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Algorithmic songwriting

Try applying algorithm to chord progressions if you feel like you can’t find something new.

This can be really simple or really complex.



Use every third chord in the key.

If you’re in the key of C…


Cmaj       Dmin       Emin      Fmaj       Gmaj       Amin        Bdim


…every third chord would be.


Cmaj      Emin      Gmaj      Bdim       Dmin       Fmaj      Amin       Cmaj


There might be a couple of moves in there that you like, moves you wouldn’t have thought of without using this technique.


A little less simple

Two rules: Use every third chord in the key; make every fourth chord  a seventh chord.


Cmaj     Emin     Gmaj     Bdim7     Dmin      Fmaj     Amin7    Cmaj    Emin     Gmaj7            Bdim      Dmin     Fmaj7      Amin7      Cmaj   etc


Less simple still

Three rules: Use every third chord; every fourth chord is a seventh chord; change key every fifth chord. I’m changing keys by going around the circle of 4ths: Cmaj – Fmaj – Bbmaj – Ebmaj.


Cmaj     Emin     Gmaj     Bdim7    Fmaj      Amin      Cmaj7     Edim     Bbmaj      Dmin7       Fmaj Adim    Ebmaj7   Gmin   Bbmaj    etc.


I find this a bit limiting since it basically just plays the same four-chord progression in a different key. Let’s try making every fifth chord the I chord in the new key and move by thirds in that key. The keys are now Cmaj – Dmin – Emin – Fmaj


Cmaj     Emin     Gmaj     Bdim7     Dmin     Fmaj    Amaj   C#dim7    Emin   Gmaj   Bdom7       Dmin   Fmaj7    Amin7    Cmaj    etc.


These are just off the top of my head. They aren’t designed to be earth-shattering; they’re just for teasing out sounds that you may not have discovered by doing things the way you normally do them.

These ideas can be extended. For example, alternate moving the chords by a third and then by a fourth (i.e. Cmaj to Emin is a third; Emin to Amin is a fourth, etc.)  Notice that I’m staying in the key of C.


Cmaj     Emin      Amin     Cmaj     Fmaj     Amin     Dmin     Fmaj     Bdim      Dmin


With this technique, you get chords repeating themselves more often.

The basic idea here is to think of something to change, and then make that change at a regular time-interval (every third chord; every sixth beat, etc).

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Accent patterns

In the last post, I talked about a piano duo I’m writing. I focussed on melody in that post, but I’m going to talk about accent here.


Why accent?

When you accent a note, you make it pop out of the texture. Regardless of what else is going on, that note becomes the thing that everyone pays attention to for the moment that it exists.

So there needs to be a good reason to accent notes.

A couple of common places to accent a note is at the beginning or the end of a phrase. Another is on the highest note of a phrase.

Another reason (and the way it’s used in this piano duo) is to create an accent pattern. In this piece there are four accent patterns, one for each of the four hands.

I use four-note chords for each of the four hands in the piece; I’m simplifying the idea here by using single notes.


Pattern 1

Accent every 10 notes


Pattern 2

Accent every 13 notes


Pattern 3

Accent every 16 notes


Pattern 4

Accent every 19 notes.


That’s the algorithm.The choice of 10 for pattern 1 is arbitrary. The other patterns get larger by 3 each time.

Here it is in score format.

accent score



These four patterns create a composite pattern.

Here’s a condensed version.

accent score condensed


And here’s a version of only the accented notes for maximum clarity in terms of what the composite pattern is.


accent score-only accents


Combine this idea with the melodic aspect discussed in the last post, and you can see the structure start to deepen.

We’ve used melody and accent. What other parameters can you create patterns for?




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Piano duo

I’m in midst of writing a piano duo. Here are the first bars of the left hand of one of the pianos.


2pianos,bar 1


Basically, it’s the same four chords repeated. At a certain point this stops being interesting if you don’t change something. There’s a lot that can change. In this post I’m just talking about melody.

But first some terminology.

When there’s four notes in a chord, it makes it easier to talk about if we give each note a name. Conventionally,we do this using vocal terminology.


The lowest note is the Bass:

The second lowest note is the Tenor:

The second highest note is the Alto:

The highest note is the Soprano





Movement of voices: notes

Maybe it’s just me, but I like to identify possibilities by creating categories. When there are lots of possibilities, this can keep you from going crazy, and allow you quicker access to your ideas. I’m working with two categories here: notes and intervals.

A note is a single thing; an interval implies a relationship between two notes.

