The more you begin to understand chord progressions, the more accessible music will be for you. Some of the music theory and other technical aspects may seem difficult at first, but the more you work on it the easier it all becomes in the long run. And in this series of articles we have only touched on some of the more popular examples, there are many more chord progressions out there that fit different styles of music. In fact with some minor changes we can use specific progressions for genres that they normally do not fit in. With the proper strumming and chord inversions you can use the old and famous La Folia chord progression to create a unique punk-rock song, mixing genres can be fun!
After you have played as many different songs as possible and have learned many new progressions, it is time to put them to work. As a musician and a guitarist the best way to extend your musical knowledge is to start writing your own songs. You now have the basic building blocks to do this, the formulas and the general rules. Even if you have never written a song before, by all means give it a try. By using the popular pop rock chord progression C-G-Am-F, you are in no way infringing upon any other artists and their songs. No musician can copyright a chord progression, only melody and specific riffs. In fact, on the subject of copyright; as a rule of thumb basslines, progressions, and drum riffs are re-usable. Of course you do not want to create a song that sounds exactly like another, but it does happen (the recent court case of Pharrell and Marvin Gaye’s estate is one example). However it's not always fun to write a song using what is popular, and that's where you can get creative and expand on something new!
Here is a link to guide you as you start writing your own music. It is a Guitar Backing Tracks Generator; here you can access fretboard maps for how to finger chords in different tunings and to get an idea of how different progressions will sound. This page will help as you experiment with new chords and progressions, even those times when you are without a guitar it can still help in the process. For your first song, really challenge yourself, start by picking a key that perhaps is not normal for you, personally for me that key is F. Let's use this key with this chart, and see what we can come up with. I have always been a fan of Doo Wop progressions (I-vi-IV-V) so according to the chart let's start with Fmaj7-Dm7-Bbmaj7-C7, give that a play and see how it sounds. If it helps, take away the 7ths to get F-Dm-Bb-C. Now with the backing track chord generator in the link above we can start playing around with substitutions, secondary dominants, modulation, and we can spend hours changing this basic chord progression around. If we try the secondary dominants of Bb and C we get Eb and G… these different chords really change the sound of our original progression. Of course some changes may sound terrible, but that is what teaches us to listen to and trust our ears.
With each change try the chords on your guitar and make sure you follow what is happening with each chord. I personally like the sound of changing the Dm7 to a Dadd9 chord... which if you look the Dadd9 has an F# in it, this gives it a unique sound contrast for the Key of F (since F# is most definitely not in that key). That right there is what songwriting is all about, building on musical history, taking a common musical theme and adding something special. With this chord generator and your understanding of chord progressions, the possibilities are endless. Remember to focus not only on chord changes, but how you are playing the chords. Your strumming is very important for the feel of the song and the link above can even arpeggiate the chords. Arpeggios are a type of broken chord; instead of playing a C chord as a downward or upward stroke we play the individual notes of the chord. The order we play them in depends on the sound we want, often in songs we play the root or bass note and then the other notes. Arpeggiating our chords in a progression can really open up the complexity of a song.
From this point we can start working on other aspects of the song, for example many songwriters like to change the key during the song at some point, and The Beatles and David Bowie do this quite often. It is also wise to start working on your scales for the melody of the song. After all it is the melody that is copyrighted and truly the unique aspect of the music. You start with the general chord progression, make changes, and then use the proper scale to create a melody for your song within the proper key and progression.
As we have seen writing a song is simply a creative building process. We take what is popular and known and we add our own flair and style to it. We choose a key, a progression, a time signature, a scale, a strumming pattern, and we keep adding on until we have something that our ears and the audience’s ears like. Sometimes we want a sound that is dissonant and a little jarring; sometimes we want a sound that is accepted as pleasant (like the famous I-IV-V chord progression). The best part about music theory is that once you understand the basics, it is fine to bend and even break the rules. The best musicians and guitarists from the past and present understand the rules to writing songs, and they have the imagination and inventiveness to expand these general guidelines toward a new sound. Keep studying your chords and chord progressions and watch as your guitar and songwriting skills flourish!
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