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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 10: Circle of 5ths.

So now you can write a chord progression and place it in a song form. The problem is, you can only do it in the key of C. How do we take all this knowledge and apply it to any other key we want?

Before we answer that question, we need to talk about a little piece of magic called the circle of 5ths.

Circle of 5ths

If you’re feeling queasy, you’re not alone. Musical jargon makes people think theory, and when people think theory, they think “no fun anymore.” But what you need to know is that with each new piece of knowledge you acquire, things get easier. And you become better than most of the other guitar players out there.
And it’s not hard.  Here it is.
 verse-chorus circle of 5, guitar
Just look at the top. The bottom will look scary. There’s a lot of information down there, and there’s something frightening about a lot of information all at once. Let’s make it easy.
Look at the to top. You’ll see a short 5-line staff with a treble clef ( & ). Underneath it is the letter C. Notice there are no sharps (#) or flats (b). This lack of information should make you happy. This is the simplest key there is. We’ll use it a lot.

Clefs

I mentioned the treble clef in part 4. This is a symbol placed at the beginning of a musical staff so that those who care can tell what the note names are. You should probably care. It’s ok if you don’t.
There are a lot of different clefs. Here’s four of them.
 clefs
For what we’re doing, you only need to know the treble clef. The rest is there for those of you who like more information.

Back to the circle

Go clockwise around the circle one step, and you come to a new key, the key of G. Look at the 5-line staff and you’ll see one sharp – F#. To spell the key of G we go in a circle (like we did for the key of C in part 1) from G to G, but now we add an F# to the alphabet.
G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   (G)

Chords in G major

Here’s what the chords in the key of G major look like.
  chords in the key of Gmaj 2
Compare this sequence of chords to the sequence in C major. See any similarities?
The first chord in both keys is a major chord; the second chord is minor. Continue to compare, and you’ll see that all of the chords in both keys relate to each other in this way.  And this is the same in every key!
Just like before we label the chords with roman numerals.
I                    ii             iii             IV             V            vi                viii
G Major  A Minor   B Minor   C Major   D Major   E Minor   F# Diminished
  
The pattern you see there – maj, min, min, maj, maj, min, dim – stays the same for every key.

Finding a key

To find a key, all you need to do is choose a letter. That letter will be the name of the key. Then look on the circle of 5ths diagram. Find that letter, and look at the number of sharps or flats. Then spell the alphabet starting with the letter that you chose, and insert the sharps or flats. Example: key of A = A B C D E F G. Insert the sharps that you see beside “A” on the circle of 5ths and you get: A B C# D E F# G#.
Some of you might be wondering how I know  the names of those sharps.
Check out the next post for that.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 9: Breaking the rules

Here’s a progression that plays by the rules.

 rules - progression
All I did was keep those rules from the last post in front of me and plugged in chords the way the rules say I should. I didn’t pick up the guitar to do this. I didn’t have to.
Then I picked up the guitar and played the progression and it sounded fine. Of course it sounded fine! It’s based on centuries of ingrained listening. Now you can  produce a chord progression quickly any time you want to.
Do this: write three short (4-8 bars) progressions following these rules. Don’t use your guitar; just write them down. After you’re done, play those progressions. What do you think?
Do this at party if there’s a guitar lying around.  Get someone else to play the progressions. Your friends will be amazed.
Of course, you have to have the diagram memorized to do this. But that’s not really a problem. After writing a few progressions while staring at that diagram, you’ll probably have it.
Now break the rules. Do the same thing as above without the rules.
Again, don’t use the guitar to do this. Just treat all the chords like they’re a I chord this time. Let them go anywhere. Freedom! One rule: start on I (C). Just because.
Now you should have a few 4 to 8 bar progressions. Maybe you like them. Maybe you hate them. The good news is that anything can be made better.  The next step is craft. How do you take something that isn’t finished (another way of saying not good enough yet) and finish it.
This is big. But before I talk about that I need to give you the way to take everything that you can do in the key of C, and do it in any key.

 

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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 8: Chord progression patterns

First some review. Remember the seven chords in the key of C from part !? I know. Hard to forget since you’ve been using them consistently for…however long you’ve been looking at this blog. But I need to write them down again because I’m going to do something new with them.

Cmajor          D minor           E minor           F major            G major            A minor             B diminished
    I                    ii                   iii                     IV                     V                      vi                   vii
Roman numerals! I know. Exciting! And it is exciting, because you’ve now risen to a new level of knowledge.
Well, ok, not yet. First you need to understand what these are for.

Roman Numerals?

Don’t ask me why we use roman numerals, and not regular arabic numerals for chords. The answer won’t help (I’ll tell you at the bottom of the page; you’ll see). I’ll tell you why they’re useful, though. They’re useful because they point to a chord’s function.

The function of chords

A chord function is basically what the chord is generally used for. For example, the function of the I chord (the C major chord in the key of C) is to provide a sense of coming home. That’s why it’s almost always at the end of a song. It makes things feel final. The V chord’s function is to create tension, and goes to the I chord most of the time: G (V) to C (I). All the other chords have functions as well, but they aren’t quite as well defined as these two.
 Instead of telling you what those functions are, I’ll show you. They’re basically defined by where the chord is most likely to go.

