Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, all! Sorry for the quiet weeks on the blog. It's been a busy time for my Christmas band, Bah & the Humbugs. We just posted four new songs, including two that I wrote, on the band's website,

Bah & the Humbugs are appearing in a live radio concert today, December 24, at approximately 4 p.m. US Eastern time, on radio station WXPN in Philadelphia. You can listen online from anywhere in the world; see the website for details.

I'll be back in the new year with more songwriting insights.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

7♥ Start fresh in a new space

7♥ Seven of Hearts in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

Seven of Hearts invites you to remind yourself what it's like to be a beginner. As a beginner, you can bring a fresh, brash, and naive attitude to your songwriting. In contrast, if you work in the same songwriting idiom for years, your work can become fussy, self-conscious, and formulaic.

Audiences love the fresh energy that a newcomer brings to the stage, and they can easily forgive a few technical shortcomings or other flaws. At the same time, no amount of technical skill and cleverness can make up for the dreariness that a long-experienced performer brings to the stage after he starts to get tired of his own work. As a creative artist, you must do whatever it takes to keep things fresh for yourself.

This week, become a beginner again. Start with a musical instrument and/or a performance style that you don't usually play. Practice for a while until you just barely start to get comfortable with this new instrument or new style. Then, let something emerge — a new song — that's the natural expression of this new musical format.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

6♠ The moral of the story

6♠ Six of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song
The Six of Spades invites you to write a song based on a message or moral lesson. This is a tricky assignment, because people instinctively stiffen and back away as soon as they sense that you're trying to teach or preach or sell them something. Yet there are many well-loved songs that are built around a moral lesson.

Look at your own music collection and find some message-based songs. How did the songwriters do it? And how did you react to the song's lesson?

Here are three tips that will help you avoid sounding preachy:
  • Keep it light-hearted. Use a light, easy touch.
  • Keep it personal. Tell what you know and believe from personal experience.
  • Tell an engaging story, one that perfectly illustrates your message.
Now, to start with, you'll want to pick a lesson or message for your song. Think broadly—there are many different kinds of messages that a song can convey. Here are some examples to start you thinking:
  • Don't be late. Don't keep people waiting.
  • You must follow your heart, even if people don't understand.
  • It's worth an extra effort to make love last.
  • Let's all stop global warming.
  • Your choices have consequences that you have to live with.
  • Hatred and violence are bad.
  • You'll do better if you're realistic about your situation.
  • Everyone has the potential to be a star.
  • Don't burn the bridges after you cross them.
  • Spending less money boosts your bottom line just as much as earning more money.
  • Don't wait for something fun to happen. It's up to you to make it happen.
  • Everyone deserves a second chance.
Those are all worthy messages, but they aren't very catchy. Your challenge as a songwriter is to express your message in an artful and appealing way. You want people to sing along, even the people who aren't sure that they agree with your song's message. Make them believe, if only for a moment, that "Everyone deserves a second chance."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

3♣ Use up some ink and paper

3♣ Three of Clubs in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

When writing a song -- or creating anything -- we naturally want the results to be great. Why set out to create something average? But the pressure to produce great stuff is a burden on the creative process. It's hard to be inventive when you need guaranteed results. At worst, you might find that you can't write anything at all, for the fear that you might create something that isn't good enough.

The Three of Clubs gives us an antidote to perfectionism and writer's block. Start with several blank sheets of paper, and keep writing until you have filled them up! Your new goal isn't to create goodness, it's to end up with a page full of stuff -- new stuff that you just wrote.

At worst, you'll create something bad, and you can throw it out. But if you persist, you will eventually, without even trying, come up with a brilliantly fresh idea. Those ideas are hanging around, waiting to come out -- but they can only emerge if you're actually writing, and only while you're not paying full attention to what you're doing.

Paradoxically, it can be easier to write ten songs than it is to write one song. When you're writing one song, that song alone carries the weight of all your hopes and ambitions, and your writing gets bogged down. But if you're going to write ten songs, there's less pressure on each of them, and you can speed through the process.

Take on the Three of Clubs' challenge. Empty out your pen, and fill up the page with new songs. Are they good songs? It doesn't even matter! You can decide that later -- right now you're busy writing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

J♠ Your brand, your song

J♠ Jack of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song
The Jack of Spades pulls us into the realm of marketing and image-making. Though it might seem strange to think of a rock recording artist as a brand, that is exactly what successful music marketing people do. A recording artist is a product line with a brand and image just as much as pizzas or televisions are.

If you've never done a branding exercise, here's the short version: What are some of the qualities values, and images that you (ideally) want people to think of in connection with you as a famous rock star?

Bruce Springsteen has (among other things) New Jersey and working class; ZZ Top has beards and classic cars.

What are your things? Make a short list, and then write a song about one of them.

If it seems cynical and wrong to let marketing considerations guide your songwriting, let me suggest that you think about it in exactly the opposite way. Let your artistry expand beyond songwriting and performing to encompass image-making and marketing. Use your inspiration and your creative process to create yourself as an artist and public persona. Your songs should fit that persona, because they come from the same creative wellspring.

So take up the Jack of Spades' challenge: write a song this week that's perfectly matched to your branding.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chord phrases in 11 other popular keys

Not every song is in C major or C minor. If you need help transposing all of this week's useful chord phrases into other keys, use the Chord Transposition Tool. It works online and on paper.

Friday, November 13, 2009

120 useful chord phrases in C minor

Yesterday we gave you 200 chord progressions — or chord phrases — in C major. Today it's C minor's turn. And the minor key always gets the short stick. There are only 120 chord phrases in this list. But don't worry — with a little ingenuity you can invent plenty more.
  1. Cm - - -
  2. Cm - E♭ -
  3. Cm - Fm Cm
  4. Cm A♭ Fm Cm
  5. Cm E♭ Fm Cm
  6. Cm Gm Fm Cm
  7. Cm B♭ Fm Cm
  8. Cm Gm A♭ Cm
  9. Cm B♭ A♭ Cm
  10. Cm B♭ A♭ E♭
  11. E♭ - - -
  12. E♭ - Fm Cm
  13. E♭ - A♭ Cm
  14. E♭ B♭ Fm Cm
  15. E♭ B♭ A♭ Cm
  16. Cm - Gm Cm
  17. Cm - G7 Cm
  18. Cm - B♭ Cm
  19. Cm - B♭ E♭
  20. E♭ - G Cm
  21. E♭ - B♭ Cm
  22. Cm - Fm -
  23. Cm A♭ Fm -
  24. Cm E♭ Fm -
  25. Cm - A♭ -
  26. Cm E♭ A♭ -
  27. Cm Gm Cm Fm
  28. Cm B♭ Cm Fm
  29. E♭ B♭ Cm Fm
  30. Cm Gm Fm -
  31. Cm B♭ Fm -
  32. Cm Gm A♭ -
  33. Cm B♭ A♭ -
  34. Cm E♭ B♭ A♭
  35. Cm E♭ Gm Fm
  36. Cm - Gm -
  37. Cm - G -
  38. Cm - B♭ -
  39. Cm Fm Cm Gm
  40. Cm A♭ E♭ Gm
  41. Cm B♭ Cm Gm
  42. E♭ B♭ Fm Gm
  43. Cm Fm Gm -
  44. Cm Fm B♭ -
  45. Cm A♭ Gm -
  46. Cm A♭ B♭ -
  47. Cm E♭ Fm Gm
  48. Cm E♭ Fm B♭
  49. Cm E♭ A♭ Gm
  50. Cm E♭ A♭ B♭
  51. E♭ Fm Gm -
  52. E♭ Fm A♭ Gm
  53. Fm - - -
  54. A♭ - - -
  55. A♭ - Fm -
  56. Fm Cm Fm -
  57. A♭ E♭/G Fm -
  58. Fm E♭ Em -
  59. Fm Gm Cm Fm
  60. Fm B♭ Cm Fm
  61. A♭ A♭ Cm Fm
  62. A♭ Gm Cm Fm
  63. Fm Gm Fm -
  64. Fm B♭ Fm -
  65. Fm B♭ A♭ -
  66. A♭ B♭ Fm -
  67. A♭ B♭ A♭ Fm
  68. Fm - Cm -
  69. Fm A♭ Cm -
  70. A♭ - Cm -
  71. A♭ Fm Cm -
  72. Fm - E♭ -
  73. A♭ - E♭ -
  74. A♭ E♭ Fm Cm
  75. Fm E♭ Dm7-5 Cm
  76. Fm Gm Fm Cm
  77. Fm B♭ Fm Cm
  78. A♭ B♭ Fm Cm
  79. Fm Gm Cm -
  80. Fm B♭ Cm -
  81. A♭ B♭ Cm -
  82. Fm B♭ Gm Cm
  83. Fm - Gm -
  84. Fm - B♭ -
  85. A♭ - G -
  86. A♭ - B♭ -
  87. Fm Cm Fm Gm
  88. Fm E♭/G A♭ B♭
  89. Fm E♭ A♭ G
  90. A♭ Cm A♭ B♭
  91. Gm - - -
  92. G - - -
  93. Gm - G7 -
  94. B♭ - - -
  95. Gm - Cm Gm
  96. B♭ Cm Gm -
  97. Gm Fm Cm Gm
  98. B♭ A♭ Cm Gm
  99. Gm - Fm Gm
  100. G - A♭ G
  101. Gm A♭ Fm Gm
  102. Gm - Fm -
  103. Gm - A♭ -
  104. B♭ - Fm -
  105. B♭ - A♭ -
  106. Gm Cm Gm Fm
  107. B♭ Cm Gm Fm
  108. B♭ Cm B♭ Fm
  109. Gm Cm Fm -
  110. B♭ Cm Fm -
  111. B♭ Cm A♭ -
  112. B♭ E♭ Fm -
  113. Gm - Cm -
  114. G - Cm -
  115. B♭ - Cm -
  116. Gm Fm Gm Cm
  117. G A♭ B♭ Cm
  118. Gm A♭ G7 Cm
  119. Gm Fm B♭ Cm
  120. B♭ Fm B♭ Cm

