How to Write a Song: Songwriting is Easy

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: CFG-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!

Light and Shadow Part 3: Reversing the Polarity of a Chord Progression

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

Light and Shadow Part 2: Creating Depth through Contrast

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

Light and Shadow Part 1: Verse and Chorus

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

Practical Chord Progressions: iii (The Mediant or “Moody Chord”)

In this article, we’ll be exploring the power of the iii to shift the mood of our song. We’ll also be looking for the first time at the idea of musical phrases, questions, and answers. All of this in the form of a very simple exercise.

BACKGROUND
At this point, you’ve hopefully started to get a pretty solid grasp of the chords available in a single key. We have already:

  1. looked at the home chord (I), around which everything else takes on its meaning,
  2. looked at the magnet chord (V), which pulls us back toward home and reinforces its power,
  3. strengthened this sense of inevitability by building a magnetic tunnel moving from ii to V and finally to I, and
  4. explored other mini-centers in the neighboring IV and the more mysterious vi.

Today we are going to look at the last of the in-key chords that I’ll be discussing for the time being: the iii. This is a chord with the power to bring about sudden shifts in mood, and to glue together ascending and descending progressions (I-ii-iii-IV, iii-ii-I, V-IV-iii-ii, etc.).

[In case you’re wondering, the diminished vii is a bit trickier to use, so I’ll be leaving discussion of it until later in the series].

There are many ways to create an interesting song. One approach that is worth exploring is thinking of your creation in terms of the interplay of light and shadow, a point I will be exploring in more detail in the next couple of posts.

For the time being, I want you to focus on the interest created by the contrast between the major I and the minor iii. The move from I to iii creates a sudden shift in mood, but not a terribly disorienting one. We can immediately regain our sense of home by moving to the five, perhaps via the ii or the IV.

Let’s get to the exercise and see what this kind of thing sounds like.

THE EXERCISE
As always, we’ll be approaching this exercise in the key of C major, though you are free to try it in other keys (and I encourage you to eventually do so, of course!). If you’re sticking with C major as the I, then your iii is E minor.

Begin as you have in the past by getting comfortable on the I.

Now move to the iii. Notice that shift in mood? Things have gotten a little darker and a lot more uncertain. That’s the power of harmonic shadows.

Ok, now I want you to move back and forth between these two chords, spending a measure or two on each. Come up with a melody to match this progression.

For the purposes of this exercise, try to either repeat the exact same melody for every I-iii you play, or use closely related melodies. What you’ve just created is a musical phrase. It’s going to serve as a kind of musical “question” which demands an answer.

Now try the following: play I-iii twice through while singing your melody. Then choose two other chords from the ones we’ve discussed and move to those, singing a musical “answer” over them. Don’t worry too much about what “answer” means; just come up with whatever sounds right to you.

Now return to the I-iii, playing it once without singing.

Repeat. I-iii-I-iii-?-?-I-iii

So what chords should you use to fill in the blanks? I recommend trying a variety of combinations, but a simple starting place is ii-V, since you know that will get you back to I in a satisfying way. But don’t limit yourself. See what else is possible!

Here’s a more detailed map: [Question: I-iii]-[Question: I-iii]-[Answer: ?-?]-[No singing or an end to your answer: I-iii]

Once you’ve come up with something you like, submit it to the site to help give us a sense of how many phrases one can create over the same two chords, as well as how many kinds of contrast one can build using only two more.

SUMMARY

  1. Play I-iii while singing a melody.
  2. Repeat I-iii with the same or a very similar melody. This is your musical question.
  3. Play two more chords, choosing from ii, IV, V, and vi. Sing a new melody over these chords. This is your musical answer.
  4. Play I-iii again either without singing or while singing an extension of your answer from 3.
  5. Repeat!

Next: Light and Shadow Part 1 – Verse and Chorus

Practical Chord Progressions: ii (The Supertonic or “Magnetic Tunnel Chord”)

We started out in the comfort of home, and have now moved on to explore the more shadowy sides of the neighborhood. In today’s exercise, we are going to add another to our arsenal of shadow chords, the ii (called the “supertonic” by theorists, though you probably won’t run across this term too often).

In our last exercise, we focused on the special relationship between the vi and the I, imagining them as harmonic twins, one shadow, one light. Today, we will focus on the relationship between the ii and the V.

BACKGROUND
I initially described the V chord as the “magnet chord“, so called because of its strong pull toward the I. There are a variety of ways one can harness this magnetic power. Last time, we saw how you can divert that energy to the vi, resulting in a sense of surprise. But there are other ways.

