Chord progressions in songwriting

Chord Progressions

Writer’s block. Every songwriter experiences it at some point. You’re sitting in front of your piano, you’ve got your guitar in hand, your pencils are sharpened, your laptop batteries glow at 100% and BAM, you’ve got nothing! You FEEL like writing, but there’s a dry, brown, desert in your head. Tumbleweeds blow past, a train hoots in the distance and buzzards circle slowly over your dying motivation to write. Here’s a refreshing cool drink from a canteen of sweet inspiration to at least help get the chords going for a verse and chorus, in five steps. Enjoy…

First: Create a perpetual list of five favorite songs

The songs don’t have to be in any particular order. They don’t have to be from the same genre, style, or decade. Try and include a song or two from your youth. Include songs you have an emotional connection to. That song your parents hated, so you overplayed it in your cheap headphones. That song about your first crush; that song that got you through exams; that song that about the one that got away… etc.

Second: Chorus Chords

Figure out the chords from the chorus of song #1 on your list and convert them to number equivalent (I’ll help you with that at the end of this article). If you can’t figure out the chords by ear, search the internet using the title of your song and the word “chords”. I’m not talking about “how” those chords are strummed or arpeggiated, just their order in the chorus. For example the repeating of chorus chords from Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball are:

F…C…Dm…Bb
1…5…6m…4

Take note on how many beats each chord is played. In Wrecking Ball, each chord is played for two beats. This is the Harmonic Rhythm of Wrecking Ball. (In other words, the Harmonic Rhythm for the chorus chords of Wrecking Ball is one chord per two beats).

Third: Verse Chords

Now figure out the verse chords from song #2 on your list. For example, here are the verse chords from Avicii’s Wake Me Up:

Bm…G…D…A

Fourth: Combine and Swap

These two chord progressions can now be used as the foundation of YOUR newest song, except now swap their positions. Use the chorus chords for your verse and the verse chords for your chorus. In other words the Wrecking Ball chorus chords become YOUR verse chords and the Avicii verse chords become your chorus chords. They look like this:

Verse (the chords from Wrecking Ball’s chorus):

F…C…Dm…Bb

Chorus (the chords from Wake Me Up’s verse):

Bm…G…D…A

Five: Translate Key

If you’re lucky, the two sections will already be in the same key and that key will be perfect for your voice. More often than not, the two sections will be in two different keys, so you’ll need to put them in a common key, ideally one that your voice sounds good in. It’s a little more work than the other steps, but the work will pay off. Besides, I’ll help you!

We’re going to use a system using numbers to represent the chords. I’ll write out the most common chords for several keys, show their number, and then you can adjust your sections to fit any of those common keys.

Let’s figure out the keys of our two songs and put them into a common key:

Wrecking Ball is in key of F. The chords again, are: F…C…Dm…Bb
Looking at the F column, those chords translate into: 1…5…6m…4

Wake Me Up is in the key of D. The chords again, are: Bm…G…D…A
Looking at the D column, those chords translate into: 6m…4…1…5

Here’s the two progressions as numbers:

(Verse)
1…5…6m…4

(Chorus)
6m…4…1…5

Here’s the two sections translated into in three different keys:

(Verse)
Numbers: 1…5…6m…4
Key of C: C…G…Am…F
Key of G: G…D…Em…C
Key of D: D…A…Bm…G
Key of A: A…E…F#m…D
Key of E: E…B…C#m…A
Key of F: F…C…Dm…Bb
Key of Bb: Bb…F…Gm…Eb

(Chorus)
6m…4…1…5
Key of C: Am…F…C…G
Key of G: Em…C…G…D
Key of D: Bm…G…D…A
Key of A: F#m…D…A…E
Key of E: C#m…A…E…B
Key of F: Dm…Bb…F…C
Key of Bb: Gm…Eb…Bb…F

Pick a key that works for your voice and Tah Dah (!), you’re done!

Adjust

The songs I picked for this article happen to repeat, which make this song “easy”. Feel free to adjust the chords in any way you see fit. Subtract chords. Add your own chords. Add chords from a third song! This method allows you to “write your way out of the problem”.

Best of luck!


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