Current hit songs in all mainstream commercial genres tend to stick to a few basic chords and lean heavily on repetition. For skilled musicians there’s a real temptation to overwrite. You may be better off limiting your chords to I – IV – V and VI, for instance, C, F, G, and Am. You can hear progressions using these chords in big four-chord hits like “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You” or Kris Allen’s “Live Like We’re Dying.” These are just two top ten hits that rely on a basic, familiar chord palette. there are dozens more
One of my favorite videos: “Four Chords” by Axis of Awesome will give you an idea of just how many successful songs are built on these chords.
So, how do they make that work?
The secret sauce
The secret to successfully using today’s repetitive chord progressions lies in the way the melody relates to them. The chord progression provides the solid, steady foundation on which a rhythmically interesting melody can be built. Nickelback’s “Photograph” and “Far Away” are great examples of rock-steady, repeated four-chord patterns with melodic phrases that begin in between the chord changes. This is the trick that keeps these repetitive chord progressions interesting: The melody doesn’t always emphasize the beat on which the chords change.
Break the habit
If you write your songs while playing chords on guitar or piano, there’s a natural tendency to start singing a melody/lyric line when you change a chord. Try it for yourself. Sit down with your guitar or at your keyboard and play an F chord for four beats, then a G chord, then resolve to the C chord for eight beats, changing (and playing) the chord on the first beat of the measure, like this:
| F / / / | G / / / | C / / / | C / / / |
Now sing any melody – just make something up. Play the chords as you sing, always playing or changing the chord on the first beat of the measure. As you continue to play and sing, notice the tendency to start a melody phrase when you change a chord.
This is a habit you want to break. Sure, you’ll still start some melody lines at the same time as you change a chord, but you want to give yourself a choice. Now, play the same chord progression in the same way but start your melody on the Beat 3 or Beat 4. Do this a few times, then mix in a couple of short phrases that begin on Beat 2. Practice until you feel comfortable starting your melodic phrases on a variety of different beats.
Add some color to your chords
That simple three-chord progression you’ve been playing is probably starting to sound a little toooo simple by now, so how about adding a little texture and color. Instead of a basic three-note chord you’re used to, try adding another note to one of the chords–how about adding a D note to the C chord. This note will fill in the space between the C and E notes, giving the chord a more complex, interesting sound. You can also try playing a D minor chord instead of the G chord.
To play around with chords, go online and look for a “chord finder.” (See Section 4 below.) They’re free and they’re fun. A chord finder will show you how to play many different chords with different textures and colorations. Don’t stray from a basic repetitive chord progression but add a few extra notes to the chords to create some added interest.
Sing a note that’s not in the chord
Besides locking the phrasing of the melody into the chord changes, we often fall into another habit -starting a melody on one of the notes in the chord, or emphasizing the notes in the chord in the melody. This is another habit you can break and it will help you add excitement and a fresh sound to your melody. Try emphasizing a note (holding a note, starting a phrase on a note) that ISN’T in the chord. It might be the note that’s between two notes of the chord or just above or below one of the notes in the chord. You can hear this in the refrain lines of Sarah Bettens’s “Rescue Me.” This is a song that seems simple and has a very simple chord progression but there’s something compelling and interesting about the melody. The most important lines feature notes that are outside the basic three notes of the chords.
To check out the way melodies and chords relate to each other in today’s hit songs, learn to play and sing a couple of recent hit songs that you like. Notice…
> On which beat the chords change
> When the chord progression repeats and when it goes to a new progression
> Where melody/lyric phrases begin and end
Here’s a list of recent hit songs with simple chord progressions. Choose one that’s in a genre you’re interested in, read about it, listen to the song and try playing along. Write a song with a similar chord progression. These repetitive, basic songwriter progressions are not copyrighted. Or check out this page of song starters. You’ll find basic but very successful chord progressions you can use. Just scroll about two-thirds of the way down the page.
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.