Courtesy of Casey van Wensem...
Modern songs typically use fairly simple chord progressions, however applying a few expanded chord writing concepts can actually have a lot to offer, even in the simplest of song settings...
More advanced chord types or songwriting concepts don't have to sound complex. In fact many of these songwriting tools are based upon very simple principles.
Take for example, voice leading. This technique is the art of identifying and enhancing melodic movement between chords. So while a typical musician might see a chord progression like C-G-Am as three distinct (but harmonically related) chords, someone with experience in voice leading might see not only those three distinct chords, but also three (or more) distinct melodies that flow from one chord to the next.
The best way to explore new songwriting techniques is to experiment with different chord inversions and different chord types. The most basic way to play a chord pattern would be to play each chord in its root position, using the lowest note from the popular triad chord to form the bassline.
However, if you wanted to mix things up, you could play the G chord in its first inversion, using the B as the bass note. This would create a simple walking pattern in the bassline from the C down to the A.Or, you could change the "Am" to an "Am7." This is subtle, yet it may produce just the result you're looking for.
This work of altering chords in simple ways is probably something we’ve all done as writers thousands of times without even thinking about it (especially if you play the guitar). And, as we’ll see, these simple concepts can take on many useful applications in contemporary songwriting. Here are a few examples to get you started.
1. Add linear movement to bass-lines
Ascending and descending bass-lines have become a fixture in contemporary rock and pop music, and this is largely thanks to the concept of voice leading. You can think of this application of voice leading as a continuation of the C-G-Am example mentioned above.
Jazz players will often think in this way – by limiting the movement in their hand positions to a minimum, they can play faster, tighter-fitting harmonies that move quickly and smoothly from one chord to the next. Even if you don’t play jazz, you can use this technique to create melodic bass-lines with more interesting harmonic content than bass-lines built around simple root notes.
2. Expanding upon harmonies
The concept of voice leading comes to us from the choral tradition, so it makes sense to apply this concept to harmonies. While you will often hear choirs and vocal groups singing “chords,” most choral composers don’t think about chord progressions in the same way that a pianist or guitarist might.
If we begin to use each voice (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) as its own melodic line that interlocks with the other individual melodic lines to create chords we'll achieve an expanded harmony. This also extends to larger chord types, (like; 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th).
When you expand harmony, be sure that your parts aren’t jumping around wildly from note to note. Work hard to make sure the chord tones are moving smoothly from one note to another.take your time and test a lot of different chords, until you discover just the right sound.
To harness this technique, the next time you’re working on expanding harmonies, try thinking of each chord voice not just as a harmonic element, but as its own melodic element as well.Notes will stand out more at upper registers, so pay a lot of attention to all of the highest notes. The better those notes react and form the upper melody, the better the overall connectedness will be for the song.
3. Create and release tension
Singer/songwriter Andrew Bird describes chord movements as “finding the melody in a chord progression.” That’s exactly what he did with the bridge to his song “Roma Fade” from the album Are You Serious.
On an episode of the Song Exploder podcast, Bird talks about how he played with chord inversions in the bridge while paying attention “not just [to] the outer voices […] but the inner voices.”
This helped him turn a simple three-chord progression into a tight harmonic line that “keep[s] the tension rising” in the lead-up to the chorus. Listen to how he achieves this in the video below, starting at around 1:14.
Think of how else you could apply this concept to create movement and tension within your own simple chord progressions.
Paying more attention to chord movements will have a lot more to offer than what’s mentioned here, but these methods should give you some good places to start if you want to investigate voice leading further. Once you understand the basic principles, you’ll start seeing applications all over the place.
Plus, as you study more chord types, voicings and patterns, you’ll get the added benefit of being able to simultaneously impress and annoy your band-mates by saying things like, “Let’s apply some more complex chordal principles in that bridge to create some further tension within that IV-V-III progression.”
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.
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