Insert your custom message here. close ×

Key areas

Writing music gets stale when you start repeating the same things from song to song. The way we use key areas is one of those things.

Wayne Naus’s excellent book Beyond Functional Harmony shows how to go beyond the conventional way that we use key areas. In the next few posts, I’ll use that book as a springboard.


Established key areas

When people write pop or folk songs, they generally stay in the same key. Over time, this creates a sense of predictability. Within a key, chords gravitate to other chords (IV goes to V; V goes to I, etc.)

You might remember this chart from an earlier post.

iii goes to vi goes to ii or IV goes to V or vii goes to I


Here’s the link if you want more detail.


Even though this gravitational pull between chords is real, it doesn’t totally control how we write chord progressions. I think you’ll find that you can go from any chord to any other chord if you’re using chords that are all in the same key.

Try it. Take all the chords in the key of C – C, Dmin, Emin, F, G, Amin, Bdim – and randomly go from chord to chord.


Leaving the key

After you’ve randomly gone from chord to chord in the key of C for a while, throw in a D major chord and pay attention to your reaction. Does it sound strange, out of place? It should. The Dmajor chord is made from three pitches: D, F#, and A. There’s no F# in the key of C, so we find ourselves suddenly removed from that key.

It’s a dramatic move and one that you want to use thoughtfully (i.e. don’t just throw it in anywhere).



Now take the chords in other keys and superimpose them on the key of C. For example the key of D has the following chords:

D – Emin – F#min – G – A – Bmin – C#dim

There are two common chords between the key of C and the key of D – G and Emin. But the rest of the D major chords – D, F#min, A, Bmin, and C#dim – aren’t in the key of C.

Throw an F#min chord into a progression in the key of C. Do the same with the other chords from the key of D major that aren’t in the key of C. To get the full effect, you need to play at least five chords in C before you switch to the key of D.

You’ll develop a stronger sense of key areas doing this, and you might discover/invent some progressions that you like.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus


A lot of song-writers don’t really think consciously about melody. By which I mean they don’t think about how melody relates to their lyrics. They just start singing…

There’s a lot to think about here, but I only want to mention a couple of things.


 Things to consider

In any song you sing, be aware of:

  • Rhythm: is there a variety of note durations or is it mainly the same? A lot of songs have consistent note durations (1/4 note or 1/8 note usually) with a long note at the end of a phrase. Varying this pattern will stretch your ear.
  • Note choices: are the notes in the melody mostly notes that are in the chord? Are there any tension tones (notes that are a half-step above or below a chord tone). What about passing tones (notes that move between chord tones).


Sensitivity training

Again, these are basic things to be aware of. You don’t have be obsessive about how many chord tones you have in your melody. But just knowing the difference between chord tones and tension tones makes you more sensitive to the way that melody works. This will change the way you hear and write melody.

Here’s a useful exercise: strum a chord and sing only the notes that are in the chord (play each note individually first so your ear knows what they are). Can you make an interesting melody just with chord tones?

Now add some tension tones, moving away from chord tones by a half-step and then back. Then sing the notes between the chord tones.


This exercise sensitizes your ear to a wider range of possibilities for making melodies.

You don’t have to use what you come up with. Just do the exercise, then write stuff the way you normally do. The range of what you consider natural might expand.





Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Predictability: harmonic rhythm 2

The last post talked about conventions regarding chord placement on strong and weak beats. Taking chords that normally go in one place, and putting them in a different place is one way to be unpredictable.

Another way is to use syncopation.

You can put chords anywhere you want. The two most common ways to write chord progressions are:


  1. One chord per bar
  2. Two chords per bar (chord on beat 1 and chord on beat 3)


Why restrict yourself to beats 1 and 3? Instead of putting the chord on beat 1, try putting it on beat 4 and holding it into beat 1 (strictly speaking, this isn’t syncopation, which occurs off the beat; but it feels syncopated, given psychoacoustic reasons that I won’t go into here. Please trust me on this).


Here’s the common way…

chord on beat 1


…and here’s the way I’m talking about.

chord on beat 4 - 2


Set up the second example by playing the first example first. That way the listener thinks they’ll get the first example again.


More complexity

In this example we get a syncopated rhythmic profile that’s more complex.

syncopated chords


Here’s a pretty decent site for practicing eighth note syncopation.

And here’s one of my posts that explains how to count eighth notes.


Taking a considered approach to rhythm when you write chord progressions gives you almost limitless possibilities for expression. Simply strumming chords while you sing means that whatever you write will be based on habitual body movements that you’ve most likely used in other songs.

That’s fine if you want everything you write to sound the same…


Matching rhythm and emotion

It’s a lot more difficult to find rhythmic patterns that match the emotional life of your lyrics. I know this. But ultimately, it’s more satisfying as a process, and it eventually produces better work.