Today, we will experiment with extending the range of that magnetic pull, creating what I’m calling a kind of “magnetic tunnel”. This tunnel pulls you along with a certain sense of inevitability back to our home chord. And you build it by throwing the ii into the mix.

If you haven’t already, you will probably encounter the ii-V-i progression in your studies. This little idea forms the backbone of a great deal of jazz music. It opens up possibilities for extensions and elaborations of simpler chord progressions, for modulations to distant keys, and for a stronger sense of finality when returning to the I. We will be looking at this last effect.

THE EXERCISE
As we’ve done in the past, let’s review the chords we have in the mix, sticking with the key of C major. We’ve brought in what I’ve been calling:

  1. the home chord (I: C major),
  2. the magnet chord (V: G major),
  3. the neighborhood chord (IV: F major), and
  4. the shadowy twin chord (vi: A minor).

These aren’t official names, but I hope they can provide one more way to sort through the chords as we add more of them.

Today we’re adding what I’m calling the “magnetic tunnel chord”, or the ii. In the key of C, this is D minor.

Ok, now for the exercise! First, follow our standard practice and get yourself comfortable on the I, singing bits of melody and establishing a sense of home.

Now you’re going to explore the neighborhood in a new way. Visualize this move as entering a tunnel that wraps around the neighborhood and ultimately leads back home.

Ready? Go to the ii and see where your melody takes you.

Once you’ve got a feel for it, move to the V. Focus on the way this two-chord progression (ii-V) builds an even stronger pull toward the I than the V on its own. Revel in that tension.

Now return home. Try this progression a few times until you can feel the tension build and release. Play with the tension; there’s a lot of power in it.

SURPRISED BY THE DARK SIDE
By this time, you should have a handle on the idea of the magnetic tunnel. The most important aspect is the fact that it builds an expectation that is fulfilled when you hit the I. This produces a sense of relief, comfort, and perhaps finality.

Now imagine you’re in a tunnel headed home, but when you get to the end of it find yourself in a foreign environment. Instead of the familiar house you expected to see, you find an old creaky mansion bathed in cobwebs and shadows. That would be interesting, to say the least.

Your surprise is a function of your expectations, right? Well, we can use this principle in our songwriting.

So follow the exercise again. Start on the I, move to the ii, and then the V. Build that sense of expectation for the I. You can do this by hitting the I at first and going through the process a second time.

But now it’s time for a curveball. Move from the V to the vi instead! Now you’ve transported us to that mysterious, and unexpected location: the shadow side.

This move is called a “deceptive cadence”. “Cadence” is a technical term for a chord progression that ends with a sense of finality. The V-I is the most common cadence. The V-vi is called a “deceptive” cadence because it takes us somewhere we didn’t expect, right when we thought our expectations were going to be realized.

Experiment with these ideas! We’ve already got some important ones in the mix: the harmonic home, expectations, tension, release, and surprise. These are the building blocks of great music.

When you’ve successfully built your own magnetic tunnel of chords, submit it to the site and take the rest of us on a small journey around the harmonic neighborhood.

Next: iii (The Moody Chord)

Practical Chord Progressions: vi (The Relative Minor or “Shadowy Twin”)

By this point, we’ve gotten pretty comfortable with our immediate harmonic neighborhood, starting at home on the I, reinforcing it with the V, and venturing out a little to the IV.  

We’re no longer confined to the house, so to speak, but staying in one’s own neighborhood can also get a little boring. In today’s exercise we’re going to get courageous and explore a whole new environment: the shadowy, mysterious world of the vi.  

Think back to being a kid and heading out past the limits of your neighborhood–the weird trees, growling dogs, suspicious old men, and dark and creaky houses. We can get there now by jumping into what theorists call the “relative minor”.

BACKGROUND

You might have noticed that today’s chord uses a lower case Roman numeral, whereas the others are upper case. This indicates whether a chord is major or minor. The I, IV, and V are all major chords. The vi is minor. Roughly speaking, major chords have a happier, more open sound, whereas minor chords are darker and more claustrophobic.

Every major key has one minor chord that is of particular importance.  This is the relative minor, or vi chord. Again, it’s not my aim on this site to delve too deeply into theory. For our purposes, we just need to think of it as an important destination in our songwriting. It will immediately shift the mood of your song, and is a great chord for starting a chorus.

I’ve used the metaphor of venturing out to a more mysterious realm of the neighborhood. We might also think of it as the chord that casts shadows over our current location, suddenly changing the mood and our relationship to our environment.