Copyright note: These are commonly used chord phrases, so there are no copyright issues to keep you from using them to create an original song. But please don't copy the entire list and post it somewhere else online. Link back to this blog post instead. Thanks!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

200 useful chord phrases in C major

We've spent two full months of this blog exploring the basics of chord writing in rock music so you can create your own chord progressions (or chord phrases, as I like to call them). Personally, I love this stuff! There are so many hidden symmetries to discover, so many subtle relationships between notes that you can play with.

But... I know not everyone wants to master the intricacies of chords. Or even if you want to learn it all, you might have to write a song by tomorrow, with no time to learn even the basics.

All right, then. Here is your cheat sheet: 200 ready-to-rock chord phrases in C major. They'll work perfectly well in any other major key if you transpose them accordingly (or just use the transpose button on your electronic keyboard!).

Wherever you need a phrase of music, just drop in one of these chord phrases. (One key tip: Use repetition; that is, use some of the chord phrases more than once. It helps your song hang together.)

By the way, these chord phrases are not random; they're in a sort of functional order. So don't just pick from the beginning of the list. Use dice or something to choose at random from the entire list.
  1. C - - -
  2. C Csus4 C Csus4
  3. C - Am -
  4. C Am C Am
  5. Am - - -
  6. C - F C
  7. C Am F C
  8. C E♭ F C
  9. C Dm F C
  10. C D7 Fm C
  11. C Em F C
  12. C G F C
  13. C B♭ F C
  14. C F Dm C
  15. C Em Dm C
  16. C G Dm C
  17. C G F Am
  18. Am - F C
  19. Am Dm F C
  20. Am - Dm C
  21. Am - F Am
  22. Am F C Am
  23. Am G F C
  24. Am Em F C
  25. Am G F Am
  26. C - G C
  27. C/G G C -
  28. C Am G C
  29. C G G7 C
  30. C - B♭ C
  31. Am - G C
  32. Am - G Am
  33. C F G C
  34. C Dm G C
  35. C E♭ B♭ C
  36. C F B♭ C
  37. C F G Am
  38. C F E7 Am
  39. C Dm G Am
  40. Am F G C
  41. Am Dm G C
  42. Am F G Am
  43. Am F E Am
  44. C - F -
  45. C Am F -
  46. C Am C F
  47. C - Dm -
  48. C - Dm F
  49. C E♭ F A♭
  50. C A♭ F -
  51. C Am F Dm
  52. C G C F
  53. C G Am F
  54. C Em/B Am F
  55. Am - F -
  56. C G F -
  57. C G Dm F
  58. C Em F -
  59. C Am E F
  60. C Am G F
  61. C B♭ F -
  62. C E♭ B♭ F
  63. C F G F
  64. C F G A♭
  65. C F B♭ F
  66. C F B♭ A♭
  67. C Dm G F
  68. C Dm Em F
  69. C F Em Dm
  70. Am G F -
  71. Am - Em F
  72. Am C G F
  73. C - G -
  74. C Am G -
  75. C - B♭ -
  76. Am - G -
  77. C F C G
  78. C F Am G
  79. C Dm Am G
  80. C Em/B Am G
  81. Am F C G
  82. C F G -
  83. C C/E F G
  84. C Am F G
  85. C E♭ F G
  86. C F Dm G
  87. C Dm F G
  88. C D F G
  89. C - F B♭
  90. Am F G -
  91. Am C F G
  92. C G F G
  93. C G/B F/A G
  94. C B♭ F G
  95. C B♭ F B♭
  96. C B♭ A♭ B♭
  97. C Em F G
  98. Am Em F G
  99. F - - -
  100. F - Dm -
  101. Dm - F -
  102. F C F -
  103. Dm C/E F -
  104. F Am F -
  105. Dm Am F -
  106. F Am C F
  107. F Dm C F
  108. F C Dm -
  109. F G C F
  110. F G Am F
  111. F - G F
  112. F C G F
  113. F Am G F
  114. Dm C G F
  115. F C B♭ F
  116. F - C -
  117. F Dm C -
  118. F - Am -
  119. F Am F C
  120. F C F C
  121. F C/E Dm7 C
  122. F G F C
  123. F Em F C
  124. F B♭ F C
  125. Dm - C -
  126. F G C -
  127. Dm G C -
  128. F Dm G C
  129. F G Am -
  130. F B♭ C -
  131. A♭ B♭ C -
  132. F C G C
  133. F C/G G C
  134. F Am G C
  135. F C G Am
  136. F - G -
  137. F Dm G -
  138. F - B♭ -
  139. Dm - G -
  140. Dm7 - G7sus4 G7
  141. F C F G
  142. F Am F G
  143. F Am Dm G
  144. F Em F G
  145. F Em Dm G
  146. F C/E Dm G
  147. Dm C/E F G
  148. Dm Em F G
  149. G - - -
  150. G - G7 -
  151. G - G7sus4 -
  152. Gsus4 - G -
  153. B♭ - - -
  154. G - C G
  155. G - Am G
  156. G C Am G
  157. G Am C/G G
  158. Em Am C G
  159. B♭ C B♭ -
  160. G F C G
  161. G Dm C G
  162. G F Am G
  163. G Dm Am G
  164. G - F G
  165. Em F G -
  166. G F Dm G
  167. G C F G
  168. G Am F G
  169. G - F -
  170. Em - F -
  171. B♭ - F -
  172. G C G F
  173. G Am G F
  174. B♭ C G F
  175. G C F -
  176. G Am C F
  177. G C Am F
  178. G F C F
  179. G C C7 F
  180. B♭ C F -
  181. B♭ F C F
  182. G - C -
  183. G - G7 C
  184. B♭ - C -
  185. G - Am -
  186. G F G C
  187. G F B♭ C
  188. G A♭ G C
  189. G A♭ B♭ C
  190. G F G Am
  191. G Dm G C
  192. G Dm G Am
  193. G C G C
  194. G C G Am
  195. G Am G C
  196. E7 Am G C
  197. B♭ F B♭ C
  198. B♭ F G C
  199. Em F G Am
  200. Em F G C
Copyright note: These are commonly used chord phrases, so there are no copyright issues to keep you from using them to create an original song. But please don't copy the entire list and post it somewhere else online. Link back to this blog post instead. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

4♠ Start with a loop

4♠ Four of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song
The Four of Spades gives us a time-honored way to write a song. Start with a loop. A loop is a segment of audio that repeats over and over. You build your song over the repeats of the loop. The repetition gives you an automatic catchy element, while it also enforces a constraint on where your song can go.

In olden times, before music was recorded on computers, people still worked with loops and build songs from them. They cut out a section of magnetic recording tape, spliced the two ends together to make a physical loop of tape, and arranged the tape recorder so that it would keep playing that section of tape over and over.

Today, it's almost too easy: you can grab any audio clip and tell your recording program to loop it. (Copyright warning: It's a good idea to use audio material that you're legally entitled to use. If you sample another artist's song, you might create legal troubles that cost more than your new song is worth.)

If looping digital audio doesn't suit your style, you can also do loops the acoustic way: play a repeating riff or chord phrase over and over without variation, and use that repeating material as a framework on which to build a new song.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Any questions?

I've been talking about chords for a while, and I think we're almost done covering the basics of that subject. Do you have any questions about chords? Or about any aspect of songwriting or creativity? Please add your questions as comments on this post. I'll post quick answers here or address them in upcoming blog posts.

As I may have mentioned at the outset, I started this blog without a plan. After wrapping up chords, what songwriting subjects should I dig into next? Eventually, I need to cover melody writing, song structure, the many aspects of lyrics writing, and the creative process. And ultimately, after getting through all the basics, I want to explain the advanced and systematic approach that I call songcrafting.

