Innovative Songwriting: Composing With a Limited Chord Range

author: Stephen Quinn date: 08/27/2014 category: songwriting & lyrics
rating: 8 / votes: 4 
Innovative Songwriting: Composing With a Limited Chord Range
Have you ever struggled to write a catchy song with an effective choice of chords?  Do you often feel that the verse-chorus pattern does not fit as naturally as it should? I know how this feels because as a musician working with a singer/songwriter/lyricist, I have often find meeting the needs of the artist to be an uphill struggle when producing effective harmonization to fit the vocal melody. After working with a singer/songwriter for so long, I have developed a simple-buteffective formula that works effectively with the vocal melodies and song structures.

This formula simply entails using a limited range of chords or bass notes.  I should make it clear that I am NOT suggesting to use a single chord progression for the entirety of the song, as I very rarely write pieces with such a formula, although there are a number of popular songs dating from the 1950s to the present time that use a repeated chord progression spanning four, eight or even 16 bars,  using a minimum number of chords. Such examples include Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," U2's "With or Without You," "Save Tonight" by Eagle-Eye Cherry and "Apologize" by OneRepublic.

Although the above songs use generally repetitive bass lines, the chords and guitar parts do not necessarily stay constant throughout the track. Another example is "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. Although the guitar lines and rhythmic texture do change significantly as the sections change from verse to chorus etc., the bass lines consist of a constant 4-note pattern (F-Bb-Ab-Db).

Though I enjoy listening to and performing many of the above mentioned songs,  constructing songs with a constant chord progression is not my preferred method of composing. I do, however, apply another approach to working with a limited number of chords. This approach is to change the order of the chords as the section changes.

The first step is to determine the chords that you will use to construct you song.  Before we do this, we must determine our key. For this example, I have chosen the key of G Major/E Minor:
Key of G Major/E Minor
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1*
G A B C D E F sharp G*
Major Minor Minor Major Major Minor Diminished Major
I will now construct the song intro using the following chords:
Intro
| G /// | Em /// | C /// | C /// | x2
This progression will now be repeated a further two times to make the first verse:
Verse 1
| G /// | Em /// | C /// | C /// | x2
Note: It is not always necessary to use all four chords in the first section, using three can be just as effective, or more because we now have one more chord to add in the following section, thus adding a strong impact as the song progresses beyond the verse.

Following the verse is an eight-bar pre-chorus:
Pre-Chorus
| D /// | C /// | Em /// | D /// |
| C /// | D /// | Em /// | D /// |
Now we have added the D major chord to the formula, giving us our four chords for the remainder of the song: G, Em, C and D.

Note: The above eight bars DO NOT follow a fixed repeated pattern, and though they are almost similar to a repeated set of four bars, notice that the first two chords are switched about. This is a simple change which can often help to keep the listeners attention where general repetition often would not.

Next we will build the chorus:
Chorus
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | C /// | D /// | D /// |
Note: In the chorus, not every set of four bars are the same but instead alternate with the first chord in each line switching between G and its relative Em. The chorus ends on the fifth chord of D, leading the song out of the chorus.

After the first chorus, we may add a second verse followed by a pre-chorus and chorus:
Verse 2
| G /// | Em /// | C /// | C /// | x2

Pre-Chorus
| D /// | C /// | Em /// | D /// |
| C /// | D /// | Em /// | D /// |

Chorus
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | C /// | D /// | D /// |
After two verses and choruses, it is common to expand the musical journey into a bridge section in order to break up the overall structure:
Bridge
| C /// | C /// | G /// | D /// |
| C /// | C /// | Em /// | D /// |
| C /// | C /// | G /// | D /// |
| C /// | C /// | D /// | D /// |
It is also common, though not always necessary, to insert an instrumental section in the middle of a song structure. This may give way for an additional melody or harmony, or improvised solo, usually on, but not restricted to, guitar. The instrumental break may be be built on a new section or repetition of a section already present. For this example we will use the chorus section:
Instrumental
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | C /// | D /// | D /// |
Following this break we can return for a final chorus to end the song...:
Chorus
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| G /// | D /// | C /// | C /// |
| Em /// | C /// | D /// | D /// |
...bringing the song to a close on the root chord of G:
| G /// |
What we have just demonstrated is just one way in which you can create a varied song structure using a minimum number of chords, whilst still avoiding typical repetition. It is not always necessary to only use four chords, as a fifth or even sixth chord may crop up if desired. The point is that you do not always need to add more chords in order to give a song variation, and that you can create a strong composition by rearranging the progression and redirecting the emphasis to the other chords used.

The composition I have demonstrated here is simply an example of an effective formula. Not all songs require a pre-chorus, bridge or instrumental, and there are several songs with three or more verses and often an intro may have its own unique section. But the given example helps to clearly demonstrate the limited chord formula.

With this method in mind, you can develop new and unique ways to add variety to your compositions. But remember that in general creativity, there are no set rules. This is just one of many methods that can be applied in creating your own unique music.
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