Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Do you want to know the 3 simple steps every beginner needs to write better music?
If you’re a musician or songwriter who wants to write better music without running out of new song ideas then you need to apply this immediately to get started correctly with your chord progression efforts.
Step # 1: Have a destination to aim for in your progression
Often when starting out with writing your own music, the vast majority of what comes through you is direct imitation. This isn’t bad; in fact it's exactly how you need to learn practically. But breaking free of pure “taking” and starting to trust your own creative instincts can be daunting.
Having that first chord as a starting point is probably where you would place all of the weight of your creative brain. This seems like the obvious thing to do, but to really bring your chord progressions to life, you also need to consider where you are going to just as much if not more than where you start.
The term chord progression isn’t just incidental; the word progression is in there for a reason, so put it to work. Make your song move. Make the melody go places. Take the listener on a journey and tell a story not just with your words and lyrics.
In the same way an author will start from the ending when writing a crime novel or detective story, having a clear destination to aim for makes every nuanced move that much more intentional and meaningful.
I can vouch for those who are thinking songs with one or two chords don’t worry about this. However, many of those songs are still applying the use of different inversions of those one or two chords to create movement and keeping the song from sounding stale or feeling too repetitive.
Be very conscious of the notes that are in the chord you are progressing towards in your passage. Use this to your advantage, and build your progression to put you in a position where you can truly approach this chord and make it feel like it's the destination.
Using the proper chord or inversion can create a half step movement towards the notes in your destination chord. The root note of the chord might be your fall back, but if you find you rely on this too often, try aiming for the 3rd or 7th in your destination chord. These are some of the juicy notes that really give the chord its flavour.
Another idea is to try a chord or inversion that has one or more shared notes with the chord you are aiming for in your progression. It is a great effect on the overall sound, so emphasizing these notes will be appreciated by the listener
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Step # 2: Don’t be afraid to use chords that might sound “weird” or “ugly”
The cliche of “never judge a book by its cover” comes into play here. A chord doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
When you hear something in a chord that your ear might not find overly pleasing, that doesn’t mean that it is a chord that should be avoided. Context and placement are everything when it comes to the chords used in a progression.
There is a concept in tonal harmony known as “tonal gravity”. It's the idea that each note in a scale has a desire to go somewhere to be released.
After the key center of a piece of music, or the root of a chord, is established, notes are pulled in a certain direction based on their position.
Notes within a chord that are spaced closer together create more tension. The more clusters within a chord that dissonance can be used to build to the release of the next chord.
Tension or dissonance within a chord can be heightened even further by their distance from the root note (ex. C and Db (min2nd) or C and B (maj7th) are much more tense intervals than C and E (maj3rd) and C and Bb (min7th) )
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Step # 3: Be aware of the levels of tension and release being created
The idea of most music can all be boiled down to the concept of tension and release. This is the fundamental concept behind all storytelling.
It gets the audience emotionally invested because we are all a sucker for a little bit of drama. That doesn’t mean high drama all the time. You need to be aware of the amount, and give appropriate release over the course of the song.
You’ve all seen a movie that was boring as hell with no payoff, and equally as many that are constant in-your-face-explosion for ninety four minutes and that loses its effect quickly.
You need to think about the overall arc of the song as a whole, then break down each section of the song to appropriately shape, and even further again. This kind of thinking can elevate your songwriting to bring a better payoff, not just for your listener, but for you as well.
This requires a lot of extra awareness on your part as a musician and student; trusting your instincts and being objective about the work for the benefit of what the song is asking you for. Nailing this is an accomplishment in itself.
Once again, being aware of the notes in the chords will be a big help in pulling this off. This same idea of “tonal gravity” can be used between two different chords (ex. a Db or B moving to a C creates a strong sense of tension and release). Taking the time to analyse what notes are contained in the chord you are moving to allows you to make more compelling decisions when it comes to chord and inversion choices.
If you put these three ideas into practice with your songwriting, you’ll begin to notice a difference in the results immediately. Your audience will too, and while they may not know what's going on behind the curtain, they will definitely thank you for it.
If you're a musician or songwriter who wants to create interesting and imaginative new music in minutes without running out of new song ideas then "100+ Chord Progression Formulas" will help you to broaden your understanding of the inner workings of music AND eliminate the challenge of trying to write, but staring at a blank page!
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