Songwriting 101: Understanding Chord Changes

Courtesy of Benjamin Samam

Chords... they matter way less than you think they do. 

Last week we discussed the awesome power that is contrast between your sections. To recap, this means sticking to the low/high and fast/slow principle: if your chorus has a high melody, make sure the section that comes before has a low melody. Or, if your chorus has a slow melody, make sure the section that comes before has a fast melody. Contrast is amazing at making your song easier to follow, which is the goal.

In this article, I wanted to touch upon a subject that, when I was a professor at Berklee College of Music, I've always gotten a lot of push-back about: chords. Or, rather, how they matter way less than you think they do.

I grew up in a classical and jazz household. Fancy chords were all I ever knew before I started writing songs, and because of that, I would start with cool chords and colors before I tried to fit a melody in. What ended up happening is that my melodies were terrible, and only held up because the chords made them so interesting. But if you would whistle them on the street without any harmony to back them up, they would be boring and bland. Songs consist of melody and lyrics first. Harmony comes after that.

The message in this clip is that if you want to write a hit song, all you have to do is use these four chords. What I like about this video is that what it's showing is amazing, but the lesson to extract from it is completely the opposite of what it should be. What the folks in the video should be marveling at is that each of these songs feels iconic and unique, despite the fact that they're singing over the same damn chord structure. This is just great melodic and lyric writing. Chords have nothing to do with that.

The truth is that, unfortunately for your music theory teacher, chords are nothing but color. They have no meaning besides being a context that gives your melody a specific vibe.

Chords also don’t mean anything to people who aren’t musicians themselves. To non-musicians, music is magic. Normal people won't know whether your song has three chords or 20 chords, because they don't give a shit and don't know what a chord is.

What normal people do know is if a song has the type of color they like. In other words, if the listener happens to like simple punk-type colors, then they won’t like more difficult neo-soul-type colors. You can imagine that instrumentation and production has a large part to play in this as well.

Put it in action: try these two songwriting exercises

So here's the exercise I used to give my students at Berklee. Every song you write, only use the basic four chords: I major, IV major, V major, or VI minor. For a lot of people, this sounds really boring. That's the point. If you can write a melody that is interesting despite these boring chords, you know it's a good melody.

Once the song is done, go and put different, cooler /hipper chords to the songs. Your melody will be strong and your harmonies will be interesting, and with this newfound power, you will finally find a girlfriend. (Well, no guarantees on that last part.)

If you're too cool for school and you want a real challenge, try this: write a melody and lyric without any instruments. Just you singing to yourself. If you can make it catchy, interesting, and exciting without any chords, you win the internet. Then grab your piano or guitar and start putting harmony to your song and boom, you just wrote the catchiest damn song ever.

Benjamin Samama taught songwriting at Berklee College of Music from 2013–2015 and currently writes and produces pop music full-time in Los Angeles. His songs have been released by dozens of artists all over the world and enjoyed by millions. Click here to contact Benjamin if you'd like a one-on-one songwriting consultation with him.


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