Imagine that we’re sitting down and writing a pop song together.
It’s going to be a ballad, and we begin by noodling around on the piano with some chords in the key of Ab major. After a minute or two, a groove gets established.
But there’s a small “problem.” Although we like the chord progression, we notice that it’s the standard I vi IV V that’s already been used in tens of thousands of popular songs over the years. Indeed, every kid knows it as the “Heart and Soul” chord progression that Tom Hanks played in the movie “Big.” It’s been used and overused in every style of popular music imaginable, and our goal, after all, is to compose something “original.”
We quickly dismiss it, saying, “We can’t use this!”
So we begin with an Fm chord instead, hoping this will lead us to new creative heights. Soon, our song begins to take shape, with a melody we love and chords that inspire and move us emotionally.
After 5-10 minutes of playing “in the zone,” we both chuckle out loud, having recognized our “new” sequence of chords as the same ones that have been trotted out time and time again over the past 30 years, most prominently by Taylor Swift and Adele.
“Oh, man – it’s happened again! We have to throw this one out too!”
By now, it’s getting late and we give up for the day, determined to try again tomorrow, when we’ll perhaps come up with something more presentable.
Has this scenario ever happened to you? It’s sure happened to me – many times. I’ve abandoned good musical ideas because they didn’t live up to my standards of being original, creative, or high-quality.
Over the years, however, I’ve noticed that many of the greatest musicians embrace the clichés, instead of avoiding them. Many of Mozart’s endings sound just like everyone else’s of his time. The legendary jazz bari sax player, Gerry Mulligan, told me (when I was his assistant) that he sometimes used the cliché and somewhat old-fashioned “Basie ending” in his arrangements because, as he said, “Cliches are clichés because they work.”
And when I first played Ed Sheeran’s now-classic pop ballad “Perfect,” I was shocked to see that he used the two very same “cliché” chord progressions I’ve outlined above; one for the verses and the other for the chorus:
Verse: Ab Fm Db Eb
Chorus: Fm Db Ab Eb
Perhaps this is one reason why Ed Sheeran is a great (and successful) songwriter. He’s not afraid to use the obvious choices if he feels they’re right for the music.
This is bold. Very bold.
Great artists are bold. Although we sometimes think they’re bold because they’re great, it’s really the reverse: they’re great because they’re bold.
With this in mind, have a listen to “Perfect” and enjoy the work of an artist who’s bold enough to use what others, including myself, often reject.
Ed Sheeran: Perfect
Be bold, and “let the music flow!”