If you have an opinion on what I should cover next, post it here. Most enthusiastic faction rules!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sobering Truth wrap-up

Here's another sobering (but paradoxical) truth for you to chew on: Many of the world's best creative artists have only a tenuous relationship with reality.

There's a point to the weekly Sobering Truths feature: We want you to avoid widespread misconceptions so you don't waste a lot of effort going in the wrong direction.

But if we keep going down this reality-based road, we will soon pass into a neighborhood that is simply depressing and not helpful in any way. Burned-out wrecks of former nightclubs and recording studios will lurk oppressively and taunt us with revelations such as these:

Music will inevitably be free. Basic economics: Cost of production is zero. Cost of distribution is zero. Talent is plentiful, and competition is fierce. Media companies' ability to control the public conversation is rapidly slipping away. Trying to hold the line on music prices is like trying to stop rising floodwaters with sandbags -- except we're running out of sand, and these waters will never subside. And the question that musicians have been asking for ten years still has no answer: How will we make money? (Well, there is an answer, but we don't like it: Day job.)

People won't hear the words you write. In ordinary listening situations, you can't count on people hearing even half of the words. Sometimes people mis-hear the main hook of a song, even though you repeat it over and over. It's good to care about every word you write, but, face it, the words won't all be heard. Even if the singer enunciates like a fiend and you mix the vocal way out front, there are still background noises and distractions in the listener's environment. So stick to a simple main message, repeat and reinforce all your key points, and make sure the song will make a coherent impression even if many of the words get lost.

You aren't breaking through on radio. But people will have a chance to hear your songs online, on your CDs, or in concert. Decades of songwriting habits and expert advice have been based on making songs stick out on the radio. It's time to shed those habits and concentrate on how to make a good impression on the person who visits your MySpace page and clicks the Play button, or who takes a tip from a friend and launches your YouTube video. It's a new world with different challenges. (Note: if you are getting on the radio, then, by all means, follow that old advice and make sure you have three radio-friendly songs ready to go.)

Hit songs are made by record companies and radio promotion people, not by songwriters. There's an art to making a hit song. It involves skills such as advertising, promoting, schmoozing, and paying the right people at the right time. You can write a catchy song, but it's not a hit song until it gets into the hands of people with hit-making skills.

To run for president you must first be nominated. It seems unfair, but careers pass through stages, and you have to successfully handle each one in order to get to the next one—even if you feel you're ready for the next stage already.

When music industry people are friendly and helpful, it's because they smell money. It's a good thing if you smell like money! But take it for what it is. Don't be one of those naive shark victims who complains, "I thought I had lots of friends, but then they betrayed me and ate me."

There! I think that takes care of the Sobering Truth backlog. Can you see that S.T. was starting to head down a cynical and depressing path? Now it's time to give this feature a rest for a while. Artists need to be spiritual acrobats: sober and reality-based today, inebriated and lost in fantasy tomorrow.

Paradoxically, artists who are unrealistically optimistic are more likely to be productive, and artists who produce more are more likely to be successful. This means that being unrealistic might be a rational success strategy. To put it more bluntly, being too realistic will sabotage your chances of success as an artist.

It's still wise to stop by Reality Street now and then to check in and see what's going on, but, as an artist, you don't want to live here every day.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Online resources: Songwriting challenge

The Songwriting Scene blog has issued a seasonal songwriting challenge. Write a seasonal or holiday song, and compare your results with other songwriters who took up the challenge. See the details at Songwriting Scene.

It would be ironic for me to enter this challenge personally—I've written so many holiday songs, it might as well be my day job. But this is a good kind of exercise, because you always learn something by seeing how other songwriters responded to the same assignment.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

sus4, add9 and other leftover chords

The suspended-fourth chord type, abbreviated sus4, contains a fourth instead of a third. That is, where a major or minor triad contains a P1 (root), m3 or M3, and P5, the sus4 chord contains a P1, P4, and P5.

This chord is thought to create suspense, in the sense that the fourth is expected to give way to a third. The movement from 4 to 3 "resolves" the suspense.

Csus4 C

But you can feel free to use this chord with or without "resolving" the suspension. You can think of sus as meaning substitute. The four note is the substitute for the three.

There is also the less common sus2 chord, which works in the same way. In this case a second takes the place of the third.

You can have a 7sus4 chord. But there's no 7sus2 chord—that's just called a 9 chord. (It's okay if a seventh or ninth chord lacks a third.)

You'll occasionally see a sixth chord, abbreviated 6. It's a major chord with an added major sixth. It functions the same as a major chord, but the extra note makes it "thicker." Note that C6 is essentially the same as Am7/C.

The minor sixth chord is abbreviated m6. It's a minor chord with an added major sixth. (Despite the chord's name, the added sixth is major, not minor.) Cm6 has the same notes as Am7-5/C.

Another note that can be added for thickening is the second, which is also called the ninth. The added-ninth chord, abbreviated add9 (or sometimes add2) is a a major chord with a second added for thickening.

You can add a ninth to a minor chord as well. It's abbreviated m(add9). The half-step interval between the major second (the ninth) and minor third gives this chord an interesting bite.

For maximum thickness, you can add both the sixth and the ninth. The six-nine chord is abbreviated 6/9. This is the one case in rock chord notation where a slash is not followed by the bass note. Note that this chord contains all five notes of the pentatonic scale.

If you add a major ninth to a seventh chord, it's simply called a ninth chord, abbreviated 9. The maj9 chord is a maj7 chord with a major ninth added. The m9 chord is a m7 chord with a major ninth added.

Finally, what if you have a 7 chord and you want to leave out the fifth and play a major sixth instead? This delightfully dissonant dominant chord is usually written as a 13 chord. In theory, the 13 chord should contain all seven notes of the scale, but typically some of the notes are left out.

There are still other possible chord types, and if we were writing jazz you'd want to know every single one of them. But rock is not usually very inventive with chords—many rock songwriters go through an entire career without using any of the chords in this post. So don't sweat over learning all the different chords. Learn them when you need to, when they're useful, and when you're feeling adventurous.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Your own personal [four] and [five]

Remember that [one], [four], and [five] are the three chords at the heart of rock music.

I sometimes say that the [one] and [five] are rivals, perpetually battling each other for control of the musical space. And [one] and [four] are buddies, comfortable hanging out together.

Now, remember that every minor or major chord can be a [one] chord if we happen to be in the key based on the root of that chord. For example, the Dm chord is the [one]m chord in the key of D minor.

So think about this: every chord you use has its own rival (its own personal [five] chord) and its own buddy (its own [four] chord) close at hand. It's as if they're on speed dial on the chord's cell phone, ready to weigh in with their own opinion on any given subject at a moment's notice.

Let's look at this example using "personal [four] chords."

C - F/C C | - F/C C - | D - G/D D | - G/D D - |
F - B♭/F F | - B♭/F F - | G - C/G G | - C/G G -

What's going on in this simple-sounding but complicated-looking chord phrase? At heart, it's this simple four-chord phrase:

C | D | F | G |

...but each of the chords makes a few side trips to its own personal [four] chord.

Now let's look at an example using personal [five] chords. In traditional music theory, these chords are called secondary dominants. They're dominant chords, but not of the main key that we're in.

C E7/B Am C7/G | F - C - |

In this example, E7 is the dominant chord from the key of A minor, and C7 is the dominant chord of F major.

Here's another example:

C7/E - F - | D7/F♯ - G - | E7/G♯ - Am - | D7/F♯ - C/G G | C

Notice how the bass moves upwards by half-steps. That kind of chromatic movement is easy to do with a combination of secondary dominant chords and chords borrowed from the parallel major or minor key, and it has a fun, ear-tickling effect. Unfortunately, this kind of chord writing is rare in most styles in rock music; you're most likely to find it from songwriters influenced by classical or jazz music.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A more emphatic five

The [five] chord plays such a dominant role in music that it's called the dominant chord. And one of the common uses of alternate bass notes is to build up the dominant chord, to make it more emphatic, and to heighten the sense of expectation that it carries.

Of course, the simplest way to make a [five] chord more emphatic is to add the seventh, making it a [five]7. This chord type, a major chord with a minor seventh, is called dominant seventh.

Here are some other chords and sequences of chords that are commonly used to take the place of the dominant chord:

[one]/[five] [five]
In C major: C/G G



[five]sus4 [five]
Gsus4 G

[five] [five]sus4 [five] [four]/[five]
G Gsus4 G F/G


[five] [five]7sus4
G G7sus4

[five] [one]/[five] [five]7
G C/G G7

You can invent other possibilities. The key to all of these is that the bass stays insistently on the dominant (5) note until a cadence is finally concluded with a move to [one]... or sometimes to [six]m.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

9♥ Let’s get together and write a song

9♥ Nine of Hearts in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Nine of Hearts says that songwriting can be part of your social life. Sure, on the geek scale, getting together to write songs is way up there with going to the art museum or collecting rocks and minerals. But what the heck! You're not a conformist; you're a songwriter!

