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

The Beatles Songwriting Academy

I recently discovered a blog devoted to the Beatles’ songwriting techniques written by Matt Blick. It looks like there’s a lot of great stuff on there.

If you’re looking for simple ideas to spice up your songwriting, Beatles-style, take a look at his Tickets to Write section, where he (concisely) describes 47 interesting moves found in the Beatles’ corpus.

Here are a few simple ones, which anyone following my Practical Chord Progression series might find immediately useful:

1. Use the iv instead of the IV. Try it out; it has a familiar sound that you’ll never hear the same way again.
2. Use the v instead of the V. Again, very simple, but if used well this can generate just the right amount of surprise.
3. Try the Picardy third. That is, when writing in a minor key, move to the major counterpart of your root chord at the end of a section or the entire song. So, if you’re in C minor, end the section on the C major chord. This is another instantly recognizable move, but one that can still be effective if used cleverly.

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)

Results for “I (The Home Chord)”

Here are some responses to the challenge to write a song using only the C major chord.  You can read about the idea here.
NOTE: Your submissions do not need to have a title, though you are free to include one.

 

Chip Withrow – Take Time To…

 

Nadia Cripps – Your Lullaby

 

Shelley Miller – Missing

 

Brad Brubaker – Unfailing

 

Cheekmeat – I’m at Ease

 

RC – Life Goes On and On

How to Borrow from Folk Songs

In today’s exercise, we’re going to take whole folk songs and transform them into something new. In engaging in this practice, you’ll actually be participating in the very tradition we’re borrowing from.

BACKGROUND
Folk song traditions are all about borrowing. The ideal of the totally original musician is a relatively recent development. Folk musicians have been reusing chord progressions and musical phrases for as long as such traditions have existed. Interestingly, late medieval and renaissance composers built some of the earliest polyphonic music on the basis of melodic lines taken in whole from popular songs of the time. This was not considered stealing; in fact, part of the interest these songs held was in the different interpretations and developments of those basic melodic ideas composers brought to the table.

These kind of practices are generally difficult and expensive to engage in these days due to copyright laws (though there is a growing number of musicians releasing their songs with less restrictive creative commons licenses). However, at least for the time being, huge archives of folk songs and traditionals remain in the public domain. This means you are free to take from them what you will. I recommend you take advantage of this possibility.

Some 20th century composers such as Bela Bartok, a favorite of mine, viewed folk music as a purified form of musical expression. The thought was that the process of borrowing and refining over the centuries produced a treasury of concise and powerful melodic ideas. Bartok, among others, attempted to integrate these “pure” ideas into more complex pieces built on the sophisticated principles of the European classical tradition.

Whether or not this romantic view of folk music has merit, it’s a fascinating idea, and perhaps one that resonates with you in some way. The good news is that you are free to dive into the treasury of folk music and build on the wealth of ideas to be found there in your own way.

THE EXERCISE
There are many ways to build on folk songs, but I am going to focus on a particularly easy one to get you started. Get your hands on a folk collection of some kind and start learning a few of the songs. When you find one you like, learn the chord progression and forget the melody. There you have it: the foundation for a new song.

First, just try writing a new melody over the old chord progression. As always, I suggest doing this several times, in part to explore the variety of ideas one can build over the same foundation, in part to get the most interesting result you can.

Second, whether or not you were able to come up with something over the old progression, it’s time to start tweaking it. Try varying the harmonic tempo. That is, vary how long you spend on each chord. Spend half a measure on some, two measures on others. This simple technique can really change the feeling of a progression, and opens up a wide variety of new melodic possibilities.

Third, try making minor changes to the chords themselves. Substitute a vi for a I, or vice versa. If you’re not sure what key your song is in, see if all the chords fall on one row in this chart. Bring in some secondary dominants [LINK COMING SOON]. Use the folk song as a verse and your own progression for a chorus, or vice versa. Play the chords in reverse. The possibilities are endless.

If you just have fun with this method, you’ll find that it’s a great way to generate new ideas. As I’ve tried to emphasize elsewhere, skillful borrowing doesn’t lead to copies; instead, it can lead to genuinely original ideas that bear only passing resemblance to the originals.

Feel free to submit your genuinely original ideas for the benefit of the rest of us, helping us keep the age-old folk tradition of borrowing and reinterpreting alive.

Avant Garde Techniques: Composition by Subtraction

This exercise is in some ways related to the last one. However, it is going to allow us much more direct control and rely less on chance.

Composition by subtraction is an idea explored by Brian Eno on Before and After Science, an album that marries pop with avant garde experimentalism, and one I highly recommend. The idea is simple: sculpt your song out of a mass of tracks, eliminating one track at a time.

So here’s how I’m suggesting you proceed:

STEP ONE: LAYERING

Start by recording a basic idea for a song. It doesn’t matter where you begin. It can be a simple beat, a chord progression on the guitar, a sung melody, a series of licks, or weird percussion. That’s up to you, and I recommend trying this exercise with different kinds of starting points.

