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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, Part 5: The process

The act of creation

Making stuff  involves organization and experimentation.  At the end of the last post I outlined one way to do it, but some people like to break it down.
First: organization. Choose from a pool of chords to make your song. The pool we’ve been looking at so far is the chords in the key of C. Don’t us them all, but include them all as possible choices. This allows for experimentation.
So we have our possible chords: C  Dm  Em  F  G  Am  Bdim. But which ones do we use?

Time to Experiment

Try this. Take the C chord and place it at the beginning of the first bar. In the next bar, place a G chord. Like it? Now do the same thing, but use an Am chord in the second bar. Do this with every chord: go from the C major chord to the F major chord, E minor chord, D minor chord and B diminished chord. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that you have a different emotional reaction to each pairing. Write down those reactions in a journal.
C major - 2 chords
You’ll be tempted to fill in those empty bars at the end of each line. Resist this impulse.
Now change the harmonic rhythm. Same thing: pay attention and see how each chord pairing makes you feel. What you’re doing here is getting your personal reactions to what the possibilities are. This connects the feeling in the music to feelings in the lyrics.
C major - 2 chords2
Now try putting the second chord on the 4th beat instead of the 3rd. Maybe wait until the 2nd beat of the 2nd bar. There are quite a few possibilities and we’ve only used two chords in two bars. Just think of the fun you can have. Remember: write every new idea down.


This takes discipline. But if you stick with it through all the possibilities (and it won’t take that long), then when you add that third chord, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a new world. Make sure you write down how you feel about that.
Of course, you can just write down some words, and then hammer out some chords while saying those words…

So far…

We’ve talked about chords in the key of C, and we’ve talked about harmonic rhythm. We’ve talked about a process of discovering how to use these two things. We haven’t talked about  lyrics. For that I’m referring you to Sheila Davis’s books. She’s better at that than I am.
Here’s a couple:
The Craft of Lyric Writing
TheSongwriters Idea Book
And another one by Pat Pattison:
Writing Better Lyrics
Next post: song form! You get a container to put all this stuff into!
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 4: Writing down the chords

Let’s take a look at some of those chords from part 2.

harmonic rhythm 4 bars slash

First, those diagonal lines. Those are called hash marks.

Hash Marks

Diagonal marks that show the beats in the bar.
A chord at the beginning of the bar always starts on beat 1. If you place a chord over the third hash mark (like our example above) it’s played on the third beat. Place it over the second hash mark and it’s played on the second beat.
I  hear you saying, “Didn’t he say that we’d be writing 8 bar verses? All I’ve seen is 4 bar examples.”
Good point. Here’s 8 bars.
8 bars blank slash
So if you’ve printed off a couple of sheets of staff paper like I asked you to, you’ll see 8 staves with nothing in them. No hash marks, no bar lines, no treble clef.

Go ahead and put some hash marks in those blank bars to get the image above. Then put in some chords from the key of C. Be aware of where you’re placing your chords. Are they mostly on the 1st and 3rd beats? Experiment by placing them randomly without worrying what it’ll sound like. Then play what you’ve got, and decide what you like.

Bar Lines

The vertical lines on the staff that separate hash marks into groups of four.

Treble Clef

The thing with all the curves at the beginning of each staff. Don’t worry about this. It’s used for figuring out notes. We’re only talking about chords right now. I’ll deal with notes in another post.

How to put in chords

The first thing you want to do is draw bar lines. Draw in five on the first staff. One at the beginning of the staff, one at the end, and three in the middle. Do the same on the staff below it. Then draw in the hash marks. Use the example above as a model.
Now you need the chords. Remember the chords in the key of C from part 1? Taking those, write in one chord per bar. It doesn’t matter which ones go where for now. Just put in some chords. You can always change them later. Once you have the chords written down, play what you’ve got. Pay attention to what you like and what you don’t. Change the harmonic rhythm if you feel it needs that.
It’s easy to say all that. It’s not as easy to do it. Part 5 and 6 will outline the process in detail.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, Part 3: How long is the verse?

Normally the verse is either 8 or 12 bars. But really? It can be as long as you want. We’ll keep it simple, and stick to 8 bars for now.
Knowing how many bars you’re working with is crucial when you’re trying to figure out where to place the chords. Sometimes you can get something great by just sitting down and jamming it out. Other times it won’t work until you sit down and think about it.

Writing it down

Staff paper is good for this. You can get it for free all over the internet. Go to the address below and click on 8-stave paper for parts or lead sheets.


Plural for staff. A staff is the 5 horizontal lines that musical notes are placed on. You’ve seen it before in part 2. Here it is again.
music staff


If you write music for more than one person, each person needs sheet music to read from. That sheet music is called a part. A bass player’s part will be different than a piano player’s part.

Lead Sheet

A lead sheet is a copy of the song. It usually has the melody, lyrics, and the chords.
Sometimes everybody just gets a lead sheet. Sometimes everybody just gets the chords without the melody or the lyrics. And sometimes you just teach it to them. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of writing it down, though. At least the chords. It’s a simple skill to develop, and musicians really appreciiate it. They’ll be more likely to want to play your music if you give them something on paper.
Here’s what you do: Print a couple of sheets of staff paper from the above site. Now go to part 4.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, Part 2: Harmonic Rhythm

First, a definition.

