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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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

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.

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.

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