Try one of these:
  • Have a songwriting "date," an appointment with a collaborator to get together and write.
  • Start or join a songwriting support group that meets weekly or monthly. For each meeting, prepare a new or revised song to share.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A melody is not a bunch of notes

It would be perfectly understandable if you thought that a melody was a series of musical notes. But you would be wrong.

And if you imagined that learning to write melodies involved getting to know all the notes and how they interact with each other, that too would be an understandable mistake.

When you have to perform a melody, notes are the first thing you think about. First you learn to sing or play the notes correctly. Let's call that phase 1 of learning a song. In phase 2, you start to grasp and internalize what the melody is expressing. And finally, if you're successful at learning the song, in phase 3 you recreate the melody in a performance that could easily feature some notes that are different from the ones written in the sheet music.

When it's time to compose a melody, notes should be the last thing you think about. And I mean that in the most literal sense. If we break up melody writing into three phases, you don't pick specific notes until phase 3.

First, in phase 1, you think about what you want to express (often looking at a set of lyrics that have already been written). In phase 2 you try out musical gestures, which take the form of shapes and rhythms, until you find gestures that achieve the musical effect that you're looking for. Finally in phase 3, you work out specific notes for each of the gestures, perhaps making accommodations to fit the notes into a set of chords that have already been written.

In reality, songwriters often find that melodies pop into their head, fully formed and ready to go. They jumped directly to phase 3. That's fine! But you can't rely on inspiration to always be there when you need it, and you can always get strong results if you work out your melodies systematically, step by step.

If you still believes melodies are series of notes, try this exercise. Take an extremely famous melody, and recast its notes in a completely different rhythm. Turn short notes into long notes, and turn long notes into short notes. Take out the original rests, but insert other rests in different places. Finally, ruin the shapes of the phrases by taking the highest notes and putting them one octave lower, and putting some of the lowest notes an octave higher.

If you make all those changes, you will have a new melody that shares the exact series of notes with the melody you started with, but no one will ever be able to guess the original melody when you play them the transformed melody. Even if you tell them "This melody has exactly the same notes as [name of famous melody]," they will insist that you are mistaken. It couldn't be the same, because it sounds completely different.

As a followup exercise, you could try taking another famous melody. Keep its exact rhythms, and keep the shape of every phrase and figure, but change every note so it's a different pitch from the original note. If you play this transformed melody for someone, there's a chance they will recognize the song you started with. Then they might add, "but it sounds weird -- you're not playing it right."

Notes do matter. You can't get all of them wrong without ruffling some feathers. But the identity of a melody comes from its shapes and rhythms. And if you want to write good melodies, you'll spend a lot more time on shapes and rhythms than you will on notes.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sobering Truth: A song is a souvenir

First, a parable about sweatshirts.

Once upon a time I went to the Scottish and Irish Music Festival. It was great! Not just the music, the whole event was fun. It was a colorful location filled with lively people, and vendors offered all sorts of interesting Celtic things to look at and buy.

One of the things I bought was a sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the festival and a list of all the bands that performed. I bought it not because I needed another sweatshirt, but because I wanted to take home something to remind me of the positive experience that I had at the festival. I bought it as a souvenir.

Now it's ten years later. Though my memories of the festival have faded and blurred together with several other similar events, I still wear the sweatshirt, and I still like it.

Now, let's think about the challenges facing an entrepreneur who makes sweatshirts and hopes to gain me as a customer. The sweatshirt designer could show me shirts that are better in every way than the sweatshirts I already own, and at absurdly low prices, but I still wouldn't buy any of them. I have plenty of sweatshirts already, and I don't need any more.

But someday I will buy another sweatshirt, even if I don't need one. It might be for another music festival, or a friend's rock band, or some social cause that I feel strongly about. Whatever it is, it will certainly be another souvenir, another token that helps me feel connected to something I feel good about.

Now -- as songwriter, you're the sweatshirt designer. People already have too many songs in their music collections. And, today, everyone can get an endless amount of music for free if they're willing to look around a little. And if they're not willing to dig for free downloads, then hey, 99 cents a song is not a lot of money.

Can you compete by writing better songs? It can't hurt if you write great songs, but you still have a formidable challenge if that's your strategy, because you have to go up against the favorite songs from the entire world, from every period of recorded history.

You might be able to twist some arms and get people to listen to your songs once, and they might admit that you've written some fine songs — but that doesn't mean that they'll add those songs to their collection and put them on their playlists.

No, if you want to win a place in the musical soundtrack of people's lives, your song better be more than just a song. It should offer people a chance to feel connected to something that feels meaningful and important to them. You song should tie the listeners to something that they already feel good about.

So how do you do that? There's no short answer, and I guess we'll have to explore this further in a later post. But for now, start paying attention to what musical artists (and their record companies) do to help you feel that their music is connected to something meaningful and important.

And think about how happened to collect your own listening library. Out of millions of songs available, what led you to these particular few thousand songs?

Every Monday is Sobering Truth day for the Unruly Beast.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Resources: Tips for writing lyrics

Robin Frederick's Keep the Listener by Your Side is a terrific list of non-technical tips for how to approach writing song lyrics. It's short, so I suggest you read it, then browse through your own lyrics, then read it again.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The descending bass line

As we mentioned yesterday, the use of alternate bass notes in rock songs is mostly limited to a few specific formulas. One of these formulas involves the bass line moving up or down the scale, step by step. The bass line is a secondary melody, after all, and you can give it a graceful and intentional shape.

Many chord progressions start on the tonic chord and then let the bass move down the scale. These examples will all sound familiar to your ear:

C G/B Am G
C Em/B F/A G
C G/B Am Em/G F C/E Dm G
C E7/B Am C7/G F A7/E Dm G

When the bass line descends by half-steps, it might sound a little spooky, ominous, or mournful:

C G/B C7/B♭ F/A Fm/A♭ G

You can also start on the tonic and move up the scale:

C Dm7 C/E F

And if we reverse that last sequence of chords, we have a familiar elaboration of the [four] - [one] cadence. You hear this in the Beatles' "Let It Be," for example.

F C/E Dm7 C

Friday, October 30, 2009

The pedal point (or "stuck key")

We haven't talked much about alternate bass notes for chords. Normally the bass note is the same as the chord's root note, but you can specify a different bass when you find a musical need for it.

The bass note follows a slash after the chord name. For example, C/E indicates a C major chord with the note E in the bass.

Any note, whether it's a member of the chord or not, can be specified as an alternate bass note. In theory this opens up a huge range of possibilities -- every single chord has the potential for 11 alternate versions -- but, in practice, alternate bass notes in rock songs are limited to a few conventional formulas.

One of these formulas involves keeping the bass on the same note while the chords move around. This tends to reduce or offset any sense of motion that the chords are creating. Here are a few simple examples:

||: C G/C F/C C :||
||: C Dm/C Em/C F/C :||

Most often, the bass stays fixed in the early part of the verse, so that when the bass later starts moving around freely, the sense of motion is amplified.

The traditional name for this technique is pedal point, and the name refers to the pedals of pipe organs that play the lowest bass notes. An organist could plant one foot on one of the bass notes, while playing moving chords with both hands. (Some adventurous synthesizer players use MIDI versions of these organ pedals, because two hands aren't always enough.)

You could also think of this the "stuck key" technique, because it's as though a synthesizer key has gotten stuck in the down position, so it persists in playing the same note while the rest of the music keeps moving.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tip: Make it different, but the same

The simplest way to make a song catchy is to repeat some element over and over. For example, you can repeat the same chord phrase through the entire song, perhaps with occasional breaks to help give the song some structure.

Some hit songs that use this technique include
  • "Jump" — Van Halen
  • "Kids" — MGMT
  • "Rebel Rebel" — David Bowie
  • "Word Up" — Cameo
And these are just random examples off the top of my head. If you run through any list of top hits, you'll find that many of them are extremely repetitive in one way or another.

But there's an obvious pitfall to relentless repetition: it can become tiresome if it's too obvious. Is it possible to make a song catchy without wearing out the listener?

Here's one idea: Create two different version of the same chord phrase. Use the simpler one in the verse, and the more complex one in the chorus. Or, if it suits your song better, you can do the opposite: use the simpler version in the chorus, and the more complex one in the verse.

For example, if you used this simple chord phrase in the verse:
C - - - | - - - - | F - - - | Dm - G - | could use this more elaborate version in the chorus:
C - - - | Am C G C | F - - - | Dm C/E F G |

(By the way, I just made up this pair of chord phrases, so feel free to steal them and write a song with them.)

These two chord phrases have the same basic outline, similar enough to help wear that instant groove in the listener's memory that makes them want to hear the song again, but the phrases are also different enough on the surface to provide some interest and variation.

One song that uses this technique is "Lost in the Supermarket" by the Clash. (I'm sure there are many others, but that's the only one I can think of right now.)

