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I know about the necessity of writing songs with a 4 chord progression. Yet every time I sit down to place a chord progression upon my melody I wind up with a convoluted mess. If my melody has a D note in the 2nd bar I struggle not placing a D minor in the chord progression and stray too far from my I IV V goal.

If I try to write my melody while using chord progression as a guide I feel like I am going too easy to the point of monotony. I don't think I could handle playing a 3 minute piece of four chords repeatedly. I do like the sound of 4 chord progressions (Bob Dylan "Easy Chair") but when it comes to writing something that simple I struggle to take pleasure in it. How can I write 4 chord progressions without feeling like a hack?

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  • Have a good listen to the thousands of songs - some very well known - that use I vi IV V. Determine what makes them work. There's still plenty of life left in I vi IV V (or I vi ii V) sequences! Axis of Awesome might give you some ideas.
    – Tim
    Jun 5 at 7:52
  • Use slight melodic and rhythmic variations to make the same repeated harmonic progression sound like it’s going somewhere.
    – wabisabied
    Jun 5 at 18:55
  • Can you add some more examples? What key do you have in mind, when you say D? Jun 9 at 13:13
  • Is it necessary to write songs with a 4 chord progression? Why not just write whatever melody you want? Jun 10 at 18:36
  • For my style of writing placing chords on top of my melody led to no chord progression. The song just wandered aimlessly. Jun 11 at 6:49
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I don't know what level of writing you consider "hack." One person's hack is another person's craft.

Given the Dylan song you mention, that kind of chord progression certainly lends itself to an intuitive melody approach. The harmony is basically diatonic. The melody move just about anyway you like diatonically provided it goes to sensible points like the tonic chord tones or the dominant degree to center or end phrases. That could be a basic tonal palette and the rest becomes mostly rhythmic to make the melody scan with lyrics.

Certain common melodic fragments can help guide that like DO RE MI or SOL LA SOL. Also, while the neighbor above DO is RE, in many tunes the lower neighbor is LA even when LA doesn't fit the chord, like a I chord.

Ideally, with enough practice, if you intuitively make a melody this way you sort of "hear" basic accompanying chords with your inner ear. You could try building up that skill with some simple strumming and humming. Just pick two chords and a three tone group for the melody. Vamp the chords back and forth, hum rhythmically using the three tones to go on and off the chord. If you used C and Am with melodic tones C A G, the "off" tones are only A on C chord and G on Am chord, the resolution of which is always just one place away.

If I try to write my melody while using chord progression as a guide I feel like I am going too easy to the point of monotony.

I'm not sure what "going too easy" means, but you can try approaching it as just craft. Work the most banal material into some kind of respectable line by using the musical devices that good melodies feature.

Start with a progression like the Dylan song and first just hit the chord tones with a decent melodic contour like an arch...

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...but the rhythm of that is really dead. From a metrical point of view it doesn't move toward the 1 beat, it actually constantly hits the 3 beat, and that very flat.

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As a mere process keep the series of pitches exactly the same, but create some "lead in" notes before the barlines (anacrusis it the technical word.) The helps create some drive to the 1 beat and provide a basic dynamic of strong to weak rhythmically. The half notes on the 2 beats are technically syncopation, but it helps keep the line moving instead of plopping down on beat 1 and dying. Syncopation helps keep a line moving and is appropriate for pop styles.

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Again, keeping the pitch sequence mostly the same add some non-chord tones. Those are the app appoggiatura or suspension and n.t./ant neighbor tone or anticipation. NCTs are standard and can easily be looked up. The add dissonance to a line and normally get resolved in standard ways. This creates a tension and release dynamic which is both expressive, dissonance can be viewed as emotional intensity, and provides forward momentum.

I don't think I could handle playing a 3 minute piece of four chords repeatedly.

It's possible to do that, heck some songs use just two chords, although such simplistic harmonic material is often dressed up with interesting riffs, rhythms, tonal color, etc.

You can break up the monotony of just four chord using alternate endings or inserting little contrasting phrases, like a few bars of instrumental fill. The example progression E G#m C#m A could be given alternate endings...

|E  |G#m|C#m|A  |
|E  |G#m|C#m|B  |

...or an instrumental fill could be...

verse: |E  |G#m|C#m|A  |
break: |G#7|C#m|A  |B A|

You could do it many ways. This is just a quick idea to vary the basic progression.

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It sounds like you are writing a melody in isolation and then trying to find a 4 chord progression that goes under it. Although there is no "bad" way to write music that seems a little limiting. Often when people write using chord progressions (whether they have 4 chords or more or fewer) they have a particular chord loop in mind (or write a new one) and then write a melody that "works" with that progression.

So if I wanted to write a nostalgic but triumphant feeling pop piece I might try a i-III-VII-IV progression because to me that progression has the right kind of feel. If I wanted to write a more jazzy piece I might go for a I-ii-V7 progression and then play around with melodies over that. These progressions will tend to push me towards very different kinds of melodies.

Other times we will write melodies and then try to find a chord progression that "works" under that melody, but the best "working" chord progression for a given melody might have more or less than 4 chords.

An whenever I say "works" what I mean is "sounds good." That's the only test that matters. Music theory can help us explain why an already written song sounds the way it does, or it can give us ideas about how to write new music, but the only test that really matters is whether you - the composer - like what it sounds like. If you like the sound but can't explain it using theory then that's fine. If you find a "mathematically" beautiful progression or melody that you think sounds like garbage, then it is garbage, regardless of what "music theory" says.

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you can handle all other notes - that don't fit to the 4 chords you want in your progression - as nonchord notes, as suspensions or nineths or sevenths.

You can listen to music such as ostinatos, passacaglias etc. with always the same bass line. (e.g. Last Christmas WHAM)

How can I write 4 chord progressions without feeling like a hack?

It's not the music that's wrong, it's your ears and your inner imagination of sounds that isn't habituated to the "strange" chords.

Listen to similar songs like Tim is suggesting. You can also listen to Bela Bartok's mikrokosmos or better: play it yourself.

P.S. Sometimes our memory is fixed on tunes or songs based on progressions with secondary dominants or chains of falling fifths: If you are caught in this prison you better change your concept of 4 chords or try a break out by using a playback of your progression and improvising (singing or whistling) variations to this accompaniment.

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  • I almost always introduce new sections with secondary dominants. Why are secondary dominants a bad thing? Do they cause a false sense of tonic? Jun 7 at 4:52
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One of the hardest lessons to learn is: what works for you?

Your brain is literally unique. There is no other brain exactly the same anywhere and never has been. Obviously some things can be said about all brains. And some other things can be said about some brains but not all. However your brain has a unique way of working. Which means that if you look at methodologies and processes then you'll need to adapt those processes to fit your brain and vice versa.

So, coming back to your question: basically what you're saying is "I want to write a 4 chord song, but my brain keeps on interfering".

Don't you think that's a sign that maybe you should embrace the way your brain works instead of trying to force it to do something that doesn't come naturally? The real red flag here is the fact you think it's boring to write such a song. Not challenging. Not impossible. No, boring.

It's good to have boundaries. I do it all the time when composing: I limit my self to a genre, or a scale or a feeling or whatever. They are my boundaries though. The ones I know fit my brain. Sometimes I'm adventurous and try something different. And then I find out that too fits my brain. Or not at all. You need to figure out whether that 4 chord boundary fits your brain. Maybe you need other boundaries to play with.

There's plenty of music that doesn't follow 4 chord progressions. It's music; anything goes. As long as it fits your brain.

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