Beginning songwriting: Good songs don't need novel chord structures

When you learn enough songs you will start to notice that the same chord sequences pop up over an over again.

Many song for example are based on just three chords, e.g. in the key of C you will find a huge number of songs based on C, F and G (or G7). These are the same three chords you would use if playing a blues in C. I've written many three chord songs myself over the years including some on my last two CD releases:

I consider Hank Williams to be the best songwriter ever - and most of his songs consist of just three chords.

Complexity or having loads of chord doesn't have anything to do with writing good songs. Good songs can be simple and good songs can be complex. If you only know one chord or two chords or three chords, you have enough to write good songs. I recently wrote a song called, 'Fancy Wooden Box' that only has two chords; and at the moment it's one of my favourites.

Knowing this can be useful for you as a songwriter as it means you don't feel the pressure of always having to always come up with unique and original chord sequences. If you do, of course that's great - but it's not a requirement - as there are millions of good songs still to be written with common chord sequences.

There is a useful article on Wikipedia that explores the idea of how common chord progressions have been used through the ages (so to speak).

An example of a chord sequence that has been used in many great songs is,

C Am F G

This chord sequence was particularly common in the 1950s and 1960s. It feels like a very simple and natural progression - this time the G chord releases the tension and 'completes' the musical sequence.

Examples of songs that use this sequence:

  • Stand by Me - Ben E. King
  • Blue Moon
  • Every Breath You Take - The Police
  • Octopus' Garden - The Beatles
  • Duke of Earl
  • Unchained Melody - The Righteous Bros
  • All I Have to Do Is Dream
  • Bye Bye Love - The Everlys
  • Earth Angel

Having a good chord progression that you like is just the start; the music of a song is more than just a chord sequence.

In addition to a melody, rhythm and words - the music of most songs consist of sets of chord sequences strung together - and/or repeating that chord sequence. Commonly these are formed into the repeating elements called verse and chorus, which I will explore in the next article.

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