There are basically three schools of thought on songwriting. First you have those who believe that either you have it or you don’t.
In other words, songwriters are born, not made. Others subscribe to the quasi-mystical notion that all songs have already been written and are out there in the ether, one simply must be open to receiving them.
Finally, you’ve got those who regard songwriting as a craft, with its own set of rules and techniques that even the average musician can learn. While it would be presumptuous to determine that any one school is right, we will explore the idea that songwriting - like basketball, drawing and skeet shooting - can be taught.
Of course, just as practicing a jump shot does not guarantee admission to the NBA, no amount of information about songwriting can turn someone into Paul McCartney, or Paul Stanley, for that matter.
The idea is that an understanding of songwriting basics will help you come that much closer to fully realizing whatever talent you were endowed with by your god or fate.
Chords and spark
Even if one were to limit themselves to an examination of pop songwriting over the last 40 years, a true instructional guide would take up many volumes, as it would involve a serious study of musical theory. Our aim here is to provide a sampling of common chord progressions that you can use with your own songs, and to examine some of the things a guitarist can do to add a little zip to their songs. All popular tunes, regardless of genre, are based on chord progressions.
Even if a song consists mostly of single-note riffs (Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog is a good example) or an a capella vocal line (Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner comes to mind), chords and overall harmony are still implied or alluded to by the melody. Understanding chords, and the way they relate to each other, is pretty much the foundation of all pop songwriting.
In your travels, you’ve no doubt encountered chords and chord progressions described in numerical terms, perhaps a musician telling a band mate to 'move to the five chord' or a blues history referring to a I-IV-V pattern. The terminology in both examples is explained in FIGURE 1, which illustrates triads (three-note chord voicings) built on major scales in the guitar friendly keys of C, D, E, G and A.
The Roman numerals included underneath the chords indicate scale degrees; those in uppercase represent major tonalities, while those in lowercase signify the minor (the vii is diminished). In the first bar of the figure, C is the I (one) chord, making F - the fourth degree of the scale - its corresponding IV (four) chord. Consequently, a I-IV-V progression in this key would be C-F-G. To determine the I-IV-V in the other keys illustrated in FIGURE 1, simply replicate the approach we took in C.
To give you a feel for a pattern that includes minor chords, let’s take a brief look at the I-vi-ii-V progression, a sequence that pops up in countless pop and rock songs. In the key of D, as illustrated in FIGURE 1, the chords would be D-Bm-Em-A.
Again, refer to the figure to determine this progression in the other keys. Now let’s look at some common pop chord progressions and examples of well known songs in which they appear. As an aspiring songwriter, familiarizing yourself with these progressions should prove invaluable to you.
You couldn’t turn on the radio in the 1950s and avoid hearing the I-vi-IV-V progression in any number of songs. And you don’t have to be a 75-year-old doo wop fan who bursts into tears at the mere mention of In the Still of the Night or Earth Angel to be familiar with the l-vi-IV-V.
Check out Hoobastank’s The Reason (key of E: E-C#m-A-B) and you’ll hear a prime example of this progression.
All of U2’s With or Without You is a I-V-vi-IV progression in the key of D (D-A-Bm-G). The Beatles’ timeless Let It Be (key of C: C-G-Am-F) is also largely based on this sequence. Boston scored huge with the vi-IV-I-V progression in Peace of Mind (key of E: C#m-A-E-B), as did Avril Lavigne more than 20 years later in the choruses of her mega-hit Complicated (key of F: Dm-Bb-F-C).
I-V-IV and I-IV-V progressions are probably the most basic in pop music, both are used so often that even listeners who aren't terribly literate in music will recognize them intuitively. One of Pearl Jam’s biggest hits, Yellow Ledbetter, is based upon the I-V-IV sequence in the key of E (E-B-A); Twist and Shout, an enormous hit for the Beatles, is nothing more than a I-IV-V in D (D-G-A)
Other notable songs built on these progressions include the Who’s Baba O’Riley, (key of F: F-C-Bb), Pete Townshend’s Let My Love Open the Door (key of C) and semi-contemporary hits like Fountains of Wayne’s Stacy’s Mom (key of E: E-A-B-A).
What do Jackson Browne’s These Days, Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles, Paul Simon’s America and Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right have in common? All are based to some degree on the I-V-vi-I-IV progression, a sequence that remains popular among singer-songwriters. One probable reason for its enduring appeal is that, when played in the key of C (C-G-Am-C-F), it fits - and there’s really no better way of saying this - just right on the fretboard.
Also “just right” in C is I-VI-II-V-I (C-A7-D7-G7-C), a progression that was originally popularized by ragtime players more than 100 years ago and appears in such modern hits as John Sebastian’s Daydream and Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.
The i-VII-VI is familiar to anyone who knows the outro section to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven (key of A minor: Am-G-F). Adding another VII chord to this three-chord progression gives you Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower (key of C# minor: C#m-B-A-B) and the chorus of Aerosmith’s Dream On (key of F minor: Fm-Eb-Db-Eb). The I-bVII-IV (key of of C: C-Bb-F) features the flat-seven chord.
This progression appears in countless songs, among them Lynyrd Skynrd’s Sweet Home Alabama (key of D: D-C-G) and any number of AC/DC songs, including Back in Black (key of A: A-G-D). When you’re just starting out as a songwriter, feel free to borrow any of the chord progressions cited above - just take care not to also borrow the melodies.
George Harrison made this mistake when he wrote My Sweet Lord and wound up having to pay the composers of He’s So Fine a not-so-sweet bundle of cash.