How to sound like you know what you’re doing

This roman numeral thing has been around for centuries. Some of the most familiar chord progressions you’ve ever heard follow these rules. And you know what they say about rules. You have to know them to break them. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t be showing this to you.
Here are the rules:
The I chord (C major) can go to any chord it wants.
The iii (E minor) chord almost always goes to the vi (A minor) chord.
The vi (A minor) chord almost always goes to the ii (D minor) chord or the IV (Fmajor) chord.
The ii (D minor) and the IV (Fmajor) chord almost always goes to the vii (B diminished) chord or the V (G major) chord, and those two almost always go to the I (C major) chord
If you like diagrams, it looks like this:
iii  –  vi  –  [IV/ii]  –  [V/vii]  –  I      or      E minor – A minor – F major or D Minor – G major or B diminished – Cmajor – anywhere.
As we go forward, I’ll plug the roman numerals onto chords that I use. After a while it’ll make sense. Don’t force it. Unless you’re one of those people who like forcing things, in which case be my guest.
Ok. So now use that song form from the last post and write a chord progression for it. Follow these  roman numeral chord movement rules I just outlined  until you get used to them. Then start breaking those rules, and see what happens.
Then read the next post where I do the same thing.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 7: Process II

Simple is better

In the last post, I gave you six choices for a verse/chorus song form. Let’s use number 1: the 8 bar verse/8bar chorus. Keep in mind that there are lots of variations; we”l look at some of those later. For now, it’s important to keep it simple.

The container

The verse/chorus form (any form really) is a container that we place ideas into. In our case, we’re placing chord progression ideas there.
Take a look at our container below. There are 16 bars to fill up. Before we do that though. we need to talk about some of the things you might be wondering about.

Letters = sections

First, those letters in boxes.  “A” is the verse, and “B” is the chorus. Why not just go with “verse” and “chorus”? It’s a good question. For this example, the letters aren’t really necessary, but you’ll find them useful for describing other types of forms. For instance, the standard AABA form.
Aside from that, letters allow you to think more abstractly than “verse” and “chorus.” Verse and chorus are distinct things that go in particular places. “A” and “B” are just…letters. We can put them together any way we like. How about ABAABA? You don’t normally see verse and chorus in an ABAABA sequence.
And yes, you can put “verse” and “chorus” together in any way you want, too. But certain words can send our brains down well-worn paths without our awareness. For songwriters, verse and chorus are two of those words.
Think in letters, and you can create possibilities you may not have thought about.

Double bar lines

Next, the two vertical lines at the end of the second staff. Those are called double barlines, and they’re used to signal the end of a major section and the beginning of another. The end of the fourth staff has a different type of double barline, one line being thicker than the other. This type of barline is always at the end of a song.
 verse-chorus

 Filling it up

Ok. You need a strategy. Is the verse going to have a lot of chords, or just a few? Will there be one chord every bar, or one chord every two bars?  Maybe you want two chords in every bar. Identifying the possibilities like this is the first step.
But that’s only one possibility. Another big one is chord quality (meaning major chord or minor chord). Will you use mostly major chords in the verse, or minor chords? Will there be more of one than the other?

Contrast

I’ve only mentioned the verse so far. Define clearly what you want here, because the chorus should contrast it somehow. If you start the verse with a major chord, you might want to start the chorus with a minor chord. If there aren’t many chords in the verse (which means it has a slow harmonic rhythm) you may want the chorus to be busier (fast harmonic rhythm).
Keep this in mind as a useful technique. Imagining the different ways you might  contrast  the verse and chorus increases possibilities. This produces more ideas.
The next post is for all you people who aren’t comfortable with the do-whatever-you-want approach to choosing chords. There are actually chord progression patterns that have been used for centuries. I’m going to tell you what they are.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 6: Song Form

The Forms

There are three major song forms:
1. Verse/Chorus form
2. AABA form
3. AAA form
Verse/Chorus is what most people know best, and the only one I’m going to deal with. Sheila Davis has a series of books on songwriting. The Songwriters Idea Book has an overview of all three. And there are resources all over the web.
All I want to do is give you a proven form you can start with. You can use what I give you here for any form.
 Verse/Chorus form is any song that has a section that gets repeated at regular intervals. Think every Beatles song. Don’t think rap.
The chorus is the most important part (that part that gets repeated). It’s the part that you remember the easiest. This is partly because it gets repeated, and partly because it usually because it has the most distinctive hook. It also contains the title of the song, and the main message.

Hook

That musical idea that (hopefully for the songwriter) you can’t forget.
The story of the song is told in the verse. Sometimes there are two verses before the first chorus, sometimes one. You decide.

Length matters

What you need to know right now is how long the verse is, and how long the chorus is.  And guess what? There’s no solid answer. The verse can be between 8 and 16 bars. The chorus is usually between 8 and 12 bars. And there are variations (we’ll talk about those later).
Here’s what you do to get started.

So many choices

Write down the possible lengths for the verse. Like I said, it can be between 8 and 16 bars. Let’s narrow that down and say that the number of bars has to be in multiples of two. That gives us the possibilities of 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 bars. You rarely see 10 or 14 bar verses, so let’s get rid of those.
So now we have 8, 12, and 16 bars as choices. And yes, you will find songs with 10 bars, 14 bars, 9, 11, 13 bars.  I’m dealing with the most common possibilities so you can get started. Too many choices causes inaction. Start simple.
Using the same approach, the chorus will be 8, 10, or 12. Get rid of 10 and you’ve got 8 or 12.

Making it manageable

Now we figure out combinations of verse length with chorus length (I know this is getting complicated, Stick with me here).
1. Verse – 8 bars; Chorus – 8 bars.
2. Verse – 12 bars; Chorus – 8 bars.
3. Verse – 16 bars; Chorus – 8 bars.
4. Verse – 8 bars; Chorus – 12 bars.
5. Verse – 12 bars; Chorus – 12 bars.
6. Verse – 16 bars; Chorus – 12 bars.
Six choices isn’t too bad, but it can still feel overwhelming. Choose one to use each week. In less than two months, you’ll have experimented with all six choices.
Next post: back to process. This time we’ll use more than 2 chords. And more than 2 bars. It’ll be awesome.
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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.

Discipline

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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