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:
We started out in the comfort of home, and have now moved on to explore the more shadowy alleys in 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.
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.
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.
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 the key of C major, so C major is our I, G major is our V, and F major is our IV.
In the second installment of Practical Chord Progressions, we take a look at what is arguably the most fundamental change: the return from the V to the I. BACKGROUND If we think of the tonic (I) chord as home, then some chord progressions can be thought of as 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.
To kick off the experimental techniques series, I’m going to describe a simple experimental recording method that might just surprise you. The idea here is to discover some rhythmic and melodic counterpoint that you might never have written otherwise. I call this method “invisible layering”. You’re going to need some kind of multitrack recording device, whether a software DAW or an analog machine. STEP ONE: THE FOUNDATION Your first step is to lay down a foundation track.
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”.
In this series, I will be discussing the use of chord progressions in songwriting. My approach will be a little unusual, however. For the most part, I will not be discussing stock chord progressions that a player can integrate into their repertoire. Instead, I will outline some techniques for becoming familiar with basic chord relationships. These techniques are not just meant to help players learn theory. They’re meant to be practical methods for coming up with songs.