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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.
http://people.virginia.edu/~pdr4h/musicpaper/

Staves

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

Parts

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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The secret to making chord progressions a pro would love, Part 1

 Step 1

Be able to recite a 7 note alphabet from A to G.

 

Step 2

Be able to recite that same alphabet, but start on C.

 

What? C to G?

This was my dilemma. Everyone knows that the alphabet has 26 letters. Fine. I understood that. Now I was being told that there was only seven. Well, ok. That seemed fine, too, but the thing that really screwed me up was arbitrarily treating any one of those letters as the first letter in the alphabet, and then going through the whole alphabet by going to A once you got past G.

I know! It doesn’t sound that hard. It was that hard. I’m not sure why anymore, but it was.

Think of going in a circle from C to C – CDEFGAB/C, I was told. Remember, there are only 7 letters in this alphabet, I was told. Once you get to G (CDEFG), add the rest of the alphabet  – A and B. Now you have the 7 letters of the alphabet. Then add a C at the end to complete the circle. I wanted to cry.

It seems obvious now, but it took about a week before it made sense to me. Sometimes your brain gets stuck.

Scale

A scale is a series of notes. It could be 5, 6, 7, or more notes.  I learned the most common scale first – the 7 note major scale.

Know what we call that C to C order? The C major scale. And we use those 7 letters/notes to make 7 different chords, and those 7 chords just happen to be in the same key. They were so excited to tell me this. I stared at them uncomprehendingly.

I don’t remember them checking to see if I understood what the hell they were talking about…

I thought that they meant that combining all 7 notes 7 different times would somehow result in 7 different chords. That’s not possible. You’d just get 7 of the same thing.

I was getting ahead of myself. They kept talking and started making sense. You don’t use all 7 notes. You use 3 different notes from the scale. And the name for a 3 note chord is a triad. Tri = 3. Oh my god, it was starting to make sense!

 

Here are the chords in the key of C with the C major scale below it:

C major scale chords

 

These are the first seven chords I learned, and I have to say, they’re pretty useful. Except for that Bdim7 chord. That doesn’t get much attention.

(Before I go any further: There are clearly more than 3 notes in all of those chords. But here’s the thing: some of the notes get repeated. So the C chord up there has 2 Cs, 2 Es, and 1 G – CEG. Three different note names on 5 different strings.)

 

Chord progressions (otherwise known as a series of chords)

“Now the fun part,” they said. “We’re going to put the chords together in a progression and they’’ll sound great!” I didn’t believe them. I was done and I didn’t really care about the guitar anymore. I just wanted to home with my inadequate brain that was full and sore.

But I decided to try. What choice did I have? My dad wasn’t going to be picking me up for about ½ an hour anyway. I wasn’t the kind of kid that just refused to do what adults told me to do.

They told me to take those 7 chords and play them in random order. D minor to G major to A minor to E minor to C major to F major to B diminished, whatever. It didn’t matter. They didn’t care.

What I heard when I did this were chord progressions that I’d heard people play before. It was really cool. My teacher sat there looking smug. That’s because this has been around for centuries, he said. You’ve just tapped into the history of music in a powerful way. Yes, he said that. I’m not making it up.

So I went home and played around with it. I made some chord progressions with 3 chords by just randomly choosing three from the chords in the key of C. I didn’t even play them at first; I just wrote three of them on a piece of paper in different orders and then played them. It was like I had a different song with every order. A different kind of not so good song. But it was a start. I was ridiculously excited.

Then I tried this with four chords, then five. I went kind of crazy and did some with six. But the more chords I used, the less focused the progressions seemed to become. There was a meandering, lost kind of feeling. Then I discovered harmonic rhythm.

What’s harmonic rhythm? Next post.

 

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Becoming a musician

Just imagine…

At some point I started imagining myself as a working musician. Every day I got up, and imagined myself working on new ways of putting chords together, new ways of putting melody with words.  Imaginary songs would get written. After a while, these things started happening for real. I actually started writing songs.

Then I imagined myself singing them for other people. I almost puked.

That can be your reality. The music writing part, not the puking. But maybe the puking, too.

 

No illusions

Somehow, I became a musician. I’m not sure how. I don’t have the personality to do it, really. I don’t like talking about myself. I don’t like talking about what I do. I do, however, like working really hard. And I like being by myself.

So I worked the last two attributes, until the other two started showing up. It wasn’t easy. Nothing worth doing is, really.

But here’s the thing.

Learning this stuff was interesting and fun, and at the end of the process I could play the guitar and write songs.  And if you do anything long enough, things start happening. Opportunities to make music just sort of pop up.

 

 

 

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