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

Rhythm might be the most important thing in music. Because of this it’s a good idea be able to understand it when you see it on the page. Seeing rhythm on the page is different than seeing notes.


A note on the page is information (where to put your finger(s)). Rhythm on the page tells you what to do with that note.
This means that you need to learn some notation. Notation allows you to read music. It also gives you the ability to take what’s in your head and put it on paper.


Musical symbols used to communicate musical ideas.
Just writing that down excites me. It’s just so cool to be able to give people your ideas on paper. Having to teach people your songs takes longer, and people forget stuff. Having a written version means you have something you know works.

Journal time

Writing down rhythms gives you an idea of the kinds of rhythms you like to use.  Different rhythms create different emotions. Writing down rhythms and putting your emotional reaction beside them helps you understand your musical self. It’s like journaling.
The idea of notation makes some people nervous. The whole subject sounds like it might be really complex. It can be when it’s used at a high level. But we’re not using it at that level.
As a matter of fact, we’ve already been using notation. Remember hash marks?


Hash marks are a kind of incomplete rhythmic notation. To make them complete, we add stems to them.
 hash with stems


Stems are lines that are attached to hash marks or notes. Think of the hash mark or note as the flower and the stem as a…stem.
Those hash marks with stems (the ones above) have a name. They’re called quarter notes. A quarter note takes up one beat in a bar. If there are 4 beats in a bar, then there are 4 quarter notes. You can have bars with an number of beats, but we’re
sticking with 4 right now.
 Which brings us to the image directly above. That’s called a time signature. All that does is tell us how many beats are in the bar (the top number), and what kind of note takes the beat (the bottom number). If the bottom number is a four, then a quarter note is the beat.
Now look at this.
You might be confused.
You can see the time signature at the right, in front of the treble clef. I just said that the top 4 tells us that there are 4 beats in the bar, but I’ve used 8 notes. I’ve also used a horizontal line to connect the stems to create four groups of two notes each. What the hell?
Let me explain.
In the world of rhythm, some notes are longer than others. To communicate that, we need to use different symbols for each type of duration. There are a lot of different durations. We’ve looked at quarter notes, and we’ve looked at the ones above that are giving you trouble.
Those are called eighth notes.
Quarter notes. Eighth notes. If you remember your math, you’ll know that 1/8 is half the size of 1/4. If you don’t remember your math it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that eighth notes take half the amount of time as quarter notes. Or  think eighth notes are twice as fast as quarter notes.
So. If an 1/8 note is twice as fast as a 1/4 note, then that means that we have to play two 1/8 notes in the same time as one 1/4 note. Put another way, two 1/8 notes fit into the same amount of time as one quarter note. Below is an image of that relationship.
And here’s what it would look like in actual music.
If this is confusing you, don’t worry. This isn’t the last time that I’ll use this technology. In fact, I’ll be using it all the time, so you’ll see it in a lot of different ways. Hang in there. Or, as always, email me, and I’ll try to help.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, Part 13: Order of flats

Here’s the acronym for the order of flats. Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father.

Notice that it’s the acronym for the order of sharps backwards.

To be totally clear, the order of flats is: Bb    Eb    Ab    Db    Gb    Cb    Fb
To figure out how many flats are in each flat key, let’s look at the circle of 5ths again.

circle of 5, guitar



If you go counterclockwise around the circle and you get the flat keys – F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb.

Note that Db can also be C#, Gb can be F#, and Cb can be B. Please don’t worry about this right now. If I ever talk about songs in the key of C# or Db, I’ll explain then. It’s not that complicated, but it would be a distraction right now.
What we need to focus on now is the order of flats. This will allow you to write chord progressions in flat keys.
Here’s the order of flats on the staff…
order of flats
…and here it is expanded.
order of flats blownup
Here are the steps from part 11, this time for flats.
Step 1: Choose a letter from the musical alphabet. I’m  choosing Ab. We’re only dealing with major keys so far, so that means I’m dealing with the key of Ab major. How many flats in the key of Ab major? Find “Ab” on the circle of 5ths. Beside it, you’ll see 4 flats on the 5-line staff. What are the letter-names of these flats?
Step 2: To answer that, look at the acronym for the order of flats above. Go through the order of flats to the fourth letter (because we have 4 flats in this key). That gives you Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db (Battle Ends And Down) This means that the key of Ab major scale has the following notes: Ab   Bb   C   Db   Eb   F   G.
Step 3: Figure out the chords in the key of Ab major. Remember the order of major and minor chords? Here they are again:
I Major                 ii Minor               iii Minor                 IV Major                V Major             vi Minor                  viii Diminished
Now replace the roman numerals with the Ab major scale.
Ab Major     Bb Minor     Cb Minor      D Major       Eb Major     F Minor      G Diminished
 Now you know all the chords in the key of Ab major. You may be wondering how to play an Ab major chord on the guitar. There are plenty of ways as it turns out, but the most popular way is with a barre chord. Here’s a site that helps with that.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, Part 12: Interlude

Music Theory

So at this point you’re thinking, “I don’t know anything about music theory, but this kind of smells like it. Key signatures, sharps, flats, roman numerals. Please tell me we’re not doing music theory.”