Bar (often called a measure)

A unit  of 4 beats (most of the time). You know when you hear musicians count to 4 at the beginning of a song? They’re counting the first bar. They do this at the speed of the song so that the other musicians know how fast to play.
I know. Harmonic rhythm sounds kind of daunting. But all it means is how many chords you have in a bar and where those chords are placed. Take a look at the music example below. It should help.
There are three different 4 bar harmonic rhythms – examples A, B, and C. One chord per bar (example A) is a different harmonic rhythm than two chords per bar (example B). And both of those have a different harmonic rhythm than one chord every two bars (example C).
 harmonic rhythm
You need to be aware of this, because your songs will sound kind of  lost if the chords are changing at random places. You’ll also get more interesting rhythmic ideas, like placing a chord on the 2nd beat or the 4th beat. Doesn’t sound that world-altering, but try it. Simple things lead to things you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.
One of those new ideas is to vary the harmonic rhythm. A full bar of C, then a half-bar of F, followed by a half-bar of G, then a full bar of Am. Whatever. Just start experimenting and have some staff paper handy to write things down (I have a free resource for staff paper in the next post). If you’d rather record things and write them down later, great. Just make sure you write it down. It comes in handy when you want to teach someone else the song.
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5 suggestions for establishing ritual


In my last post I talked about using a mind map. If you got a chance to work with it, chances are you’ve got a set of goals and a realistic timeline for completing them. Here are some ideas for having some success.

1. Buy a notebook. Before you go to bed, think about when you have free time the next day. Write in the notebook the specific time that you’ll pick up your guitar, and for how long. For instance, you can write, “ I will pick up my guitar at 1pm tomorrow for 2 minutes.”

Don’t commit to doing anything. Something will happen. It’s the act of picking it up that is most difficult. Once you have it in your hands, it’s usually there

for 10 or 15 minutes even if you only committed to two. It might only be there for two. Doesn’t matter. Success is picking it up every day.

2. Buy an egg timer. After you’ve established a ritual of picking up the instrument, set the timer for 15 minutes. Don’t play past the 15 minutes. You don’t want to run the risk of taking time from other areas of your life that need it. If that happens, you’ll start to view the guitar negatively. If you have more time and your guitar playing isn’t imposing on other priorities, great. Play more if you want.

3. Use visualization. Researchers found that people who engaged in visualizations that included the process of what needed to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about learning another language, by visualizing themselves practicing every day after work) were more likely to stay consistent than their peers that visualized themselves speaking French on a trip to Paris. The visualization process worked for two reasons:

  • Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
  • Emotion: visualization of individual steps led to reduced anxiety.

4. Identify resistance. There will come a time when you will be tempted to give up.  When this happens, try to identify what is making this happen. Incorporate an “if-then” scenario once you find the culprit. For instance, if fatigue is stopping you from playing guitar after work, you could set up a system of “If I’m feeling tired after work, then I will take a 20-minute nap and listen to music for five minutes to get myself motivated.” Or leave the guitar out of the case, and make sure it’s in a room where you’ll have privacy. It can be something that simple (not having to open the case) than gets you to pick up the guitar.

5. Creating habits is easier when we make use of our current routines.  Pick a regular part of your schedule and then build guitar playing into it. For instance, instead of “I will play the guitar,” you could say, “When I come home, I’ll have a shower and then play the guitar.” This helps because you use cues from an established routine instead of willpower.

Fifteen minutes a day, patience, and some encouragement once in a while, and you can accomplish what you want.

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Use a mind map to make a ritual

Can you establish a ritual of picking up your guitar every day? You’ll need a good reason before you do. What’s the long-term goal aside from knowing a few songs?

Get a piece of paper. We’re going to do some mind-mapping. It’ll only take 5 or 10 minutes. Unless you get into it, in which case it could take a while…

Mind-mapping was developed in the 1970s as a whole brain alternative to linear thinking. It’s essentially a keyword technique.  The idea is to write down a central theme, and then use lines growing out of that central theme to depict your thoughts and associations.

This is not about categories. It’s about whatever is in the mind.

What I’ve got below is a template: a broad category and then stuff coming from it. You absolutely cannot censor yourself when you do this. Judgement is never fun, and this should be fun. You can eliminate stuff later. Dream big right now.

A mind map recipe.

  1. Use “music” as the central theme.
  2. Then use “guitar” as one of the first thoughts coming from that.
  3. Use things that you discover in the music theme that relate to guitar. These will likely be things you haven’t thought of before.
  4. Fill in the squares surrounding the guitar circle. Add squares if you want.
  5. Fill in the empty circles surrounding the music square.
  6. Fill in the boxes surrounding those circles. Again add squares as required

Remember. Don’t censor yourself.

mind map


Now you’ve got some ideas for what you want to do. Don’t get rid of anything. Which do you think are most realistic to start with? “Play like Eric Clapton” is possible, but won’t happen right away. Do you know what you need to know in order to do that?

“Learn my favorite song” is possible sooner depending on how hard it is. “Learn a few chords” is easier than both of those.  “Play with other people” is something that could happen as soon as you know a few chords, or after you learn a few song (these are just examples; none of them need to be on your mind map if they don’t feel right to you).

Make a list of all this stuff.

 Teachers are useful

Now find a good teacher. Show her/him the list, and create a learning strategy together. What do you start with? At what point do you start working on playing like Eric Clapton?

Figure out a sequence of learning and a loose timeline for when you might be able to accomplish your goals. Base those goals on 15 minutes, 6 days a week. Be realistic. If you’re not realistic, you’ll get discouraged. If you get discouraged, there’s more likelihood that you’ll quit. I don’t want you to quit.

You don’t have to keep going back for lessons if you don’t want to. You can develop the plan with a teacher, and then go home and work it. When you run into a problem, go for another lesson.

Be aware that some teachers don’t want to teach this way. Many require a monthly cheque for 4 lessons. This is reasonable if teaching is their sole means of income. Others teach part-time and are more flexible, so make sure you let whoever you talk to know up front what you’re looking for. Teachers are great for encouragement, and for giving you a sense of how you’re developing. Use them wisely and according to your budget.

For more techniques on idea generation, check out Michael Michalko’s excellent book, Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius.


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