Another way to use the same chord phrase in verse and chorus and have them still be different is to cast the verse and the chorus in two different keys. Two songs that use this technique are:
  • "Come On Eileen" — Dexy's Midnight Runners
  • "Run Runaway" — Status Quo (actually, this song changes key between the verse and an instrumental theme with the same chords)
Here's one more simple technique that does wonders to keep relentless repetition from seeming oppressive: just come to a stop. Land on the tonic chord (or perhaps some other chord) and just sit there for four or eight bars. When you start repeating the chord phrase again, it will seem fresh and interesting again.

(Of course, there are also many arrangement and production tricks devoted to keeping things interesting in a repetitive song. Maybe there's a music production blog somewhere with that group of tips.)

Please post a comment if you come up with other good examples of songs that use any of these techniques — or if you know any other techniques to keep things interesting while repeating a chord phrase over and over.

Thursday is Unruly Tip Day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

10♥ The songwriting game

10♥ Ten of Hearts in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Ten of Hearts tells us that songwriting doesn't have to be a lonely sport. You can make a friendly competition of it.

Get together with two or more songwriting friends, and agree on a set of criteria for writing a song. Maybe someone will suggest a title, for example. Once you agree on the rules of your game, each one of you goes off and writes a song, and you get back together a week or two later and compare your results. Which song is best? What different approaches did you take? It's always interesting and illuminating to see how other songwriters took the same songwriting challenge as you and came up with something different.

What's that? You say you don't have songwriting friends? Well, it's never too late to make friends! And what could be more natural than finding friends who share your keen interest in rock songwriting? There are songwriters everywhere, and if you ask around you're sure to find a few.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Adding a seventh

So far we've talked mostly about two types of chords, major and minor triads. These chords are build of a root note, a major or minor third, and a perfect fifth. (If you need a reminder of what these musical intervals are, start here.)

These three-note chords predominate in rock songs, but four-note seventh chords are also widely used. To turn a triad into a seventh chord, just add a note a third above the fifth (or a second below the root.)

Remember our six diatonic triads? Let's add a seventh to each of them and take a look at our six diatonic seventh chords. In C major:

There are three minor seventh chords, with the m7 suffix. These are composed of p1 + m3 + p5 + m7.
[six]m7, [two]m7, [three]m7Am7, Dm7, Em7

There are two major seventh chords, with the maj7 suffix. These are composed of p1 + M3 + p5 + M7.
[one]maj7, [four]maj7Cmaj7, Fmaj7

There is one more diatonic seventh chord, with the 7 suffix. This is simply called a seventh chord, and to avoid confusion you can call it a common seventh or dominant seventh chord. And this chord is, of course, [five]7G7

Three m7 chords, two maj7 chords, but only one 7 chord. This chord's uniqueness gives it a special role. It's the only chord we've covered so far that can, all by itself, tell you exactly what key you're in. Because, unless non-diatonic notes are complicating the picture, the keynote of a major key is always a perfect fifth below the root of any 7 chord you hear.

This unique feature of the 7 chord is very handy when you need to change from one key to another. No matter what chords you've wandered through, if you land on a 7 chord, people will probably hear it as [five]7 and mentally adjust to your new key.

There are other possible types of seventh chords if we acknowledge the usually-overlooked [seven]dim triad and allow for chromatic (non-diatonic) notes.

The diminished seventh chord, dim7 or °7, is composed of p1 + m3 + d5 + d7. A d7 (diminished seventh) interval is a half-step smaller than a m7, and is equivalent to what we usually call a M6.

The minor seventh with lowered fifth chord, m7-5, is composed of p1 + m3 + d5 + m7. This is a diminished triad with m7 added.

The minor with major seventh chord, m(maj7), is composed of p1 + m3 + p5 + M7.

The seventh with lower fifth, 7-5, is composed of p1 + M3 + d5 + m7.

The seventh with raised fifth, 7+5, is composed of p1 + M3 + A5 + m7.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sobering Truth: "Happy Birthday" is one of the most successful songs in history

"Happy Birthday" is one of the most successful songs in history. How? It became a part of a standard ritual, the ritual of blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

There are other songs that will never be forgotten, not because they're great songs but because they fit perfectly into certain moments of our lives. The DJ plays "Celebration," by Kool & the Gang, at every single wedding and bar mitzvah reception I attend. "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge, is nearly as pervasive.

"Closing Time" is a newer song that's quickly claimed its own niche. Some bars play it every night; when patrons hear it, they know it's time to leave.

None of these songs is particularly eloquent, but each of them expresses a simple idea that fits perfectly with a particular social occasion.

What are some other common occasions that could use a catchy song? Could you write the perfect song for one of those occasions and perhaps claim your place in history?

Every Monday is Sobering Truth day for the Unruly Beast.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Messing with "Hey Jude"

On Thursday I asked you to review the fadeout of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," which famously features the [seven]♭ chord. The full chord phrase is:
[one] - [seven]♭ - [four] - [one] -

That great singalong chant melody in "Hey Jude" does not include the subtonic 7♭note, so it wasn't the melody that drove the Beatles to use [seven]♭ instead of [five]. And the rest of the song uses [five] and the regular ionian chords. They pointedly switched to mixolydian chords just for the fadeout of "Hey Jude."

Try singing the "Hey Jude" chant with these alternate chords:
[one] - [five] - [four] - [one] -

You'll notice that those alternate chords work just as well with the melody, but they bring a very different feel to the phrase.

It's hard to remember how groundbreaking "Hey Jude" was in a time when rock hits were trimmed to a length of 3:15 or shorter to meet the demands of radio. Since then, lengthy repeating fadeouts have become a staple of rock music, but at the time it took the biggest stars in music to break the mold and give us a 6-minute-long song with a couple minutes of repetitive ecstatic chanting at the end.

I think the Beatles' choice of [seven]♭ instead of [five] for the fade might make the mood a little more mellow, to help you surrender to the trancey groove instead of becoming impatient with the repetition. It's just my theory, and we'll never if "Hey Jude" might have been just as successful with different chords. But sometimes it's just this kind of subtle thing that makes the different between a good song and a great song.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Favorite guest chord #7

We recently reviewed rock music's basic set of chords for a major key. There are six diatonic triads (chords built from the notes of the major scale), plus nine non-diatonic triads.

Yesterday we learned why the diatonic chord build on the seventh note of the scale, [seven]dim, doesn't get invited to the rock and roll party very often.

But there is one of those nine non-diatonic triads that's more widely used than any of the others, and it happens to be the "other seven chord," [seven]♭. In the key of C major, this is the B♭ chord. This chord is borrowed from the key of C minor, where it serves as the major alter ego for the minor [five]m chord.

You can use the [seven]♭ chord as a substitute for the dominant [five] chord. That is, you can take any of the basic three-chord phrases, and play [seven]♭ in place of [five]. The result is a new chord phrases that has the same harmonic functionality as the original, but with a different vibe. It's more earthy and tribal, less European and imperial.

The [seven]♭ is very popular in rock songs, especially in blues-based rock. Traditional blues melodies eschew the regular 7 note in major (the leading tone) in favor of the lowered 7♭ note, (the subtonic). If you don't sing the leading tone, then it's only natural to avoid chords, such as [five] that contain the leading tone. Of course, you can also go with [five]m, but throughout rock history [seven]♭ has been the favorite substitute dominant chord.

What do you get when you take a major scale and lower the 7 note to 7♭? I know that sounds like the setup for a clever joke, but the straight answer is, you get a different scale, the mixolydian scale. Music that uses the mixolydian scale is said to be in the mixolydian mode. (You can read the whole sordid and convoluted history of mixolydian mode at Wikipedia.)

Many rock melodies are written in mixolydian mode, or alternate between mixolydian and regular major (called ionian mode when you want to be precise about it). And that's just a fancy way of saying that rock melodies often use subtonic 7♭instead of leading tone 7.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Forgotten chord #7

There are seven notes in a major or minor scale, but the basketful of chords that we gathered the other day included only six diatonic triads. What happened to that seventh note? Doesn't it get a chord too?

The answer is yes—and no. There is a chord built on the seventh note of the major scale, but it is very rarely used in rock songs. This forgotten chord is:

[seven]° or [seven]dim
in C major: or Bdim

This chord contains the notes 7, 2, and 4 — in C major, the notes B, D, and F. The interval from B to F is a diminished fifth, unlike the perfect fifth found in the other six diatonic triads. And while we love the resonance of the perfect fifth, we squirm at the awkward dissonance of the diminished fifth.

Probably a more important reason for this chord's neglect in rock is that it's just so hard to play on guitar. You have to delicately stop one string from sounding while playing the strings around it. Guitarists are so universally embarrassed about this difficulty that they don't even admit to the existence of the diminished chord. Guitar chord charts universally show the easy-to-play diminished seventh chord when a diminished chord is called for. The diminished seventh chord is an interesting chord in its own right, with a freakish (and useful) four-way symmetry, but it's not the same chord as a diminished chord.