When I think about changing notes, I don’t think about changing relationships. If I’m not changing the relationship between notes, the entire melody stays the same, since I’m maintaining the same intervals between the notes (bear with me here).

If I want to maintain the melody of any voice but change the notes, all I can really do is transpose the entire sequence. This makes it really clear that the voice is changing. Here’s the soprano melody transposed up a whole step. I know: not much of a melody, but it gives me room to move.


sop melody transposed


I can do this with any one of the voices, or any combination of them. If I move only one of them, I can’t go far before I get in the way of the other voices. Outer voices can move further (i.e. soprano can go higher, bass can go lower).

If I move all of them, completely new chords emerge, and there’s a sense of expansion and contraction as voices move apart and back together.


Movement of voices: intervals

When I think intervals, however, I can change any one of the notes and leave the rest. I can also change two, three, or four notes; I don’t have to concern myself with maintaining the original melody of the voice. This opens things up tremendously.

Having said that there should be some relationship to the original. If you’re changing one note, that means the other three will maintain their original shape.


sop melody,1 change


Changing two notes makes the original less distinct, although if you maintain the contour that helps.


sop melody,2 changes



Or you may just want to destroy the whole thing and rebuild it. This allows you to use  transformation to make things more interesting. Here’s a simple example using the soprano melody.


sop melody changed


If you want, you can make the process from transformed melody to original melody take a lot longer, and the melody can be as chromatic as you want it to be.

So if you think intervals, you get more options. The danger is creating lack of clarity. Always try to find a way to refer to the original statement if you want the listener to follow you.

And remember: I’ve only talked about a single voice so far. Every change I make in one voice creates new relationships between it and the other voices.

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Chords in scales

What matters in guitar practice? What should you be working on?

To answer that question, you need to decide what kind of musician you are. Singer-songwriter? Composer. Soloist? Rhythm player? Those are the main identities you get to choose from. You may be one of these one year and something else in another year.

But what does it mean to be these things? How is a singer-songwriter different than a composer? What does a rhythm player need to know that a soloist doesn’t?

It’s important to be clear about these things because it makes it easier to focus on the things you want to focus on. It also gives you information about other things that you may not think to work on.

For instance, rhythm players focus on chords and rhythm. But knowing chords leads at some point to learning about arpeggios, which naturally leads (usually) to learning about scales.The rhythm player moves into the world of the soloist without trying to.

Let’s take a closer look at the rhythm/solo relationship.


Chords in scales

Every chord exists in a scale of some sort. Here’s the ionian mode…


ionian diagram



…and here’s a G major triad.

gmaj triad in ionian


I’m sure that you can find the triad embedded in the scale, but just to make it clear:

gmaj triad embedded


Using this technology requires a perceptual trick: you need to be able to play the chord and see the scale simultaneously, as well as be able to play the scale and see the chord.

To get this happening, you have to practice both until they feel natural. Then put them together by playing one and then playing the other. Simple in concept, not so simple in execution.

Here’s a way to work on it.


Exercise 1

  1. Get a metronome
  2. Put it on a slow speed.
  3. Play the scale one note per beat
  4. When you get to first chord-tone, place your fingers, one by one, on the other chord-tones. Do this in time to the metronome.
  5. When the entire chord is down, go back to the first scale-tone you played (the G on the D string, 5th fret), and play the rest of the scale from there. Do this in time.
  6. Continue this exercise with each chord-tone, always returning to the G on the D string and playing through the rest of the scale.


Exercise 2

  1. Still with a metronome on slow speed, play the scale one note per beat.
  2. When you get to first chord-tone, place your fingers on the first two chord-tones simultaneously, then on the remaining two chord-tones. Always in time.
  3. When the entire chord is down, go back to the G on the D string and play through the rest of the scale. Do this in time.


Exercise 3

  1. Still with the metronome on slow speed, play the scale one note per beat.
  2. When you get to the first chord-tone, play the entire chord, then continue with the scale.
  3. Go back to the G on the D string and play through the rest of the scale. Do this in time.


Chord-tones equal scale-tones

As these exercises make obvious, the chord-tones are part of the scale. A major implication is that you can choose any three or four notes from the scale, play them together and call them a chord. Don’t worry about giving that chord a name; just write it down so you don’t forget it.

Then invent another one. Play those two invented chords as a progression.

Play one chord for two beats, then the scale for two beats. Then play the second chord for two beats, then the scale for two beats. Continue going back and forth between chords and scale in this way. Once you’re used this structure, it will start to be easy to alter it (i.e. chord for one beat, scale for three beats, chord for three beats, scale for one beat, etc).

Eventually, moving between scale and chord becomes natural.

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