Do you ever get stuck in a rut when you’re trying to write a song? Well today you’re in luck! In this music theory lesson, I will give you 5 songwriting hacks to help make your songs sound more interesting. These hacks are music theory concepts borrowed from a variety of great songs. Consequently, these represent some of my favourite chord progressions. Once you had understood the concept behind each hack, I encourage you to try them out for yourself. Significantly, you might just find that bit of inspiration you’ve been searching for. This list is in no particular order, so let’s start with the first hack that I thought of:
Songwriting Hacks #1: The IV Minor
The IV minor helps to create a sense of mystery in your chord progressions. It is usually preceded by a diatonic IV chord. In fact, theoretically, the IV minor chord is borrowed from the parallel minor key. For example, for a song written in the key of C Major, we would borrow chord IV from C Minor. To illustrate this is a side by side comparison of both scales. In this case, they have been harmonised into triads:
Now that you understand the theory behind the IV minor, let’s have a look at an example. To illustrate this, here is the chord progression to “Creep” by Radiohead. I have annotated the chord numbers in relation to the key of G major, since this is the key of the song:
In particular, The Beatles were big fans of using this chord in their songs. In fact, it can be found in their songs “Blackbird” and “In My Life.” Paul McCartney even said that going from the IV major to the IV minor was “the normal thing to do.” Bruno Mars also used this change at the end of the chorus in “When I Was Your Man.” With that said, I encourage you to experiment with the IV minor in a variety of keys. Markedly, it will open up a lot of interesting possibilities for your vocal melodies.
Songwriting Hack #2: The V Minor
In contrast, the V minor doesn’t get as much attention as the IV minor. However, that’s not to say that it doesn’t sound great when used correctly! Similarly to the IV minor, the V minor is borrowed from the parallel minor key. So, in the case of a song written in the key of C major, we would be borrowing chord V from C minor. In this case, that chord would be G minor. To recap, have a look at the 2 harmonised scales illustrated in the IV minor section of this lesson.
My favourite use of the V minor is in the song “Stop! In the Name Of Love” by The Supremes. It occurs in the 3rd bar of the chord progression in the verse, which features a Gm chord. As this tune is written in the key of C major, the use of a Gm chord represents a use of the V minor. To illustrate this, I have transcribed and annotated the first 4 bars of this chord progression below:
Another instance of the V minor being used in pop music occurs in the Bruno Mars hit “That’s What I Like.” I have discussed this song on this blog previously, so click here to check out that article in full detail.
Songwriting Hacks #3: Secondary Dominants
Next up on our list of songwriting hacks is perhaps the most commonly used. Secondary dominant chords are used in a variety of different songs. To clarify, these are the dominant chords of chords II, III, IV, V and VI in any key. To illustrate this point, here is the key of C major with each of its secondary dominants listed:
|Roman Numeral||Chord||Secondary Dominant|
|ii||Dm||A7 (chord V of D)|
|iii||Em||B7 (chord V of E)|
|IV||F||C7 (chord V of F)|
|V||G||D7 (chord V of G)|
|vi||Am||E7 (chord V of A)|
|vii||Bdim||No secondary dominant chord|
Remaining diatonic to the key signature all the time can get a little boring. Therefore, one of the most effective ways to combat this is to use secondary dominant chords. As I have written above, there are many examples of this concept in popular music. However, the one that springs to my mind straight away is the chord progression in the verse section of “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits:
This song is in the key of D minor, which is the relative minor of F major. If Mark Knopfler had remained diatonic when writing this tune, then the A7 in bar should be an Am chord. However, it is in fact the secondary dominant of the Dm chord, which is chord VI in the key of F Major. Using this is an example, it can be argued that the secondary makes the chord progression sound much stronger than if it had been a minor chord.
Hack #4: Diminished Chords
Or more specifically; diminished chords to create chromatic movement, particularly in the bass. To clarify, this technique is especially effective in creating a link between 2 chords that are separated by a whole tone. For example, let’s say that your chord progression starts on G major and then moves to A minor, but you think it sounds a little bland. You can liven this up by placing a diminished chord, or diminished 7th chord, a semitone away in between these two chords. This means that your new chord progression looks like this:
If you think this chord progression sounds familiar, it’s because I stole it from the pre chorus section of “Don’t Look Back In Anger” by Oasis. However, my favourite use of a diminished chord is in Destiny Child’s classic “Say My Name.” Here is a transcription of the main chord progression to that song:
As you can see from the chord chart, the B diminished chord in bar 4 creates a beautiful chromatic movement in the bass from Bb, to B and back to C. Furthermore, diminished chords add tension to your chord progressions, which help to keep your songs interesting.
#5: Chromatic Embellishment Of Static Harmony
Chromatic embellishment of static harmony is also known as a line cliché. This is where you take a chord, and constantly move one of the notes within that chord by a semitone, whilst keeping the other notes the same. This creates a new chord each time you move one note. The best known use of this concept is in the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine” which opens with chromatic embellishment of static harmony. I have transcribed and illustrated this concept below:
As can be seen, the top note of each chord moves down a semitone each bar, while the rest of the chord remains static. This helps to create a sense of tension and movement, and has a very specific sound. You can hear chromatic embellishment of static harmony in a number of songs. These include “Something” by The Beatles and “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. The song “Maniac” by Michael Sembello and the James Bond theme also feature this concept, but with the chromatic harmony ascending rather than descending, as was the case with the examples above.
To sum up, I encourage you to experiment with each of the 5 songwriting hacks outlined above. Transpose the ideas into different keys, and see if they can provide inspiration in your own songwriting endeavours. Remember, good writers never steal, they borrow! Every songwriter featured in this article likely borrowed the concept from someone else. So, don’t worry about being completely original. Instead, focus on creating interesting music that you enjoy, with a little help from the great songs of the past.
As always, I hope you have enjoyed this article, and I’ll see you next time.