There are some truly brilliant songwriters out there who are coming up with amazing songs using the most basic chords out there.
Musically, I like to hear something fresh and not the same three chords (I, IV, V). There are a few songwriters that really deliver. Paul Simon would be one songwriter that comes to mind. Paul seems to write amazing songs that have a real breath of musical expression well past the basic three chords! Songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Still Crazy After All These Years.
Then there are plenty of examples of songs with only three chords that take a fresh approach to those basic chords. Using Paul Simon again as an example listen to the song Cecilia. That song only has the three basic chords in G (G, C, and D) but it sounds innovative.
So do the chords make the song? Absolutely not!! Technically a musical works copyright to a song only covers the words and the melody line. The chord structure is not copyrighted. Why is that? Because it’s simply not necessary and, more importantly, it’s not possible. In any given musical key there are only 7 chords. If chord progressions were able to be copyrighted we would only have 1 or 2 songs from the 50’s and 60’s rock and roll era!!! Nearly every rock and roll song uses a I, IV, V or I, vi, IV, V progression.
Lastly consider jazz as a musical form. Many jazz artists take a classic melody and change the chord structure behind the music. One perfect example is John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. This amazing version is considered a legal cover of the original song written by Rogers and Hammerstein.
So there you have it, chords mean absolutely nothing to the basic composition except musical accompaniment. Chords do, however, make it far more interesting! Take a listen to Shoe Commercial by Soul Pigeon for an example of a basic three chord progression but with added voicings to the chords.
I’m always playing around with different chords. Whether it’s chord substitutions, inversions, or voicings I get inspired by the sound they create. Here are a few of my favorites
I love 7/9 chords. I end up using them everywhere. If you don’t know 7/9 chords they are super easy and, properly used, can give a ton of character to the chord. You can make the 7 or the 9 of the chord sharp or flat depending on the key or the progression to the next chord.
Here is a guitar version
And here is a piano version
I used 7/9 chords all the time. The song “From the Mountain” uses them everywhere!!!
Taking a simple 7/9 chord and inverting the chord is a transformation that adds complexity, depth and tension. Once you start to invert the chord you can also start to consider dropping one of the voicings. I will generally try to drop the root and play the third inversion. So instead of the chord starting on the 1 or root of the chord, I start on the 5 of the chord. With a C chord that would mean inverting to have the G note in the bottom of the chord
Here is the C7/9 with 3rd inversion
Lastly, I will try chord substitutions throughout a new song for inspiration. A chord substitution simply uses one note that is in the key of the song and playing a chord from a different key that also has that same note
Let say we are in the key of G and playing a G major chord. The melody line is centered on the B note.
While the melody note is still on B, you can substitute the B major chord for a dramatic change.
Then you can quickly invert the B chord to the 3rd inversion to add tension
This chord will very nicely resolve to E minor or even E major to completely change the key of the song. I like to use chord substitutions in the bridge of a song. Check out an example of this on the song “Februarys Moon” at 1:30. I go from a B minor chord to an E major (instead of E minor).
Writing a song is not like following a well marked trail, there are literally hundreds of ways you can go. However, the western musical scale only has twelve notes and the majority of songs have only a few chords. But that framework has produced millions of songs.
A songwriter gets a hint of a musical or lyrical idea and takes it somewhere. Being a songwriter I have often sought after information that would help me in my endeavors. I have found four methods for writing songs
Pure inspiration: This is the luckiest and easiest method. The words and music come at the same time. Generally the songwriter hears the song in her mind and grabs an instrument. The entire song comes fast and furious. It feels like it was given to you.
Words first: The idea for lyrical content is there and a poem is written. The cadence and meter of the lyric drive how the music must follow. Often times the song writer has to modify the lyrics in the chorus or bridge to help make sense of how the music matches.
Music first: The songwriter has a great musical idea and a general framework of the song. Then the words come. Many songwriters write lyrics or phrases that they will reference in times like this. The songwriter searches for a lyric that matches the mood or vibe of the song.
Potpourri: Lastly the writer might have a hook or chorus complete with word and music but needs the rest of the song. During the songwriting process they have to mine the feeling of what is already written to write the other parts of the song. I essentially built the song “From the Mountain” using this method.
There you have it. These are the most common methods I have found for writing songs.