The biggest question I get from beginning songwriters is how to come up with their own chord progressions. For many musicians, this seems to be the big stumbling block. They may get a lyric idea, or even a complete melody, but when it comes time to put chords to it, they come up empty. They don’t even know where to begin.
The process of putting together a string of chords is easier than you may suppose, but the first step is to de-mystify it a bit. You need to understand what’s involved before you can feel confident about moving forward.
First of all, you can write a song with one chord. Yes, that’s right. One chord. Just ask Madonna about her song “Music.” One chord. But is your chord getting boring after a while? Need some variety? Easy: play it for as long as you can stand it and then go to another chord or two (“Royals,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”).
Have you found 2 chords that go together well? Great, there’s your verse! (Check out “Moondance”.)
At the beginning, it's best to experiment and be highly interested in how each and every chord sounds. Don’t get hung up on trying to find the “right” approach. Be like a kid playing in the sandbox and have fun.
Then at some point you’ll "hit a wall" where you need new information. A more organized, analytical approach and input from someone with more experience. This is an exciting moment to be at. Since you've tried so many different chords on your own, you'll really be able to use each new thing your teacher shows you to it's utmost. You'll see so many new possibilities at each new step!
Here’s how to get started:
1. To begin, pick one key to get to know well. Learn the I, IV, and V chords in that key. In the key of C major, these will be the C, F, and G major chords. Start right there. Play the C chord for 4 measures and then F for 4 measures. Or C and F for 2 beats each and then G for a full measure (sounds like “Twist and Shout,” right?)
2. Learn the 12-bar blues progression in the key of C. (Hint: it just uses the 3 chords you already know. Write 5 melodies over this progression, each at a different tempo. At least one of them has to turn out well so you’ll have your first full song!
3. Add an A minor chord and learn a few common progressions using these 4 chords. You’ll be amazed at how many songs use these same 4 chords. If you don’t believe me, check this out.
4. Write your own song using the chord progression C/Am/F/G
5. Make a list of your 5 favorite songs and learn to play the chords on piano or guitar. Memorize them and play them over and over and over and over. Then play them some more. Your goal is to internalize them so much that you begin to innately feel their logic. Analyze them from a theoretical standpoint. How do they relate to the key? Are most of the chords part of the C scale, but then it goes to Bb? How does that affect the overall sound of the song? Start thinking along these lines. Eventually you’ll be able to create similar progressions for your own songs.
This is the basic process by which all your musical idols themselves learned. Every composer from Mozart to Scott Joplin to George Gershwin to Stevie Wonder to Adele has followed the same basic path. Learn a few chords and immediately start creating with them. Don’t worry about learning everything at once. Gradually expand your vocabulary and assimilate your favorite music with the goal to write something similar. You'll eventually develop your own style. This is how it’s done, and you can do it too.
Good luck! Now go out and write some great songs!!!
If you’re at the point where you need some more organized guidance to write better songs, let me know. I can give you weekly songwriting assignments as you learn chords and musical styles through my piano video course.
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