Songwriting & You: Chords WiredGuitarist June 5, 2016 Articles, The Woodshed, Uncategorized Welcome back to Songwriting & You! Lately we’ve been covering tips to help the process regardless of where you are, but this time we’re gonna get into the nitty-gritty… that’s right, we’re talking about blast-beats! Kidding. Chords as a Skeleton The idea here is that when you’re in the beginning stages of the songwriting process, you might have trouble getting past that “blank slate” stage. It can definitely be intimidating. This approach, then, involves using chords as a basis for your process. To start talking about that, though, we’re gonna have to dig into some theory. I promise, it won’t hurt. Understanding the Structure Buckle up, everyone. We’re gonna be working with something that’s heavily-steeped in music theory. For some more in-depth theoretical lessons, definitely check out Cannon’s wizardry here and Zack’s articles! They can definitely provide a helpful basis for what we’ll be getting into. To begin, we have to establish the key we’re gonna be writing our material in. For the intents and purposes of this article, I’ll refrain from involving any sharps of flats; that can complicate things for some. This means that we’ll be sticking to C major/A minor. Spelling out these keys is a super simple process, too. C major is C D E F G A B, whereas A minor is A B C D E F G. Simple. Chords, then, are a combination of three notes. They can be any three notes, but the basis for understanding chordal composition lies in a 1-3-5 structure. Here, 1 is the root, 3 is the third, and 5 is the fifth. Not too bad, right? Take C major. This chord has C as the root (1), then you go up two more notes to get the third (3) of E, leaving G as the fifth (5). The same concept applies for the other chords you’d make with this key. Got it? Good! Spice Things Up So, the joke is that all pop songs are made up of four chords. And that’s mostly true. You don’t necessarily have to use the ever-loved I-V-vi-IV progression either – I’ll cover progressions and cadences in a future article. It’s totally cool to just pick some chords you like in your key and go for it. Having said that, for the purposes of this article, let’s stick with it. In practice, that means we’ve got C major (CGE), then G major (GBE), A minor (ACE), and finally F major (FAC). Notice how the chords are constructed just by using that 1-3-5 formula. Keep that in mind! Notice anything else, though? All the chords share notes. There’s definitely a science to this, folks. As previously mentioned, chords are made up of three distinct notes. The great thing about chords is that they leave room for other content and sometimes even imply different lines. Say you’re starting out your song and you strum that C major chord and you just don’t know where to go from there. Well, let’s look at what’s next: G major. Maybe try floating around G and going back and forth across the fretboard. Or you could do some cool flairs from B to E, since you’ve got that grouping from C major to G major. Really, there are limitless options available to you. The best way to experiment is just to practice and having fun with it. And speaking of having fun with it, there exists one particularly fun loophole to the idea of using chords as a backbone… Just What Are You Implying? You know how a lot of times bass players will just play root notes along with the guitar? That’s a deceptively helpful practice. When you just play the root note of a chord, you’re implying the tonality of the other parts of that chord. This leaves room for some creative melodic lines. If a bass player goes C, G, A, F, they’re leaving things wide open for you to fill things in with your guitar or singing. Go ahead, riff to your heart’s desire. That’s what we were all born to do, after all. Speaking of Singing… Here are a few examples of songs using chords (or implying chordal qualities) to create a fuller package for the listener where the vocals sit on top of the chords. I’ll include a variety of different genres, too. This is Mutiny Within’s “Undone” and it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. Pay attention to what the rhythm guitar is doing and how the leads and the vocals layer on top of the root notes to create an ever-expanding wall of sound. The harmonies in the chorus give me chills, too. Every single time. Here we’ve got a dark pop tune from VÉRITÉ called “Strange Enough.” It’s synthy, it’s smooth, and it’s full of liquidy layers that all fit one on top of another that transport you to an aural paradise. This is one of the newer singles from A Day to Remember, it’s called “Paranoia.” The approach we discuss in this article doesn’t really appear until the chorus, but that’s fine, because it shows that you don’t necessarily need to use this for entire songs. Watch how the vocals sit on top of the progression in the chorus, though: he’s not necessarily following the progression but adding to it. Finally, this is Porcupine Tree’s “Trains.” I could go on for hours about how much this song means to me and why I love it so much, but it’s really a perfect example of using chords as the bulk of the sonic space in a song. The acoustic strumming sets the stage for the rest of the tune, and everything builds on top of that. One thing that I’ve noticed when covering this song, even, is that the vocal line even lines up to the higher strings on guitar when you’re playing the chords at the same time. It’s almost like Steven Wilson designed it that way or something. I hope this has been an enlightening read for you guys! If you ever don’t know where to go in a song, throw down some chords and listen to what they’re telling you. Let them work for you. If you liked this article, read more… This article written by Nico Madden.