In practice, the diminished chord, when it's used at all, is found in keyboard-oriented songs. The guitar player just sits out that part of the song.

In the minor key, the same points apply to the [two]dim chord. In the key of C minor, this is Ddim, containing the notes D, F, and A♭.

In music theory, the [seven]dim chord is thought of as a stunted version of the [five]7 chord. It's expected to be followed by the [one] chord most of the time.

Though this chord #7 turns out the be the neglected runt of the litter, there is another chord #7 that plays a major role in rock music. If you just lower the B note in Bdim, the note becomes B♭, and the chord becomes B ♭, or [seven]♭, the subtonic chord. This glorious major triad is so important in rock that it deserves its own entire post, which we'll get to soon. In the meantime, listen to the fadeout of "Hey Jude," and practice saying the cool Greek word mixolydian.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A♣ Jam it out

A♣ Ace of Clubs in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Ace of Clubs reminds us of a time-honored way to write a new song: just come up with something while you're jamming! Improvise with an instrument, while singing out loud, and if you're lucky the beginnings of a new song will emerge.

Nonsense lyrics are fine while you're jamming — the sillier the better. Just keep trying things until something grabs you. At any point the chords, notes, and rhythms could suddenly click into place and emerge as the chorus of your newest song.

Keep the tape recorder running, to make sure your ideas don't slip away before you have a chance to write them down.

For extra fun, jam with your whole band. If a song emerges while the band is jamming together, it's sure to be a strong number for your live shows, because it's an authentic expression of the band's natural style.

Jam-inspired songs often have strong, appealing energy, but they might start out a bit lacking in details. Don't worry — you can add those details as you revise and refine the song. If the spirit is right from the start, everything else can be worked out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Phrases and cadences

Last week we talked about phrases. A phrase is a short, meaningful unit of music. Symbolically, it's the expression of a single breath. In rock songs, phrases are most often 4 or 8 bars long, although other lengths of phrases are common.

In traditional music theory, a cadence is a musical gesture that marks the end of a phrase. You might think of a cadence as musical punctuation; it helps you understand that the phrase is over.

A cadence is a ritualized sequence of chords. Music theory describes four basic types of cadences:
  • [five] [one] — in C major, G C — a full cadence or authentic cadence
  • [one] [five] — C G — a half cadence (and, really, it could be almost any chord leading to [five])
  • [four] [one] — F C — a plagal cadence (they really didn't respect [four] chords in olden days — even tried to implicate them with the plague)
  • [five] [six]m — G Am — a deceptive cadence
In traditional European music, every phrase had to end with one of these four chord sequences (or some close variation of them). It was practically a law. You could get your composing license revoked if you didn't obey. If that sounds absurd and arbitrary and incredibly limiting, well... it was! But remember:
  • Traditional music was based on melody, not chords. Great melodic inventiveness more than made up for simple, formulaic chord structures.
  • 19th-century composers changed keys very freely as a way of getting some other chords into the music.
Still, by the beginning of the 20th century, composers rebelled, threw off the yoke of these arbitrary rules, and started creating much more richly varied music. And the only reason we still study these antiquated and arbitrary formulas today is... what? Just the fact that most rock songs still follow these rules most of the time.

So if you're putting chords together and feel like you don't know what you're doing, you can always fall back on these four traditional cadences. If you end every phrase with one of them, or some close variation, you can be confident that your chords will make musical sense to the audience.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sobering Truth: You can't always copy other songwriters' tricks

In songwriting, you can copy any idea, any trick, any technique that you hear in a song that you like. Let me be clear: copyright law prohibits copying any specific material from anyone else's song. But you can always copy a technique and express it in a different specific way. If you can separate the good qualities of a song from its specific notes and words, you can re-express them with your own original notes and words.

But, here's the catch: even if your copy is successful, even if you manage to perfectly translate another songwriter's technique into your own song, it still might not work for you.

Here's an example: One singer-songwriter's debut album included a song that was a carefully studied copy of Paul McCartney's style of gentle, acoustic love songs. As a copy, it was brilliant — it was a masterful feat of songwriting, performance, and production. But it still was the weakest track on the album. The style just didn't work for this artist.

Another example: I love the profanity-laden songs of Rancid, but when I put similarly strong language in my own songs, I almost always end up taking it out. I'm not a language prude; it just doesn't work for me the way it does for Rancid.

It sometimes may seem unfair what other songwriter can get away with. A Caribbean band writes a sunny song with a childishly simple melody and scores a big hit; but your similar song merely sounds childish. Bob Dylan rambles nonsensically and it's brilliant poetry, but your own similar efforts just sounds like gibberish. Whatever the specifics, successful songwriter-artists know their strengths and weaknesses and have learned to work with them. You'll need to take them to know yourself and tease out all of your own strengths and weaknesses.

So go ahead and study songs that you love, and learn to copy the songwriter's techniques. Just be aware that mastering the technique is only half the battle. You still have to actually make the technique work for you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A bumper crop of chords

Let's go out to our chord garden and gather all the chords we can find! Well, let's start with all the chords we can use in a major key. (We'll take the key of C major as a specific example, but you can translate these chords into any other major key.)

First we pick up the main three major chords. Let's call these the three primary triads of the key. Triad is a name for a three-note chord, basically a major or minor chord.
[one], [four], and [five] — C, F, and G

Then we add the three primary chords from the relative minor key. But these are the three secondary triads in our major key.
[six]m, [two]m, [three]m — Am, Dm, Em

Now we have six chords in our basket. Together these two trios of triads are the six diatonic triads of our major key. Remember that diatonic means these chords are composed entirely of notes that belong to this key.

The rest of our chords will include at least one note that doesn't belong to the key, a chromatic note or non-diatonic note. If you want, you can call these chords chromatic chords or non-diatonic chords.

We're going to borrow the three primary triads from the parallel minor key.
[one]m, four[m], five[m] — Cm, Fm, Gm
But one caution: you'll have to use Cm sparingly, if at all, or this could turn into a song in C minor instead of C major. And no one wants that!

Next we borrow the three secondary triads from the parallel minor key.
[three]♭, [six]♭, [seven]♭ — E♭, A♭, B♭
Look, more major chords to play with! These chords are heavily used in rock, because rock loves major chords but loves to get on the minor side of things. It's a tonal contradiction, one that I would like to blame on The Blues... but that's a story for another day.

That's twelve chords already! Is that enough? Sure, it's enough to write any number of songs with, but there are just three more chords that we can't ignore. It takes some tricky sleight-of-hand to grab these chords. These are the primary triads from the parallel major key of our relative minor key. I know, that sounds so arcane, it's hard to believe that these chords count for anything. And yet many rock songs use them. These chords are:
[six], [two], [three] — A, D, E

Okay, we have fifteen chords in our basket! That's a whole lotta chords to keep track of. But remember, these are all echoes and reflections of our first three chords, [one], [four], and [five]. If it helps, you can think of it as three stars, each of which has several stand-ins and stunt doubles.

Here [one] and its posse:
[one], [six]m, [one]m, [three]♭, [six] — C, Am, Cm, E♭, A

Next, the [four] gang:
[four], [two]m, [four]m, [six]♭, [two] — F, Dm, Fm, A♭, D

And here's the [five] team:
[five], [three]m, [five]m, [seven]♭, [three] — G, Em, Gm, B♭, E

Okay, what if we had gone out into our minor-key chord garden instead?
Actually, we would have ended up with most of the same chords, but in a slightly different order. Only the last three chords would have been something different. We'll be digging for the primary triads of the parallel minor key of our relative major key. These are:
[three]♭m, [six]♭m, [seven]♭m — E♭m, A♭m, B♭m

In minor, the [one] posse:
[one]m, [three]♭, [one], [six]m, [three]♭m — Cm, E♭, C, Am, E♭m

The minor [four] gang:
[four]m, [six]♭, [four], [two]m, [six]♭m — Fm, A♭, F, Dm, A♭m

The minor [five] team:
[five]m, [seven]♭, [five], [three]m, [seven]♭m — Gm, B♭, G, Em, B♭m

Now, what can we do with all of these chords? We'll come back to that question soon.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

One breath at a time

What is a phrase? In music, a phrase is originally, literally, a breath. Much early music was vocal music and flute music, and people got in the habit of organizing music into chunks that could be sung or played in one breath.

That original idea of a phrase often holds true in more recent music, but not always. Some slow songs have long phrases that require a singer to catch an extra breath in the middle. And in some fast songs with non-stop lyrics, a singer might get through two phrases on a single breath.

In a rock song, a phrase is typically 4 or 8 bars long. But phrases can be just about any length; you'll see them as short as 2 bars, and as long as 16 bars.

A phrase makes a coherent musical point. If you were going to cut up an instrumental track into pieces and rearrange it in a different order, you'd have a fighting chance of making musical sense if you cut it up phrase by phrase. If you cut it up any other way, you'll just make a musical mess.

