Writing Original And Interesting Chord Progressions. Part II

author: jslick07 date: 06/19/2009 category: songwriting
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Note: If you haven't at least looked over Part I, you probably should, as this lesson builds off the stuff that was mentioned therein (that might be the first time anybody has used the words "stuff" and "therein" in the same sentence. +1 for John.) The main focus of this lesson is going to be outside the notes that you are given in your traditional major (or minor) scale. We'll also talk about the smoothest way of going between two keys, as well as the way certain chords are treated in minor instances of a key. And we're gonna work backwards, because anybody can work forwards, and I like being different. If you've never worked with a minor scale, it's quite simple to do. It's just like a major scale, except you flat scale degrees 3, 6, and 7. So if C Major looks like this: C D E F G A B C, then C minor looks like this. C D (Eb) F G (Ab) (Bb) C. The notes in parenthesis are the altered notes. Scale degrees 3, 6 and 7, as was mentioned earlier. When the scale looks like this, it's called the natural minor. It fits the key signature of the scale. However, there are two other forms of the minor scale that are commonly used. The first is the harmonic minor, which is the same as the natural minor except for scale degree seven, which is raised. So, if A natural minor looks like this, A B C D E F G A, then A Harmonic Minor looks like this: A B C D E F (G#) A (The altered tone is in parenthesis.) We'll come back to the harmonic minor in a minute. The last form of the minor scale is called the melodic minor. There's one special thing about melodic minor. Most scales are the same whether you're ascending or descending, I.e A natural minor would read the same whether is A B C D E F G or A G F E D C B A. All the notes are the same. Melodic minor, however, is different on the way up than it is on the way down. On the way up, we raise scale degrees six and seven, but on the way down, they get lowered again. For example, E melodic minor looks like this: E F# G A B (C#) (D#) E *D* *C* B A G F# E. Notice how the notes in parenthesis are raised, and the notes surrounded by asterisks go back to their regular place. So now that we've gone over the three forms of minor scale, lets talk about how the harmonies that go with them are different. Since the notes are different, the quality (Major, minor, augmented, diminished) of the chords changes too. In major, the scale looks like this (capital roman numerals are major, lowercase is minor, the o symbol means diminished, and + is augmented.) I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio, I. Now, if we use strictly the natural minor scale, we get this: i, iio, III, iv, v, VI, VII, i. For the most part, this is okay, but there's one big problem, and that problem is the minor v chord. The reason the V chord works as a dominant chord is because of the half-step resolution that it brings to tonic. This is much easier seen than explained. So in F major, the I chord is F major, and the V chord is C major. C major contains the notes C E G, and F Major contains the notes F A C. Both chords contain the note C, from G to A is a major second, but E to F is a half step, and its resolution is very important to the harmonic context of your song. That E is called a "leading tone" because it feels like it "wants" to resolve, or lead, us to that F. Now if we go in F minor, the i chord contains the notes F, Ab, and C, and the v chord contains the notes C, Eb, G. Now while there is a half step present from G to Ab, this does not have the same sort of pop that the 7-1 resolution has. So how do we solve this? We use the harmonic minor scale to make the V chord major, and we get C E G. Now, we have that important E to F (7-1) resolution which is necessary. This is why the harmonic minor is called "harmonic" minor, because it is used to create "harmony." Now if we used all the harmonies found in the harmonic minor scale, we get this: i, iio, III+, iv, V, VI, viio, i. This is perfectly fine, but I should warn you that resolving that augmented III chord is no fun at all. Its also very rarely found in conventional music, but more power to you if you want to experiment with it. Now, if we use melodic minor, we run into the problem that the scale is different ascending than descending. Since the descending version is the same as the natural minor, I'll exclude it. The ascending version looks like this. i, ii, III+, IV, V, vi, viio, i. Again, that augmented III chord is odd, but everything else is okay. A lot of times melodic minor is used with something called the Picardy third. Essentially, we just make the I chord major to end a phrase or song. Melodic minor allows us to have a very major-y, IV V I type thing, if that's what we're after. Overusing the major IV, however, makes your song feel more major than minor, and we don't want that. Usually, writing in the minor mode means that we constantly switch between the three types of minor scale. There's no real limit to how often and when you can switch, it's all about what you think sounds good. Its very common to play with the 6th and 7th scale degrees, and they can really be anything. So that takes care of writing in minor, now on to modulation/key change. I put these two together cause modulation is essentially the way in which we change keys. It is at this point that I introduce you to the circle of fifths, which I'm gonna make a line cause I don't think I can format a circle on here. I'm sure if you google it you can see it in its circular form. I'm gonna start at C, which is the top of the circle. C-G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#/Db-Gb-Db-Ab-Eb-Bb-F, and then we're back to C. The reason its called the circle of 5ths is because every interval there is a perfect fifth, we just hit every possible key by going around in fifths. Using this guy as a tool is a very common