To put things yet another way, think of the I and vi as twins, one light, one shadow. This way of thinking will be quite helpful, since it is often the case that you can substitute one for the other in your songs.  

If you don’t believe me, try it out. Take a song you’ve written and put the vi in place of the I. It will almost always work, though it will change the character of the song. In one sense, it will cast shadows over the light.

THE EXERCISE

Sticking with the key of C major, we have C major as our I, G major as our V, and F major as our IV. Today we’ll be adding the vi, which in this case is A minor.

Revisit the last exercise if it’s not fresh in your mind. Begin by establishing our immediate neighborhood again, reinforcing with the V, moving to the IV for a change of location, and ultimately returning to the I (as always, coming up with a melody to sing as you go).

Once you’re feeling comfortable, take heart and journey to the vi.

You’re going to notice a profound change. We’re not in Kansas anymore; we’ve just entered the shadowy side. On the vi, you should find the freedom to come up with a new melody that breaks free from the older one.

What do you do now? Interestingly enough, you do exactly what you would have done from the I. You can harness the magnetic power of the V for good or evil, it turns out. Use the V to reinforce your new, more mysterious location.

You can also jump to the IV to wander around some shadowy side streets. Pay particular attention to the way the vi has become our new base of operations, and how this colors the IV and V in a new way.  This is the transforming power of the vi.

Every time you jump from the V to the vi, you build up magnetic energy, a tension and desire to finally get back home.

Give in: go from V back to I. Isn’t that satisfying? We’ve brought it all back home, where we can rest and reflect on where we’ve been.

This exercise is hopefully starting to get you in touch with the reasons why songs begin and end on a home chord. The further out we go while staying in key, the more powerful the return can be. It’s all about expectation, tension, and release. Explore these ideas and have fun.

AS ALWAYS, I ENCOURAGE YOU TO SUBMIT YOUR RESULTS SO THE REST OF US CAN REST ASSURED YOU SURVIVED YOUR ADVENTURE.

SUMMARY

Into the Shadowy Side (remember: you should be singing a melody as you go!)

  1. Establish a sense of home, starting on the I, reinforcing with the V, and increasing interest by visiting the IV.
  2. Once you’re feeling comfortable, jump to the vi. You’ve entered a new, darker environment.
  3. Treat the vi as a temporary base of operations, reinforcing by harnessing the magnetic power of the V, and exploring the IV with new eyes and ears.
  4. Once you’ve had enough, go to the V and then finally to the I. You’re back home, having survived your journey.

Next: ii (The Magnetic Tunnel Chord)

Practical Chord Progressions: IV (The Subdominant or “Neighborhood Chord”)

If you’ve completed the first two exercises in this series, then you should already be getting a feel for the idea of a harmonic home. So far, however, we’ve basically stayed there on the I, borrowing the V only to reinforce our sense of place. Whole songs can be written with those two chords, but let’s start getting (slightly) more adventurous and explore our immediate harmonic neighborhood. We’re going to stick with C major as our I, so that makes G major our V and F major our IV (here’s a chart). And again, if you’re itching to write, feel free to skip the background section at first.

BACKGROUND
If we stick with the metaphor of distance from home, then the IV, or subdominant chord, is almost as close to the I as the V. We can think of the IV and V together as our immediate neighborhood. Moving around this harmonic space keeps things more interesting than staying on the I, but it never takes us that far from home.

So what’s so special about the IV, and what is its relationship to our other two chords?

For starters, the relationship between the I and the IV is almost the same as the relationship between the V and the I. Just as the V has a magnetic pull toward the I, so does the I have a magnetic pull toward the IV. The only difference is that when we do a good job of establishing a sense of place on the I, the pull toward the IV is weaker. [For the more curious, notice that C major functions as the V when F major is the I]

Think of the relationships this way: when you’re sitting at home, you sometimes get bored and want to go for a walk, just to clear the air a little. Where should you go? If you just want to walk around your street, go to the V. But if you want to go out to the surrounding streets, go to the IV.

One thing you’ll notice is that when you move from I to IV, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a new location. You can hang out on the IV for a while and there won’t be the same pull back home we found with the V (let’s say it’s because there’s more to do on the surrounding streets than your immediate street).

Now if you want to return to your starting point, you have two choices: you can either rush directly back to the I or you can make a smoother journey through the V.

Once all three chords are in play, we’re getting close to the so-called “three chord trick”. Most of the blues and a good deal of rock ‘n roll is built from these chords alone. Since it’s not the purpose of this site to get too deep into conventional progressions, I won’t have much more to say about blues progressions, but I’ll mention that part of their power is in the strong sense of home they maintain, which allows for simple and direct melodic exploration, as well as more adventurous rhythmic and melodic ideas.