We’re not doing music theory.
We’re looking at the building blocks of music. The stuff you need if you want go as far as you can. You may not want to go that far. I get it. One of my students once said to me, “You’ve taken something I love and made it into homework.” He didn’t like practicing.
He did like being able to play solos, write songs, and play different styles, though. He wasn’t doing any of that before he started doing homework.
But I get it. It feels like work. I want to convince you that it’s worth it. I can’t. But I can try to make it easier.
So no new information. Instead, here’s a list of all the terms I’ve introduced so far. Presumably, you didn’t know some of this before you started reading this blog. Now you do. Congratulations. You’re a better musician than you were before.


 A unit  of 4 beats.

Bar lines

The short, vertical lines on the staff that visually create the bars. Bars exist between two bar lines.

Function (as in chord function)

This refers to what a chord is used for, whether for ending a song, or a verse, or a chorus (like the I chord) or to create tension (like the V chord). The ii chord and the IV chord have the function of usually going to the V chord.
These are conventional functions. There are exceptions to everything. Don’t be a slave to convention.

Harmonic rhythm

Refers to how many chords you have in a bar and where those chords are placed.


That musical idea that you can’t forget. If you can’t remember a song, it’s usually because there’s no hook.

Hash marks

Bold diagonal lines that show the beats in the bar.


A staff is the 5 horizontal lines that musical notes are placed on. Stave is plural for staff.


Sheet music that musicians read from. A part is specific to the player (bass part, guitar part, etc.).

Lead sheet

A copy of the whole song that usually has melody, chords and lyrics.


A series of 7 notes. Up to now, we’ve only looked at the major scale.


A collection of 7 notes, with one note being more important than the others. If you think this sounds like the description of a scale, you’d be right. But key is different than scale, because it tells you what the sharps and/or flats in any scale.
Think of the scale as something that can only be made once you know the key. The key is like the parent, the scale is the child.
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How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 11: The Order of Sharps

Acronyms are fun

This is actually pretty easy (I mean learning and remembering the order of sharps). There’s an acronym for learning the order of sharps and another one for the order of flats. Here’s the acronym for order of sharps:

Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.
And here’s the first letter of each word with a sharp in front of it: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#.
Here’s what that order looks like on the staff.
 c# major
Tells you nothing, right? The way the sharps are all scrunched up makes it impossible to know which one is G#, which is A#, etc. But look below and it gets a lot clearer.
 order of sharps stretch
Makes it a lot easier when you spread them out. Notice how the order lines up with the acronym I showed you (Father Charles…). Now you know which letter goes with each sharp on the staff. For instance, you can see that the 5th sharp is A#.
One more thing: the two horizontal lines along with the two vertical lines in the sharp symbol (#) makes a box where each note lives. The F# (first sharp in the order) is on the top line. You can see how that line is in the box. the C# is on the second space from the top, etc. This is good way to learn where some of the notes on the staff are.

Circle of 5ths revisited

So now when you look at the circle of 5ths again, you can see that each time you go one step around the circle clockwise you add a sharp. Look at the 5-line staff beside the letter.
 circle of 5, guitar

Writing a song in any key

You’ve been really patient. You’ve absorbed a lot. Now let’s put this new technology to work. Remember, we want to be able to write a song using the chords in any key. For that, you need to know the names of the chords in any key. Here’s how you do this.
Step 1: Choose a letter from the musical alphabet. I’m going to choose A. We’re only dealing with major keys so far, so that means I’m dealing with the key of A major. How many sharps in the key of A major? Find “A” on the circle of 5ths. Beside it, you’ll see 3 sharps on the 5-line staff. What are the names of those sharps?
Step 2: To answer that, look at the acronym for the order of sharps at the top of the page. Go through the order of sharps to the third letter (because we have 3 sharps in this key). That gives you F#, C#, G# (Father Charles Goes). This means that the  A major scale has the following notes: A   B   C#   D   E   F#   G#. None of the the other notes gets a sharp.
Step 3: Figure out the chords in the key of A major. Remember the order of major and minor chords? Goes like this:
I Major                 ii Minor               iii Minor                 IV Major                V Major             vi Minor                  viii Diminished
Now replace the roman numerals with the A major scale.
A Major     B Minor     C# Minor      D Major       E Major     F# Minor      G# Diminished
See how I stuck the F#, the C#, and the G# in there just like in the A major scale? Now you know all the chords in the key of A major.
In every key the order of major and minor chords will be the same, just like above: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished.


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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 of the circle. 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.
You’ll see a short 5-line staff at the top with a treble clef ( & ). Above 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.


I mentioned the treble clef in part 4 of this songwriting series. 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.
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 of this series) 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 Part 11 for that.
In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out this great post about the circle of 5ths from Musical-U.
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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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