One of the important things drummers do is play fills or other gestures to help clarify where the phrases begin and end. Listen carefully to the drum track and take note of what the drummer is doing to give structure to the song.

Like so many things in music, it's hard to precisely define what qualifies a chunk of music to be called a phrase. But in most ordinary rock songs, the structure of phrases is perfectly clear and easy to hear, even when we can't exactly say why.

We'll talk more about phrases when we get into the structure of a song. But we need to talk about phrases now in connection with chords. Certain sequences of chords make a musically sensible phrase, while other sequences of chords just don't. We'll soon start to look at how to put chords together to make a phrase.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Theory of Relativity

Yesterday's shocking headline: The Am Chord Unmasked! Actually C in Disguise.

But that was in a publication with a major bias. In another publication, one with a minor bias, the headline was this: C is for Counterfeit! It Was Am All Along.

The thing is, when the key of C major freely uses chords from the relative minor key of A minor, and when A minor uses chords from C major just as freely, you're bound to run into songs where the line between those two keys is completely blurred. Is the song really in A minor or C major? Different musicians may have different answers to that question.

(Of course, we're just using C major and A minor as examples. Any pair of relative keys can present the same conundrum.)

Luckily Einstein helps us out with his Theory of Musical Relativity. The theory says that you can analyze the song as if it's in the minor key or as if it's in the major key, and you'll get an equivalent and logically consistent understanding of the song either way.

C major and A minor share the same six basic chords:
Am, C, Dm, Em, F, and G
But in the key of A minor, we call these chords, respectively:
[one]m, [three]♭, [four]m, [five]m, [six]♭, and [seven]♭
In the key of C major, those same chords are:
[six]m, [one], [two]m, [three]m, [four], and [five]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Secret alter ego chords

Like solving a Rubik's cube, we're working step by step to show how the whole universe of chords in rock songs can unfold from the basic three chords, [one], [four], and [five].

First we learned that there's a minor mode with its own three chords, [one]m, [four]m, and [five]m.

Next we learned about borrowed chords. The key of C major can borrow chords from its parallel minor key, which is C minor. Conversely, C minor can borrow chords from C major.

Now it's time to look at another minor key that has a close relationship with C major. This is its relative minor key, the key of A minor.

C major and A minor share the exact same set of notes, which happen to be the white keys on a keyboard. The only difference between the C major and A minor scales is in the keynote, the first note of the scale — obviously, C for C major and A for A minor.

Every major key has a relative minor key with a keynote (or tonic) a minor third lower, and the two keys share the same set of notes.

This relationship cuts both ways. Every minor key has a relative major key with a keynote a minor third higher. It's almost like two sides of the same coin. Or like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, if you will. Bruce Wayne and Batman. David Johansen and Buster Poindexter. The same person with two different identities.

Now, let's look at the tonic chords of C major and A minor. The C chord contains the notes C, E, G. The Am chord contains A, C, E. The chords have two notes out of three in common. If you're playing a three-note C chord, raise the G one step to A, and the chord becomes Am. Lower that note to a G again, and you're back to the C chord.

In the key of C major, Am is the [six]m chord. The [six]m chord is the next most important chord in rock music after [one], [four], and [five]. It allows for this chord phrase, so popular in rock music c. 1960 that they wore it out:

[one] [six]m [four] [five]
C | Am | F | G

And this chord phrase, featured in so many 1990s hits that you might want to use it sparingly today:
[one] [five] [six]m [four]
C | G | Am | F

As a songwriter, what can you do with the special alter-ego relationship between [one] and [six]m? Quite simply, you can use [six]m in place of [one] just about anywhere! Take any three-chord phrase, and drop in [six]m wherever [one] appears. Suddenly you have a new chord phrase. It still makes musical sense, but it's more subtle, less obvious.

And just to blow this door wide open, the [four] chord also has its own alter ego, [two]m. And [five]'s alter ego is [three]m. In the key of C, we're talking about F and Dm as alter egos, and also G and Em.

Now we have two complementary trios of chords, for a total of six. There is more to this story, so come back tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

4♣ Take four

4♣ Four of Clubs in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Four of Clubs invites you to take your song idea and write four completely different songs. Let those four songs fight it out and see which one is best.

Research shows that people are habitually lazy thinkers. Faced with a never-before-seen situation, most people get uncomfortable enough that they start thinking. They typically think about the strange situation just long enough to come up with one plausible explanation. They then stop thinking and assume that that first reasonable explanation is the explanation.

After that point, people not only stop thinking, they actually stop seeing new facts that might lead to a different conclusion.

The Four of Clubs says, keep the brain working a little bit longer. Don't stop with the first possible solution for a songwriting challenge. Try again, and write it a different way. Then try again, and yet again.

After you dispense with the most obvious way to write a song, you have the option to keep your mind working on other possible answers, and you might come up with a clever and completely different approach.

You might ultimately decide that your first answer was the best one. It often is. But your third or fourth attempt might yield something transcendentally brilliant. You never know until you try.

Sure, it's more work to write four songs instead of one. But if you have a lot at stake, it's not too much to ask. A film production can easily go through four storyboards before deciding how to shoot a scene. You might test-drive four cars, or try on four shirts, before buying one.

Songwriting is not hard work, compared to rehearsing, recording, and performing the song. So the Four of Clubs says, maybe this time you can make more than the minimum mental effort, and give four potential songs a chance to audition.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Intervals in music

Second, third, fourth, fifth... sounds kinda like people are waiting in line. But actually we're talking about intervals, which means pairs of notes and their pitch relationship to each other.

If you're an experienced musician, you know this stuff backwards and forwards, and you can skip this post. If you're a beginner, this part of musical terminology takes a bit of explaining, and you should read on.

There's no way to talk about the specifics of music without using metaphors. We say that one pitch is higher than another, but pitch is a metaphor, and so is higher.

A sound is actually a vibration in the air. In a timescale of thousands of a second, some sounds have a regular, repeating waveform, which we hear as a musical tone. A regular waveform has a frequency, which we define as the number of cycles per second. Another word for cycles per second is hertz, abbreviated Hz. Our ears are especially attuned to repeating waveforms, and we hear the frequency as musical pitch.

The A below middle C is traditionally defined as a musical tone with a frequency of 440 Hertz. That means the waveform of the A note has a cycle that repeats 440 times per second.

If a frequency has a higher number, we hear it as a higher pitch. A tone of 880 Hz has a frequency twice as high as the A at 440 Hz. We hear the 880 Hz tone as another A tone, exactly one octave higher that the 440 Hz tone. Twice the frequency equals an interval of one octave.

Our musical system is based on dividing the octave into 12 equal parts. Each 1/12 of an octave is called a half-step or semitone. Musical intervals are defined as the number of semitones you have to travel to get from the first note to the second note. (This is easiest to see on a piano keyboard or a guitar fretboard, where the semitones are clearly marked off.)

If two notes are at the same pitch, the distance is 0 semitones, and the interval is called unison. (For shorthand, unison can be abbreviated P1).
1 semitone is called a half-step or a minor second, abbreviated m2.
2 semitones is called a full-step or a major second, abbreviated M2. (Capital M for major, small m for minor.)
3 semitones is a minor third (m3).
4 semitones is a major third (M3).
5 semitones is a perfect fourth (P4)
6 semitones (half an octave) is an augmented fourth or diminished fifth (A4/d5).
7 semitones is a perfect fifth (P5).
8 semitones is a minor sixth (m6).
9 semitones is a major sixth (M6).
10 semitones is a minor seventh (m7).
11 semitones is a major seventh (M7).
12 semitones is an octave (P8).

The names of these intervals might make more sense if you think about the notes that make up the major and minor scales, and each note's interval to the keynote (the first note) of the scale.

The major scale contains P1, M2, M3, P4, P5, M6, M7.
The minor scale contains P1, M2, m3, P4, P5, m6, m7.

With the sole exception of the M2 in the minor scale, you can see that the major scale contains all the major version of the intervals, and the minor scale contains the minor versions of the intervals.

With this handy vocabulary of intervals, we can also describe the different kinds of chords as the intervals between each note in the chord and the chord's root. So far we've talked mainly about major and minor chords.

The major chord contains P1, M3, and P5.
The minor chord contains P1, m3, and P5.

If you are new to reading music, this vocabulary of musical intervals might seem like a whole lot of details to try to learn. Don't worry! Like everything else in music, it just requires practice.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sobering Truth: People don't trust their own musical taste

Many people don't trust their own ears when deciding what music they like. Some carefully-staged scientific experiments have confirmed this unfortunate fact. People rely largely on external cues — for example, if other people seem to like the song, or if the artist is on a respected record label.

Separately, an overwhelming body of anecdotes confirms that even the people who are paid to exercise their musical judgment — people whose decisions could directly affect your own musical career — mostly don't trust their own ears either. They also largely rely on external cues.

As a songwriter or musical artist, you must learn to trust your own ears. If you can't find the courage to have an independent opinion, who can? More importantly, without confidence in your own musical tastes, you won't be able to create anything new and powerful.