THE EXERCISE
Hopefully you’re curious to see how this all actually sounds! That is the point, right? So let’s develop on exercises one and two and see what the IV adds to the mix.

Get comfortable on the I chord again (we’re using C major). Come up with a melody or revisit your old one. Jump to the V (G major for us right now) and back again from time to time. Get a sense of home.

Now focus on how limited this is. Wouldn’t it be nice to go somewhere new? Well, don’t just wish for it; move to the IV (F major).

You’re in a new location now. Can you hear that? Try singing the same melody you sang over the I. It feels a little different here, doesn’t it? Notes take on different meanings depending on where you are harmonically, and this is a simple example of that.

Reading a book at home feels different from reading that same book at the local coffee shop, right? Think of the IV in this way, as a new environment in which old ideas can take on new meanings, and new ideas can sound even more fresh.

Ok, now you should be establishing a sense of place on the IV. But if you don’t return to the I, you’ll start to lose a sense of home. You can jump back to the I for an abrupt reminder. Or, to really get that satisfying sense of return, move to the V first. Once you’re on the V, you should feel that familiar pull home.

Now here’s a nice trick: stick with that tension for a moment. It’s more satisfying to get what you want when you have to wait a little, right? Same principle here. Establish a desire to return to the I first, and then go there.

HELP! I’M STUCK!
If you’re not coming up with anything you like, try starting with a little melody on the I. Then move to the IV and repeat it. Now go up to the V and see what happens. You’re getting very close to the blues here, so chances are you’ll hear a new melody as soon as you hit that V. Play around with that idea for a while.

And of course you’re now free to move between these three chords in any order. A staggering number of songs stick mainly to these three chords, so it’s possible that you could build a small career on this harmonic neighborhood alone.

But we won’t settle for that, right? Tune in next time and we’ll explore a much more dangerous location, the relative minor!

AS ALWAYS, I ENCOURAGE YOU TO SUBMIT YOUR RESULTS FOR THE EDIFICATION OF THE REST OF US.

SUMMARY

How to Explore Your Neighborhood (remember: you should be singing a melody as you go!)

  1. Get comfortable on the I (we’re using C major), moving to the V (G major) and back again from time to time to establish a sense of home.
  2. Journey out to the IV (F major). Notice how you’ve entered a new location. Play around with that.
  3. Return home, either directly to the I for an abrupt reminder, or go to the V first for a smoother, more satisfying transition.
  4. Keep exploring! The possibilities are endless with these three chords alone.

Next: vi (The Shadowy Twin)

Practical Chord Progressions: V (The Dominant or “Magnet Chord”)

In the second installment of Practical Chord Progressions, we take a look at what is arguably the most important chord change: the return from the V to the I.

BACKGROUND

If we think of the tonic (I) chord as home, then we can think of chord progressions in general as involving a journey away from home that ultimately concludes with a satisfying return to our starting point. The most common way to make this return feel “right” is to make use of chords that exhibit a kind of magnetic pull toward the I. In today’s exercise, we’ll be making use of the chord with the strongest magnetic pull home: the V (or dominant chord).

One cannot count the number of songs that establish a sense of home through the movement of V to I. Some music theorists (inspired by Heinrich Schhenker) go so far as to analyze all standard music, no matter how harmonically complex, as an extension of the V-I. Fortunately, we don’t need to settle such questions here. All I want you to pay attention to is the way this change feels, the way you seem to be returning to the harmonic center of your song when you hit the I again.

THE EXERCISE

In our last exercise, we developed a variety of melodies over the I chord alone. Sticking with the Key of C major, we are now going to add the V chord, which in this case is G major.

Begin by repeating the last exercise: play the C chord over and over and sing a melody over it. Think of this chord as the home and center of your song.

Once you have a melody worked out, try changing to the V and see what happens. Chances are good that at least one part of your melody will fit with this change.

The purpose of this exercise is not to dwell on the V itself, however. Instead, I want you to explore the way that the V pulls you back toward the I. Pretty soon you will start coming up with melodic phrases that fit this change, and that feel like a reinforcement of your song’s center.

Hopefully, you’re now starting to see what I mean by the magnetic pull between chords.

HELP! I’M STUCK!

Okay, maybe you’re not achieving this result. Here are two tips: First, make sure you’re spending more time on the I. Think of the V as a garnish or accent. Move there only long enough to build a subtle need to return to the I.