and safe way to modulate. No matter what key we go to, we have to go around the circle. So say I want to modulate from C to D. Using this method, I can't just hop from a C major to a D major chord. We have to go around the circle, through G, to get there. Now how do we do that? It's a matter of finding "pivot" chords, or chords that belong in both keys. Well... in C Major, the V chord is G major, which is the I in G major, and then we can go to the V in G major, which is I in D major. Wham, we're there. Now this isn't the only way to do it. We could go from C major again, and use the iii chord (Em), which is the vi chord in G, and then again, we can use the V chord in G to get to D. There are numerous possibilities. Say we wanna go much further, and go from C major to E major. Well we gotta go through G, D and A, to get to E. Now if we just use fifths, like this, C G D A E, its called a "circle-of-fifths progression" because we just go straight around the circle. It works, but its generic and used very often. If you want something more unique and interesting, we can do it in other methods. For example, starting from C, we can go to a minor (vi), which is ii in G major. From there, we can go to D major, which is V in G Major, I in D Major, and then we can go to b minor (vi), which is ii in A major. Now, just to reinforce our new key of A major, let's go V- I, or E A. This is a very smooth, interesting modulation, and you should think about "clever" ways such as these to move through your keys. The smoother, the better. Real quick, we can also go the other way on the circle. Let's go from G to Bb. Well, the Circle-of-fifths way to do this is to go G C F Bb and we're there. But if we don't wanna do that, we can do it like this, or in any other way you think of. Lets start in G, and use Am, which is ii in G and vi in C, now, let's go to IV in C, which is F, and then, just to frustrate the listener, lets go V-vi-V-I to Bb, or F-gmin-F-Bb. Let's stop for a second and talk about Bon Jovi. Uhh... what? Yeah, that's right, it's my lesson and I can do what I want, and right now I wanna talk about Bon Jovi. More specifically, we can talk about Livin' on a Prayer, which is a pretty baller song. More specifically, we can talk about the section between 3:15 and 3:30 in the album version, where there's that rockin' key change that comes out of nowhere. It's so nice, and its a perfect example of "direct modulation." There's no circle of fifths there, no smoothness of the modulation, it just happens. And in this situation, it's glorious. But you should be careful about how you do this little trick, because usually, there's a bunch of theoretical ideas that are behind it. In Bon Jovi's case, we modulate down a major third. So, hypothetically, let's say its from D to Bb. D Major contains the notes D, F#, and A. Bb major contains the notes Bb, D, and F. Well... D is common to both chords, which is always a good thing. Common tones make the chords semi-related. Now, look at the notes there. From A to Bb is a half step. F# to F is also a half step. These half steps create a false resolution, which, in traditional Western harmony, doesn't exist, but because of the half-steps, we sorta-kinda hear. It's still abrubt, but at least we can hear a sort of relationship between the two chords. Keep that in mind as well. Of all the key-changes and modulations you can do, it is much more common to do them between closely related keys. This means usually about two steps in either direction on the circle. Occasionally, you can go a little further, but it's much more common to stay closely related. This means that you'd be much more likely to see modulations from C to G or C to D than C to Db or C to F# (That last one is real tricky, modulating a tritone, have fun.) And our last step is talking about some different stuff to use in your chord progressions. We'll talk about two, modal borrowing and secondary dominance. Lets start with modal borrowing. This one is pretty straight-forward. Whether you're in major or minor, you can borrow from the other one to spice up your progression. So, if I'm in major, I can use a minor iv in place of a major IV, or a iio in place of a ii. If I'm in minor, I can use a minor iii, or a major IV. And of course, there are other things that could be done should you so choose. I'll do one example for this one, because there a jillion possibilities. We're in E major, but I'll start with roman numerals. I-IV-I-IV-V-vi-(iv)-V-I. Again, the chord in parenthesis is modally borrowed from the parallel (C) minor. Now this is just cause I'm a nerd, but the minor iv always reminds me of marching band, because it's very frequently used at the end of those kind of pieces. Just a little anecdote for ya. Now, last but not least, secondary dominance. Pretty much, the gist of this one is that we can insert a V of any chord in the scale. So we can use V of V, V of IV, V of ii, whatever you want. So In C major, if we wanted to use a V/V, we'd first figure out what the fifth scale degree was, which is G. In the key of G, D is V, which means we'd use D Major, which would resolve to G, which would resolve to C. V/V is by FAR the most common, but some others are used. There's something special about the V/IV. It doesn't exist unless you make it V7/IV. This is because the V chord of IV is also I. Think about it. D Major, IV is G, and the V of G is D, which is also I. But, if we make it a dominant seventh chord and use D F# A C, we've used a note that's not in the D major scale (C, which is b7.) Now we've used a secondary dominant, as opposed to just the I chord. So let's use both of those guys, V7/IV and V/V, in a progression. Here we go, in F Major. I-V7-I V7/IV-IV-V/V-V-I. Or, if you like your note names, F, C7, F, F7, (F-A-C-Eb), Bb, G, C, F. Combining these with the stuff in the last lesson could really spice up your progressions. More to come guys, I promise! Good luck, and happy writing! -John
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