Now start layering parts on top of your foundation track. Unlike the Blind Recording exercise, you should keep all of your tracks unmuted.

So far, this just sounds like the normal process of writing a song track by track. But now things get a little crazier. Keep layering tracks; don’t stop when the arrangement sounds filled out. If possible, try to use as many different instruments, sounds, textures, etc. as you can.

Now keep layering (even as the arrangement becomes more and more cluttered). Don’t worry about how noisy it’s getting; just keep writing and recording new parts. Try to make each new one unique.

There will come a point where you’re not sure how to fit things in anymore. Don’t let that discourage you; just keep going. If your new ideas start to sound random, keep them anyway.

It’s up to you how many layers you add. I recommend putting down quite a few. The more layers, the more you’ll have to work with in the end.

STEP TWO: SUBTRACTING

When you feel you’ve completed your massive noisy masterpiece, it’s time to move to the next stage. This is where the composition by subtraction comes in.

The process is simple: just start muting tracks one by one, seeing what different combinations sound like. The real work is in demoing different arrangements.

Think of your wall of tracks as the stone from which you are carving your song. Hidden in there is a number of really interesting combinations you would never have written off the top of your head. Your goal is to get in there and find them.

When you’ve come up with some interesting results, be sure to submit them so I can enlighten the world on the merits (or demerits) of this approach.  

I can’t promise you’ll come up with the next Top 40 hit this way, but you might just discover something you love.

Next: Polymeter

 

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)

How to Borrow Rhythmic Phrasing

Many young musicians (and perhaps old ones as well) believe that an original artist is one who creates without influence. I will admit to having held such beliefs myself in my late teens. This absurd idea is built on the assumption that an artist can create without influence. But try as you might, you will fail (unless you use techniques to make your compositions truly random, but then this has already been done as well!). The mind of a musician, whether consciously or unconsciously, is constantly rearranging materials that are already out there. That brilliant melody that appeared to you as if by magic? It was almost certainly a result of this process. This is not a bad thing; it doesn’t make you a hack. The line between originality and unoriginality is in fact drawn in much more subtle ways than the question of influence. It is how you borrow that matters. Did you transform those materials into something new? This, I’m suggesting, is the important question, and the only one that makes sense.

So if we’re already borrowing and working on the musical ideas of other people anyway, why not do it self-consciously as well? That’s what this series is about, getting you to build on one (and only one) element from a song you love and place it in a different context. If you put in a little effort, your result will never remind anyone of the song you borrowed from. It will be as new and original as a song can be.

I want to start with a method that might initially strike you as unoriginal and derivative. But just try it out and see what happens. There’s no harm in singing something to yourself.

THE EXERCISE
Choose a melody that you love. Now start singing the melody over and over, and as you do, tap your finger along with every note. What you’re doing is working out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody. Once you’ve got it, stop singing and just continue tapping. That’s the pure rhythmic content of the melody, and that’s what you’re going to work from.

Now try to sing some completely different notes to that same rhythm. Particularly at first, focus on keeping your melody as different from the original as possible. Keep going until you get something you like.

As your new melody comes to life, play around with changing the rhythm in subtle ways to better suit your idea. You’ll probably find that you can consciously start sculpting it into something new. In fact, you may have naturally done this as you formed your melody. This is because each melody has its own demands, so to speak.

If you’ve followed these instructions, then you’ve just created something new out of pre-existing materials. And that’s what I mean by the art of borrowing.

WHY DOES THIS WORK?
The rhythmic phrasing of a melody is an important part of its overall feel, and sense of unity and drive. One of the weaknesses of melodies written by beginners is that they lack rhythmic sophistication. If you borrow the phrasing from a melody you love, then you know you’ll be working from a strong basis.

Now pick up your guitar, play some chords, and write a new melody using the same rhythm. One interesting exercise would be to see how many different songs you can generate from the same rhythmic material.

BUT AREN’T I A THIEF NOW?
In case you’re starting to feel guilty, how about this for a bit of interesting trivia. Music historian Spencer Leigh discovered that Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is almost identical to an earlier hit, “Answer Me” by Frankie Lane, in terms of its rhythmic phrasing (see his Brother, Can You Spare a Rhyme?). Beginning from the word “yesterday” in both songs, you’ll find identical phrasing up until the last “erday” in McCartney’s version.  [It’s my personal opinion that if we had diligent scholars working overtime, we’d find endless examples of this kind of overlap.]

Now I don’t know about you, but if it weren’t for the fact that the songs share some lyrical phrases, I don’t think anyone would associate them.  Rhythmic phrasing is only one musical element among many; it is only in the context of the whole that any one element takes on its sound and meaning.

You might still be worried that your song is too similar to the original.  That’s good, and it’s a good reason to use an exercise like this as a jumping off point.  Don’t ultimately use the same rhythmic phrasing verbatim.  Mix it up a little as your new melody develops, just as I’ve described above.

If you come up with something you like, be sure to submit it as an example for the rest of us.

Next: How to Borrow from Folk Songs