I say eventually because at first it may seem forced. But it doesn’t have to be ridiculously complex. One syncopation on the off-beat of any beat in the bar can sound perfect.

Experiment by placing chords on the off-beat of each beat (beat one only, then beat two only, etc.). Each syncopation produces a different emotional reaction.

The following example shows the same simple progression played four different ways using syncopation on each of the beats.

sync on each beat


Start this way and your ear will start to hear more interesting patterns.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Predictability: harmonic rhythm

I wrote a post about this a while ago :


But we could use more detail.


Strong/weak beats

Conventionally, strong and weak beats are distributed as follows:


  • Beat 1 – strong
  • Beat 2 – weak, but stronger than beat 4
  • Beat 3 – strong, but not as strong as beat 1
  • Beat 4 – weak


When there are only two chords in a bar (which is usually the case), beat 1 is strong and beat 3 is weak.


Strong/weak chords


  • The I chord is the strongest, and is normally on the strongest beat.
  • The V chord is weakest and is usually on a weak beat
  • The IV chord and the ii chord are often on a strong beat, since they’re usually in front of the V chord, which is on a weak beat
  • The iii chord and the vi chord can be found on either strong or weak beats


Here are two examples, one correct and one incorrect.

strong:weak correct

Notice how the V chord (G7) is on the weak beat (beat 3), and the ii chord (Dmin) is on the strong beat. The I chord is on the strong beat twice in this example.


In the next example, the V chord is on beat I and the I chord is on beat 3. Conventionally speaking, this is backwards

strong:weak wrong


Right and wrong

Right and wrong don’t really apply here. You want to be sensitive to convention, but you don’t want to be a slave to it.

Play the “correct” progression above, followed by the “incorrect” progression. Which one feels more normal? Which one feels best?

Look at some songs that you know. Which ones conform to the conventions I’ve been talking about? Which ones don’t?


Look at the songs you write. Again, which ones conform and which ones don’t?

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Predictability: harmonic and melodic phrases

The harmonic phrase (the length of a chord pattern) follows the melodic phrase. And the melodic phrase is based on the need to breathe. In other words, you can only sing as long as you have air in your lungs, and the way that you use chord progressions should support that.


Phrase length

The conventional phrase length – melodic or harmonic – is 2, 4, 8, or 12 bars. These are predictable phrase lengths that we hear all the time, and they’re identified by chords that provide a cadence at the end of the phrase.

Here’s an example of a 2 bar harmonic phrase followed by a 4 bar harmonic phrase.


2 bar phrase:4 bar phrase


And here’s the same two harmonic phrases with melody.


2 bar phrase melody


You can tell where the phrase ends by where you find the long note (the second bar and the last bar). The long note is a way of marking the location of the breath. There are always exceptions, but this is fairly standard.



Knowing these conventions allows you to step outside of them. Extending or shortening phrases (say from 2 bars to 3 bars, or 8 bars to 7) can be a nice way to create variation and novelty.

The 3 bar phrase is easy to sing without taking more than one breath; the 7 bar phrase is a bit trickier and may require two breaths. This makes it sound less natural, but you may like the effect. It can provide a sense of urgency.

You can also try extending the vocal line past the cadence. So if the song cadences after 2 bars, write a vocal line that lasts 3 bars. Here’s the 2 bar phrase above extended into the third bar. We expect it to end on the downbeat, but it continues to beat 3.


2 bar phrase extended


Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Predictability: non-cadential chords

How do you end a song with a non-standard cadence (and by non-standard cadence, I mean ending on a weird-sounding chord)?

Try these ideas. You might like them. You might hate them. Gotta try them to know.


Repeat non-cadential chord a few times.


This one is easy. Just play anything other than the I chord as the final chord. This can be any chord at all, either in the key or not.

The execution can be tricky. Since everyone is expecting the I chord, the non-cadential chord will sound wrong. Play it a second time and now they know you meant it. The third time sounds normal.


Trailing off


Play the final, weird-sounding chord and don’t stop playing it. As you continue to play it, gradually get quieter. Arpeggiate the chord as it fades away.


Full stop


Just stop with confidence on the non-cadential chord. This doesn’t always work. The song has to do something to set it up. Gradually getting slower can help, as can playing and holding the chord.

This last one is more difficult because, unlike the first two, it doesn’t hold the chord for very long. Continuing to play the chord eventually makes it sound normal because after a while, you forget what came before it.



I’ve made an effort to not explain too much; it’s important to experiment with this kind of thing. Some non-cadential chords work for some songs, but not others, and you have to do some work to figure it out.

You may find that they work in the middle of songs, too…

Doing this work will stretch your ear. It makes chords that never sounded like they could work, suddenly become a resource for making more interesting songs.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

1 2