Do you ever have writer’s block? I have always found this a huge problem when songwriting. I would often come up with a great verse or riff and then find I get stuck in this idea and can’t create a change of mood – I end up having the same idea for the chorus. Some people, however, just seem to be able to write: they just sit down and it all flows out. I was never one of those people.
In some of what follows I have worked from certain theories that I have had concerning songwriting. Firstly, I feel that often (not always) the chord sequences for a song are a big part of what makes a song sound catchy. Certain sequences are used over and over again – and this must be for a reason. The reason it seems to me is that these sequences are very pleasant to the ear, and they really aid a song in sounding good.
When I was doing work experience in a recording studio for a couple of months many years ago, the resident producer taught me some valuable lessons about song writing. He told me that you need to write exactly what the ear expects to hear. He said that if a song is really good, you should be able to almost sing the second line before you have heard it. He gave the song Happy Birthday as and example. Each line seems almost a logical progression from the previous line. This was very helpful for me at the time, since I had always tried to write original and very complex ideas. I had always tried to write a weird and original chord sequence.
Of course, all you progressive musicians reading this article at this point are throwing your hands up in the air in disgust – you’ve always strived to go against the flow and not write ‘trashy’ pop music. However, the most successful music is pop and therefore I see it as the perfect starting point in order to try and find out what kind of things work in music. I theorise that there are certain rules that can be learned about how to make a song catchy. I kind of feel that you are better studying the extreme of something – the most catchy music – in order to try to find out what works, and once you understand some of the key elements, trying to write more progressive and less standard music bearing in mind some of these key rules. You can then deviate from these rules as you please – but may also be able to apply them at key moments in order to add structure to your ‘progressive’ music. Most of us cannot write well at all, so as progressive as we want to be, this is a waste of time if we can’t write good music. Better to learn the key elements that work and then become more progressive than not be able to write at all!
With this in mind, I have endeavored to try to find elements of songs that appear to occur again and again in some of the most successful songs of our day. Initially I will concentrate on successful chord sequences and chord movements. In some of what follows I have offered percentages saying, ‘this chord follows this chord 25% of the time’. In order to reach most of these statistics, I have analysed verse and chorus chord sequences. Chord sequences usually contain four chords and I have looked at the initial (usually repeated) first sequence of the verses and choruses of many popular songs (which usually contain four chords). At the moment I have not analysed huge numbers of songs, but as time goes by I continually add new songs to my database and the statistics will increasingly become more accurate – or more useful. Please bear with me if the statistics are not 100% accurate at first – they will become more accurate as I enter more songs into the database.
a few notes of explanation. The four chord sequences will be denoted
as: a, b, c, d. ‘a’ denotes the first chord in the sequence, ‘b’
the second and so on. Where a chord number is major where it would
be expected to be minor, I have placed a ‘j’ after the chord number.
So for example, chord 2 would be expected to be minor (see chord theory
article for full explanation), if it is major I have written it as ‘2j’.
Conversely where an expected major chord is minor (for example chord 4
would be expected to be major) I have put the standard ‘m’ after it eg.
‘4m’. On the chord charts I have also not always written how many
times a chord sequence is played in a song. "I have followed standard practise
in writing non-standard bass notes eg. 1/3 means chord 1 with note 3 in
the bass and 5/2 is chord 5 with note 2 in the bass (note 2 not the second
note of the chord!). Additionally, if you are playing guitar
then strum 8 regular down strokes per bar (4 downstrokes for half a bar),
and if you are a keyboard player then I suggest you play a chord 4 times
for a bar (2 times for half a bar). If you would like to know how
to translate the numbers in the chord charts into standard chords, then
refer to the article titled Notation System. Using the charts
found towards the end of this article you can translate the numbers found
in the chord charts into any key you chose!"
As time goes by I will continue to add new song analyses to the web site. I hope that as you read these it will help you to understand songwriting much better. It’s not always about using all these ideas exactly as they are found. Sometimes I think just being able to fit things into clear categories helps us to be able to master something better. I think it may be that we always naturally categorise when trying to learn. For example, a biologist will group animals into families and species. If there is no grouping then sometimes the sheer numbers of items being studied leaves us unable to analyse or understand what is being studied. I feel that grouping is an incredibly powerful aid to studying anything – we remember things much better when they are put into categories and groups. I believe grouping is very powerful in helping us to analyse things much better since it makes it much easier to view vast numbers of items where otherwise, each item is independent of the next. I hope what follows helps you to understand song writing much better.
© 2006 Phil Warren