Beginning songwriting: Get a feel for how chords are put together in existing songs

One of the best things you can do as beginner songwriter is to learn from the songwriters you most admire. And a great way to do that is to learn to play their songs.

When I was a teenager the songs I learned were by Punk bands, classic 60s and 70s bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stone and blues and Rock and Roll artists (who mostly wrote songs based on the 12 bar blues).

As well as learning the songs of the songwriters you admire I recommend you learn to play songs based on the 12 bar blues progression. Most songs are based on the repetition of a chord sequence (or chord sequences); in 12 bar blues that repetition tends to be more pronounced than in many other musical genres (and the structure is more consistent and easy to understand).That's a good thing for you, as you can learn from it.

I'm not saying you need to become a blues player or be a songwriter in the blues genre; I'm saying that learning blues songs will help you in your songwriting craft.

Through repetition you will internalize the building of musical tension and the releasing of that tension - that is inherent in most chord sequences. You will start to recognise the chords in any key that have a particular 'job' to do, i.e. the job of resolving the tension at the end of a chord sequence or the developing and building of that tension as a song moves through a verse or chorus (or providing the transition to a new section).

It is not just in blues songs that you find this pattern of building and releasing musical tension; you will find it in most forms of Western music, whether pop, folk, country or classical.

Once you have played enough songs the above ideas will just come naturally and without any need for you to consciously learn it. It is only in retrospect that I recognise these ideas myself. When learning songs as a teenager nothing could have been further from my mind than the notion that each chord had a 'job' to do.

How this works in practice

Blues songs generally follow the following simple chord pattern:

Chord 1 for 4 bars, chord 2 for two bars, back to chord 1 for two bars, chord three for one bar, chord 2 for one bar and then back to chord 1 for 2 bars.

At its simplest a blues in C would be:


There will come a point after repeatedly listening to or playing songs with this progression that you will notice that the chord changes start to feel logical and that arriving back to the initial chord at the end of the sequence feels like the 'natural completion' of the sequence.

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