be using all three of the shadow chords instead of just one.

Again, insert a minor chord in between each of your changes, but mix it up and use a different one each time.

So, to return to our I-V-I-IV-V-I, you might try I-ii-V-vi-I-iii-IV-ii-V-I. But don’t just imitate this idea. Experiment with a variety of combinations!

Again, make sure you’re treating the shadow chords as transition chords and maintaining the sense of emphasis on the light chords. One way to do this is to spend more time on the major chords. Another is to play the major chords on the first beat of the measure and the minor on the third beat. Again, there are many ways to approach this exercise.

And of course, this is meant as a starting point. Feel free to tweak the progression, dropping some of the contrast chords if you feel it’s necessary.

THE EXERCISE: SHADOW
Your finished result so far can serve as either a verse or chorus. Now we’re going to write a second part, focusing on the shadow chords this time.

There’s no need to spell this out in detail again. You’re just going to do the opposite of what you did last time. Start from a chord progression using only ii, iii, and vi. Then use I, IV, and V as transitional contrast chords.

Again, first choose only one contrast chord. Then try using all of them.

There you have it: a light part and a shadow part, both possessing a new level of depth (and complexity).

YET ANOTHER CONTRAST
This exercise is meant to get you experimenting with new ways of approaching part writing. But keep in mind that there are also many ways to contrast verse and chorus. There is no need to have both possess the kind of depth we’ve been exploring here.

Try following this exercise for one part and then writing the other with only three chords. This is a fairly common technique, and one you should master as well.

Once you’ve added depth to your song, go ahead and submit it as inspiration for the rest of us.

SUMMARY
Light Progression
1. Start with a chord progression based on I, IV, and V.
2a. Choose one chord from ii, iii, and vi. Place that chord in between each change from your original chord progression.
2b. Now use all of ii, iii, and vi. Alternate them as transitional chord between your original changes.
3. Tweak the progression to get a sound you like.

Shadow Progression
1. Start with a chord progression based on ii, iii, and vi.
2a. Choose one chord from I, IV, and V. Place that chord in between each change from your original chord progression.
2b. Now use all of I, IV, and V. Alternate them as transitional chord between your original changes.
3. Tweak the progression to get a sound you like.

Next: Light and Shadow Part 3: Reversing the Polarity of Chord Progressions

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Avant Garde: Polymeter

February 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

Today we look at a simple method for adding complexity to your songs. We’re going to play around with the idea of polymeter. Why choose between writing a song in 4/4 or 3/4 when you can do both at once?

THE EXERCISE
There are many ways to write polymeters into your music, but we’ll be focusing on one simple approach in this article. This will get you started and will hopefully lead to some interesting results.

Begin by coming up with a part in 4/4 time. If you’re not sure what this means, just count out “one two three four one two three four” over and over, emphasizing the one. This is the most common time signature found in pop music, so you should be able to feel it out. Now write your part to fit the rhythm. Record that part. I would recommend using a metronome or beat to help you keep time in this exercise.

Your 4/4 part can be a chord progression, a repeating riff, a looped melody, or whatever else you can come up with.

Now it’s time to have some fun. Listen to your first part and write a new part over it. This new part will be in 3/4 time. That means you’ll be counting “one two three one two three”.

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that the two parts will repeat at different rates. Different harmonies and accents will emerge as they play out against one another. As you can see below, it will take three 4/4 measures and four 3/4 measures before they line up again:

Part 1: 1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1…
Part 2: 1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1…

Explore a variety of combinations. Try the exercise first with a 4/4 drum beat and then with a 3/4 drum beat. Play chord progressions in both. Play a chord progression in one and a melody in the other. Play looped melodies in both. Have fun with it.

TAKE THINGS TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Of course, sticking with 3/4 and 4/4 is only the beginning. Try different combinations if you’re in an experimental mood. And if you really want to go crazy, why not throw in a third part in 5/4?

Part 1: 1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3   …
Part 2: 1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3   …
Part 3: 1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  …

As you can see, it’s going to take a while before they all line up again! (Fifteen 4/4 measures, twenty 3/4 measures, and twelve 5/4 measures, to be precise).

I encourage you to submit your polymetric results to help break the rest of us out of the 4/4 straightjacket we spend most of our time in.

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I’ve been encouraging you to think of the major chords as light and the minor chords as shadow. In the next few articles, we’re going to focus on this metaphor and see how it can help us in our songwriting. The interplay of light and shadow will help us create interest, contrast, depth, and surprise in our songs.

Today we’ll look at one of the simplest ways to create contrast: by using only one kind of chord in our verse, and the other in our chorus.

If you’ve been following the Practical Chord Progression series up to this point, then you know that we already have six chords in the mix. In the Key of C Major, these are:

  1. I – C
  2. IV – F
  3. V – G
  4. ii – Dmin
  5. iii – Emin
  6. vi – Amin

BACKGROUND
Think of the way a painter or filmmaker uses light and shadow. Look carefully at the work of the Dutch masters or watch some film noir. You’ll notice that these techniques create depth, interest, and atmosphere. There’s no reason musicians shouldn’t self-consciously attempt to rely on analogous methods.

One of the simplest ways to create contrast and interest in a pop song is to clearly distinguish your verse from your chorus. This is a principle anyone interested in songwriting understands at some level.

One easy way to do this is by assigning the light chords to one and the shadow chords to the other. Instant contrast. This method is limiting, but I hope these exercises have helped illustrate how many different ideas are possible within constraints of this kind.

THE EXERCISE
This is the first exercise where we’ll be writing a more or less complete song. All you need is a verse and a chorus, and that’s exactly what we’ll be creating.

First choose whether your verse or chorus will be the light section. Often the feel of the chorus is going to determine the theme of the song, so one method is to choose a light chorus for an optimistic song and a shadow chorus for a darker one. I recommend trying this exercise both ways.

Ok, now write your verse. If it’s going to be your light, only use the I, IV, and V. If it’s going to be your shadow, stick to ii, iii, and vi. For the purposes of this exercise, lyrics aren’t important. Those can come later.

Once you’ve got something you like, write your chorus using only the three remaining chords. Choruses are often more exciting than verses, so you can aim to raise the energy. But this is not universally true. What matters most is that there is contrast of some kind.

HELP! I’M STUCK!
Need a little more guidance? Keep things simple at first. Start with a verse using light chords. Begin on the I and follow the steps in the neighborhood exercise.

Once you’ve got something you like, move to the vi to begin the chorus. There are many ways to do this, but one we’ve discussed already is the deceptive cadence. Move to the V in your verse, building a sense of anticipation for a return to the I. Now move to the vi instead and start the chorus.

Another very common move is to end your verse on the I and then move directly to the vi to start the chorus.

We haven’t looked at ways to write for minor chords alone, but one method is to think of the vi as the counterpart of the I, the ii as the counterpart of the IV, and the iii as the counterpart of the V.

Use this as a starting point! Your verse doesn’t actually have to start on the I and your chorus doesn’t have to start on the vi. But it is often helpful to master the basics first, and start experimenting from there.

Once you’ve created your song from this simple contrast of light and shadow, be sure to submit it for the betterment of the rest of us.

Next: Light and Shadow Part 2: Creating Depth Through Contrast

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