If you want to have a career in creating music, it's important for you to realize that "creating unique, better-quality music" is not a realistic business plan. Creating better music is only Step 1. You need to plan to put just as much or more effort into Step 2, to work on those external cues that will help people (both fans and music insiders) see you as successful and thus decide that they like your music.

Many musicians find it distasteful to work on marketing, branding, promo, and the other elements of Step 2. Remember, this stuff is necessary only if you want to build a career; if you just want to make music, you can skip it.

But there is one external cue that is completely under your control, and there's no reason for you not to master it. I'm talking about your own attitude about your own music.

Your confidence and enthusasm for your own music makes more difference than you might realize. If people sense that you like your song a lot, they're more apt to like it themselves. Conversely, if your performance is tentative and apologetic, your audience will be underwhelmed. If you aren't sure about your own song, why should they stick their neck out and like it?

So make sure that you are writing songs that you can perform with confidence and enthusiasm. Write about subjects that light you up.

When you practice performing your songs, don't just practice the words and notes. Also practice your confidence and enthusiasm. Success begins as an attitude inside yourself, and, like so many other things, it too improves with practice.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Three-chord rock: example chord phrases

Listed below are 24 examples of 4-bar, three-chord phrases in C major. Feel free, of course, to transpose them into other keys and to use them in your songs. No one owns a copyright on these commonly used chord phrases.

A chord phrase is a sequence of chords for a single musical phrase. You might also hear people use the equivalent terms chord progression or chord change.

Phrases can be various lengths. 4- or 8-bar phrases are typical in rock music, but, as I'll discuss in a future post, you can make your songs more interesting by using phrases of different lengths. It's only in the interest of keeping things simple that all of these examples are 4-bar phrases.
  1. C | F | C | -
  2. C | - | F | C
  3. C | F | C | F
  4. F | C | F | C
  5. C | - | - | F
  6. C | G | C | -
  7. C | - | G | C
  8. C | G | C | G
  9. C | F | G | -
  10. C | - | F | G
  11. C | F | G | F
  12. C | F | G | C
  13. C | F | C | G
  14. C | G | C | F
  15. F | C | G | C
  16. F | G | F | C
  17. G | C | F | G
  18. G | C | G | F
  19. C - | F C | - - | F G
  20. C - | F - | G - | F C
  21. C G | F - | - G | C -
  22. C F | C - | - F | C G
  23. F C | G - | F G | C -
  24. F - | C G | F - | G C
Optional assignments (a/k/a your "songwriting homework"):
  • Create an alternate version of each phrase by substituting one or more chords borrowed from C minor.
  • Try transposing all 24 of these phrases into C minor.
  • Create an alternate version of each of the C minor phrases by substituting one more more chords borrowed from C major.
  • Create one more variation of each of the 24 phrases by making some other change. You could substitute another chord that's not one of the three main chords, you could change the rhythm, change a bass note, play it backwards, add a seventh, or do something even more radical. It's your move!
After you complete all four optional assignments, you'll have a list of 120 chord phrases at your disposal. And obviously we're just scratching the surface of the possibilities of "three-chord rock." Even with this limited vocabulary, you can still stay a lot.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Can I borrow a chord?

Can I borrow a chord or two? You sure can!

Think of all those 1980s hair-band boys with long hair, makeup, and frilly clothing. They basically dressed up like girls and somehow made it look cool. And remember the hard-rock girls who cut their hair short and acted tough -- you sure wouldn't pick a fight with them, but you still loved to look at them.

Yes, rock culture has no qualms about borrowing stuff from the opposite sex and making it work out. And rock music is just as free about borrowing chords from the opposite mode. If you're in C major, you can throw in chords from C minor (the parallel minor). And if you're writing in C minor, the chords from C major (the parallel major) are fair game.

These chords borrowed from the parallel major or minor are called borrowed chords.

In a minor key, using the major [five] or [five]7 chord provides decisive cadences that you can't quite get with [five]m. The major [four] in might help a minor-key song sound a little more bright and open.

In a major key, the minor [four]m chord strikes a poignant note, while the minor [five]m might help create an introspective atmosphere.

You can jump back and forth between major and minor flavors of a chord. This sequence is a favorite of ELO's, using both flavors of four:
[one] [four] [four]m [one]
In the key of C, that's C | F | Fm | C

Guiffria's "Call to the Heart" uses major [five] in the verse and switches to minor [five]m in the chorus to anchor the song's distinctive, memorable hook. (Here's Call to the Heart on YouTube.)

When a tornado picked up Dorothy in Kansas and put her back down in the parallel land of Oz, she said to her little dog, "Well, Toto, I don't think we're limited to just three chords anymore." That trip opened up so many harmonic possibilities for Dorothy, it was almost like switching from black-and-white to technicolor.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three-chord rock, in major and minor

Has it really been a month since we first talked about Three Major Awesome Chords? Yes, it took a whole month to circle around so we could get back to three chords and take this next step.

As we learned yesterday, the difference between a major chord and a minor chord is the third. (The third is the middle note of the chord.) If you take a major chord and lower the third by a half-step, you turn it into a minor chord.

Now, the difference between the standard major and minor scales is that three notes are a half-step lower in the minor scale. Those notes are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the scale.

You could say that the major scale contains the notes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, while the minor scale contains 1, 2, 3♭, 4, 5, 6♭, 7♭. Flat (♭) means a half-step lower.

[one], [four], and [five], are, of course, the three famous chords of rock and roll. In a major key, these three chords are major chords. In a minor key, these three chords are minor chords.

Those three lowered notes in the minor scale happen to be perfectly placed to change those three chords from major to minor. 3♭, is, of course, the third of the [one] chord. 6♭ is the third of the [four] chord. And 7♭ is the third of the [five] chord.

In a minor key, the three main chords are [one]m, [four]m, and [five]m, where the m suffix indicates a minor chord. In the key of C minor, these chords are Cm, Fm, and Gm.

You can rock perfectly well in either major or minor. You might have heard someone say that the major mode is brighter and happier, while the minor mode is darker and gloomier. There is some truth to that, but don't pigeonhole the modes. Both major and minor are suitable for a broad range of moods and expressions.

There is much more to the story of 3-chord rock, and many cracks in the wall between major and minor. We'll get to all those nuances soon. For now, let's enjoy the clear-cut difference between major and minor in these two clips from YouTube:
  • Three-chord rock in major: Do Ya by Electric Light Orchestra. This was a hit for Jeff Lynne's earlier band The Move, and an even bigger hit when he rerecorded it with ELO.
  • Three-chord rock in minor: Tony Adams by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I'm still sad about Joe's untimely death, but he gave us some great songs in his last few years, like this one from Rock Art & the X-Ray Style. But don't ask me who Tony Adams is or what this song is about.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Major vs. minor -- what's the difference?

What's the difference between a major chord and a minor chord? What's the difference between a major key and a minor key?

The different is the third.

C major chord: C (root), E (third), G (fifth)
C minor chord: C (root), E♭ (third), G (fifth)

C major scale: C, D, E, F, G
C minor scale: C, D, E♭, F, G

C major has a major third -- E -- while C minor has a minor third -- E♭.

Remember that major literally means big, while minor means small. The distance from C to E is bigger by one semitone (one half-step) than the distance from C to E♭.

Now, what about the sixth and seventh notes of the scale? It's true that in standard C major those notes are A and B, while in standard C minor, they are A♭ and B♭. But, fundamentally, those notes don't hold any weight.

You can make A♭ and B♭ as flat as you want, and if the scale includes E, it's still going to sound major. Conversely, as long as you keep E♭, you can use A and B natural, and it will still sound minor.

The sixth and seventh notes have important roles to play, but it's the third that makes all the difference between major and minor.

Tomorrow, we'll take a fresh look at three-chord rock, in major and minor.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

J♦ Sculptor

J♦ Jack of Diamonds in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

Try the sculptor approach. Create an initial version that's very approximate — just in the right general shape. Then chip away at it, one little change at a time, until you're satisfied with the results.

A song, of course, is not like a block of granite or a lump of clay, and writing a song can never be exactly like carving a sculpture. But the Jack of Spades reminds you that you can rough-in the full song, and work on its overall shape, while many of the details remain unresolved.

For lyrics, you can start with pure nonsense — if you're good at thinking up nonsense lyrics — or perhaps something like this, words that are obviously just temporary placeholders:
I'm going to sing about something here
Exactly what, it's still not clear
I'm going to sing about something here
And when it's done
This will be verse one

Using whatever shortcuts you have to take, quickly get a draft version of the whole song together, and then try it out and see how it feels.

At that point you're ready to begin a trial-and-error process of revisions. Think of one change you can make, and see if it makes the song any better. If it's an improvement, keep it; then see what else you can change. You might change almost everything along the way — the title, the subject matter, the chords, the melody — but as long as each change is an improvement, you must be heading in the right direction.