Second, you can use the C major scale trick again. Sing up the scale, and then as you’re coming down find a place to switch to the G chord. Before you get to the bottom of the scale, switch back to C. Repeat this over and over until you can start hearing variations. Sculpt the scale into a new melody.

RECORD YOUR RESULTS AND SUBMIT A MELODY OR IDEA SO THE REST OF US CAN HEAR WHAT YOU’RE WRITING

The more people who submit results, the better we can illustrate the wide variety of ideas you can come up with over the same simple change.

Next: IV (The Neighborhood Chord)

Practical Chord Progressions: I (The Tonic or “Home Chord”)

In this exercise, we’ll get accustomed to the idea of a harmonic home and explore the variety of ideas you can build over a single chord.

BACKGROUND

No matter how little you might know about music theory, you’ve probably heard of keys before (the Key of C, the Key of A minor, etc.). Though we won’t be delving much into theory on this site, it’s important to know that a musical key always has a kind of harmonic center, its “home chord”. This chord shares the name of the key, so it’s easy to determine. Many songs begin and end on the home chord, and it’s helpful to have some idea of why this works.

In this exercise and the exercises that follow, we’ll be learning to establish a sense of home and then venture out into gradually more unfamiliar territory. Thinking of your songs in terms of this metaphor can help you build the kinds of expectations and surprises that make for an interesting tune.

We’re going to start with the simplest possible chord progression possible: playing the same chord over and over again. If nothing else, refusing to change will clearly establish a harmonic home. We are simply staying in place, after all.  In this exercise, we’re going to act as musical homebodies, exploring what we can come up with without every leaving the house. You might be surprised at what is possible against such a simple backdrop.

THE EXERCISE

Choose one major chord (I’ll be sticking to C major). This will be your “tonic”, or home chord. In this exercise, you will never leave “home” on the instrument. All of your exploration will be in terms of the rhythms of your strumming and the melodies you sing.

Okay, start playing that chord, sticking with a single strum pattern. If you want to keep it really basic, just strum up and down. Or get as crazy as you like. Start singing whatever notes come to mind. Pay attention to any little melodic ideas you like.

Now use those as a basis and start developing them. If you have a recording device, record your melody.

Start over and come up with a different melody. Record. Repeat. You might be surprised at how many different melodies you can come up with over a single chord.

For a more romantic perspective, think of the exercise this way: You’re getting in touch with the pure spiritual center of your chosen key.  We’re going to build on this knowledge in the exercises to follow.

HELP! I’M STUCK!

Okay, this exercise sounds simple but maybe you’re not getting anywhere. Your melodies are really boring, perhaps, or maybe you’re not coming up with melodies at all. Here’s one idea you could use: while playing the same chord over and over, sing up and down the appropriate scale. If you’ve chosen the C major chord, then this will be the C major scale. If you don’t know the C major scale, you can listen to it here.

Keep singing this scale up and down until you start to hear some ways to change it up a little. If you let go and just get into the process, you should find that you can begin to sculpt the scale into new melodies. If you’re still stuck, try stopping on random notes and going back up or down.  Give it a try!

NOW SUBMIT ONE OF YOUR SONGS AND I’LL ADD IT TO THE SITE!

If you have a website where you host your music, include it and I’ll also link to you. Don’t worry so much about lyrics. You can just sing “la, la, la” or “da, da, da”, or strings of nonsense. The focus is on the tune itself here. I just ask that you leave out obviously offensive or violent content.

AFTERWARD: But Real Songs Can’t Be Based on Only One Chord, Right?

Historically, the vast majority of music has been primarily rhythmic and melodic in character. Listen to Hindustani music (an Indian classical form), for example, and you can discover songs in which the harmonic equivalent of a single power chord is repeated for a full hour at a time. To Western listeners, this might sound pretty boring on the face of it. If the chord isn’t changing, then nothing’s happening, right? In fact, constraining chord movement opens up possibilities for rhythmic and melodic ideas focused on a single scale (or mode) or modulations through different modes.

Hindustani masters are reputed to respond with similar surprise when thinking about music based on simple rhythmic structures like 4/4 or 3/4. Nothing’s happening, right? Well, constraining the rhythm opens up possibilities for harmonic development. This is not to say you can’t have both (see jazz and 20th century classical music), but accomplishing this raises all kinds of difficulties that we won’t be focusing on here. For now, when sticking to one chord, pay attention to the possibilities for melodic and rhythmic variation. It might surprise you how many different songs can be written on top of the same chord.

Next: V (The Magnet Chord)