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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.

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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?

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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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How to make chord progressions a pro would love, Part 14: Rhythm II

Before we get to using those quarter notes and eighth note rhythms, I want to briefly review harmonic rhythm. I mentioned it a while ago, but we haven’t really put it to use. This is a good time to do that.

Progression in G major

Let’s take a look at a progression in the key of G. The chords for the key of G are…


G          Am          Bm          C           D           Em           F#dim
And here’s a progression using some of them.


Gmaj-8 bars



That double bar-line with the two dots at the end of the second line? That’s called a repeat sign. It means that you need to go back to the beginning and repeat the 8 bars.

Changing harmonic rhythm

Now let’s change the rhythm. I’ll do the harmonic rhythm first. Then, in the next post, the strumming rhythm.
The progression below takes the original progression and places some of  the chords on different beats. The original progression has a chord on beat 1 of every bar. The new progression takes the Em and puts it on beat 4 of bar 1; Am goes to beat 2 of bar 3; and the D chord is placed on beat 4 of bar 7.
Gmaj-8bars harmonic rhythm
Of course this is only one idea. Try experimenting with other possibilities.


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Craft and weirdness

Craft involves working with music to develop skill. Working with music helps you to understand the materials (chords, rhythms, etc.) you’re working with. Developing craft means developing both skill and a deep understanding of materials.


How do you do this?


One way is to consider how the music supports the lyrics. Doing something unpredictable might support it. Not playing might support it.  Using a different harmonic rhythm or different strumming rhythms than the ones you’ve been using might support it. Adding a chord in the second verse that wasn’t there in the first verse might support it.



All of these things involve doing something unexpected. Doing something unexpected often feels weird.


Think of a song you’re writing. Where can you do something unexpected? Anywhere, really, but where will it be effective? Try things in different places and see how it feels. Write those things down. After a while you get a feel for what works and your writing gets more interesting.


Be patient. In the short term, it feels like you’re getting worse. In the long term, you’re getting better than most other people, because most other people can’t put up with the short term. Try it and after a while the obvious weirdness gets more subtle. Listeners don’t notice it; they just notice that there’s something interesting about your stuff.


If you’re patient, if you really listen to what you’re writing, if you try different things, you will make better songs. It will take longer. You’ll have fewer songs. But it’s better to have one great song instead of ten crappy ones.

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More on craft

In a previous post on craft (back on April 7), I talked about the things you could do with two chords. To repeat:


“Experimenting with chord relationships is part of the craft process. Why does a chord sound better going to one chord more than another? Why does a chord relationship work in one song, but not in another?


Answers to these questions don’t emerge right away. You might have to wait for the next song. Or you might never get an answer. Or the “answer” might come in the form of an insight that has nothing to do with the question. Just ask the questions. Things will happen. You’ll get better.”


The next chord

Continuing the process into the third chord brings up other questions. These questions are different from person to person, but they usually sound something like: Does chord 1 sound better going to chord 2 or chord 3? Do different rhythms sound better between different chords? Many of these questions are unconscious. Try to be aware of them.


Rhythm experimenting

Once you’ve put the chords where you want them, try experimenting with harmonic rhythm (where you’re placing the chords) and strumming rhythms. This might change the progression, or just where you decide to place a chord. It might not change anything.Whatever happens, this process is important if you want to effectively support the words, and write the best song that you can.


A lot of songwriters don’t think about this. Important words come in unexpected places sometimes. A change of chord at those points can make all the difference. Or not. You really have to try things out.


You are not your work

Craft separates you from your work so that you can clearly see what the music needs. Not what you need. What the music needs. Make the separation. You are not the thing you make. But you will still have emotional responsesto that thing, and to your inability to make it perfect.


Nothing is perfect.But everything can be made better.


And yes, craft makes it better.

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