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This can turn into a huge topic. I’ll try to keep it as simple and clear as possible.

Typical song form involves verses, choruses, sometimes (but not always) a bridge. You know how this goes:


  • Verse – chorus – verse – bridge – chorus – verse – chorus
  • Verse – verse – chorus – verse – chorus


There are variations (sometimes there’s a solo), but this is pretty much it. It’s no wonder song-writers feel like they repeat themselves from time to time.



Trying to change this paradigm can create confusion and/or claims of pretension. A lot of people don’t want anything other than what they’re used to, and that makes it difficult to offer something new.

But you don’t have to go crazy and add two solo sections and three interludes. All you have to do is make subtle changes in the existing structure.

For example, verse 1 might have a progression that ends on a C chord. If that’s the case, end the second verse on an Amin chord (or something else that works for you). Sing one of the choruses a cappella (not that subtle, but effective).

Other things you can do to vary things from verse to verse, or chorus to chorus;

  • change strumming patterns
  • make small changes to the melody
  • add/drop harmony vocals in the chorus
  • drop the bass in one of the verses


There are often things you can do that relate to the particular song that you’re working on. Stay open to changing things from verse to verse, and these things will present themselves.

An example

Here’s an example of a sightly less conventional form than the ones above:


Intro – A1 – A2 – B – solo – C – A1 – A3 – outro


A1, A2, and A3 represent verses; B represents the chorus; C represents an interlude or a bridge or a completely new section (a section is longer than an interlude or a bridge). The numbers after the A’s indicate that a different musical idea has been added to the verse.



Notice that the chorus happens only once. This subverts expectation; listeners will be waiting for another chorus since 99% of the time they get one. This could be a strength or a weakness depending on how you write the rest of the piece.

Something needs to repeat. There’s only one B section, and one C section. The A sections repeat but are different every time. Can the intro and the outro be the same?

This issue of repetition needs to be considered any time you write a song, but especially when repetition isn’t built in. Thinking deeply about these things is one of the things makes song-writing so cool.


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Root movement 2

You can use any note in the chord as a bass note.

For instance, a D major chord is made of three notes: D, F#, and A. So you can make three different D major chords – D (root in the bass), D/F# (3rd in the bass), and D/A (5th in the bass). The name of the chord is always on the left side of the slash; the bass note is always on the right.

In order to identify the notes in a chord, you need to know your key signatures. Here’s a couple of links to  posts that will help with that.


Progression variety

This idea gives you more possibilities for different root movement in conventional progressions.


So for the following progression…


G – C – Amin – Emin – D – G


…you could have G – C/G – Amin – E/B – D/A – G


The root movement for the first version is simply the roots: G – C – A – E – D – G. Nothing wrong with that. But the next time through the progression you could use the second version, whose root movement is: G – G – A – B – A – G.

The second one is more like a scale. This isn’t necessarily more interesting than one that jumps around more. It just expresses something different (more grounded, relaxed, solid, directed; choose your adjective).

This might be closer to what your lyrics are expressing. This technique gives you a resource for supporting those lyrics more effectively, and for creating variety.





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Progressions by root motion

The root of the chord is simply the note that names the chord. So the root of a C major chord is C, the root of an E minor chord is E, etc.

A lot of people think that the root is the same as the bass. It’s often found in the bass, but there are plenty of exceptions. The D/F# chord is a common example. D is the root of that chord; F# is in the bass.


Common root movement in chord progressions

Every standard chord progression uses root movement down a fifth. Here are the main examples of this type of movement:

  • I – IV (C – F)
  • V – I (G – C)
  • ii – V (Dmin – G)


Of course, this isn’t the only type of root movement in a standard progression, but it’s always there somewhere. If you’re trying to get away from standard sounding progressions, see if you can avoid it.

By the way, I – IV and V – I are the same thing if they’re used outside of an actual progression. In a larger progression, they become different things. Like, say…

I – IV – vi – ii – V – I (C – F – Amin – Dmin – G – C)


Every possible root movement

Here are all the possible root movements down:

  • minor 2nd (Amin – Bb)
  • major 2nd (C – Dmin – Emin)
  • minor 3rd (Amin – C; Emin – G)
  • major third (C – E)
  • perfect 4th (C – F)
  • augmented 4th (C – F#)
  • perfect 5th (F – C)
  • minor 6th (E – C)
  • major 6th (C – Amin; G – Emin)
  • minor 7th (Emin – Dmin – C)
  • major 7th (Bb – Amin)


You probably noticed that the last five moves (perfect 5th to major 7th) reverse the first five. And just to be clear: the bracketed chords are just examples; use whatever chords you want.



Experiment by inventing progressions that use a particular root movement. Try making something with only major second root movements. How long can you make it before you feel the need to introduce another type of root movement?

Or you could decide to make an entire progression using a combination of minor third and perfect fourth root movements.

Or maybe something like this:


Dmin     –           F         –       Eb       –       Cmin       –         B         –           D

Counting up the scale from one root to the next: Dmin to F is a min 3rd; F to Eb is a min 7th; Eb to Cmin is a maj 6th; Cmin to B is a maj 7th; and B to D is a min 3rd.


You might want it to sound more conventional. If you do, then add some root movements that go up or down a fifth.


Dmin       –         F         –       Eb          –           Abmin         –       C       –        Bb         –         F


The Eb to Abmin progression goes down a fifth, and the Bb to F progression goes up a fifth.


All of these examples use chords with the root in the bass. In the next post, I’ll talk about using other notes in the bass.

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Implied key areas

An implied key area is one where there’s no resolution to the I chord. Resolution to the I chord is standard in every pop or folk song, and takes a few different forms:


  • IV – V – I (F – G – C)
  • ii – V – I (Dmin – G – C)
  • IV – I (F – C)


My posts on chord patterns and cadential patterns talk about this in more detail.



You can avoid the obvious by going to the vi chord instead of I. Or you could try going to the iii chord. These are standard moves, but they can be effective.

Avoid the I chord by taking a chord pattern and adding new chords to that pattern.

Here are some techniques that work…


  • Go up a half step from a minor chord to a major chord (i.e. Amin – Bb)
  • Go up a third from major chord to major chord (B – D)
  • Go down a third from major chord to major chord (C – A)


…and here’s a standard chord pattern:


I – vi – ii – V – I (C – A minor – D minor – G – C)


A new progression made by applying the above techniques to the chord pattern could look like this:


I – vi – bVII – ii – V – III – I (C – Amin – Bb – Dmin – G – E – C)


Barre chords are helpful for playing this type of progression. Here are a couple of useful links if you’re not familiar with these.


Making changes

I wrote the above progression away from the guitar. When I played it, I noticed a couple of ways to make it better. The ii – V – III – I (Dmin – G – E – C) part of the progression seemed awkward.

I played it a few times, and realized the move from Dmin to G bothered me. I changed the G to Gmin and that seemed to work better. Then, instead of going to the I chord (C) after the E chord, I went to Amin.

The final progression became:


I – vi – bVII – ii – v – III – vi (C – Amin – Bb – Dmin – Gmin – E – Amin)


Of course, these are just personal preference. The original works. I just didn’t like it as much.


 Changing habits

The point of making chord progressions away from the guitar is to avoid having your habits and limitations at the guitar dictate what you write. Working this way gives you a greater chance of coming up with stuff you probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.


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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.

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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.





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