9

I've never seriously tried writing a song until this week but I have tried putting interesting progressions together and I noticed I always end up doing something a bit different.

Obviously, interesting music is great but should a brand new songwriter, used to playing 4-chord songs on an acoustic guitar, stick to something simple musically? Is it a common rookie mistake to be throwing in dozens of 'cool' chords?

Obviously there are untold amazing songs which prove you don't need to be 'clever' so when starting out, should one deliberately keep things as simple as possible so there's less to get in the way?

  • 9
    It is a common mistake for experienced songwriters as well. – Neil Meyer Feb 25 '15 at 14:30
  • 2
    You need to read about Mark Rosewater and how he creates Magic the Gathering cards. Each pack of cards has 15 cards in it, and 10 of them are common. So most cards people see will be common cards. Common cards have to be simple. Turns out, these simple ones are the hardest to make because they have to be elegant. Simple enough to be understood immediately by every player, and yet powerful enough to be worth looking at a second time. They are very, very hard to make. I cannot imagine writing elegant music is any different. – corsiKa Feb 26 '15 at 16:45
  • That's an interesting argument. – Mr. Boy Feb 26 '15 at 16:46

13 Answers 13

8

It's somewhat like writing a story, or a book. One of the first things to consider is - what is the audience, who am I writing this for? A lot of the best known/loved songs are quite simple. That's because they appeal to a bigger cross-section of the listening public, who can understand and appreciate them. Songs with lots of cool chords, etc., appeal to me, as a muso, but leave my other half, who loves music, rather flat. "It's all too complicated and messy".

There's nothing at all wrong with putting all sorts of clever stuff in, but your listeners will be more appreciative with the simpler renditions, by and large. It's the old adage - jazz players play a hundred chords/notes to 3 people; blues players play 3 chords/notes to a hundred people. Sad/funny, but true...

  • 3
    Reminds me of: Rock: playing for 20000 people on $20 instruments. Contemporary music: playing for 20 people on $20000 instruments. – yo' Feb 25 '15 at 17:28
  • It's true but that implies more niche music is somehow better or more important. I think that's a bad approach. After all, lots of the music I like is popular music from household name bands! – Mr. Boy Feb 26 '15 at 15:21
  • 1
    Does 'better' or 'more important' equal more or less popular? I'm not sure if it's either! – Tim Feb 26 '15 at 16:58
6

You have been advised by Tim to consider your audience. That is one reason to write a song. Another is to practice and develop your craftsmanship of songwriting. Finally, you may a write a song to express feelings or thoughts of your own, a reflection of your ideas, of your personality.

I have written songs for all these purposes, and they are all perfectly legitimate. However, for me the purpose of self-expression drives all the rest.

So when you question whether or not your song is getting too complicated, ask yourself, "What am I trying to express?" Let that be your guide. You may find yourself writing a song about writing songs that are too complicated. I would like to hear that tune.

Maybe most important of all, quiet your critic while you are at work. Just let the song out. Judge it after you make it, not in the middle of the process.

  • 2
    I've always wanted to write a song about having no idea how to write a song. But I'm not sure where to start. – Mr. Boy Feb 25 '15 at 16:57
  • +1. Interesting take on it. If you were writing a love song to a particular individual, you'd probably tailor it so that it was at least in a style palatable to that lucky person,maybe? – Tim Feb 25 '15 at 17:24
5

This is an excellent question, I do not think it is a 'common' mistake for songwriters. I do however, think that a good handful of songwriters think that their compositions must be complex in order to be good, which I think is quite far from the truth.

If you're songwriting, do not actively think about trying to do something different and unique. Write the music that makes sense to you. Come up with progressions without actively thinking that you must do something unique to set it apart. Good songwriting takes a lot of practice. Songwriting is a skill that can be learned and improved upon, like all other skills.

This isn't saying that your first songs will be or should be simple, for you to improve your skills, but I do strongly believe that if you actively search out 'unique' things to do with your music, the songs will probably sound awkward, especially if you're a novice songwriter. Do not force your tunes to be different or contain cool chords. Again, write the music that makes sense to you, and if the opportunity arises to utilize a cool chord, use it!

5

Commercial songwriters who are writing for a particular target market, tend to use a trusted formula to produce songs that are very similar to what their target audience is buying. There is a chance that the target audience is buying a certain formula, because it is being force fed to them by the media outlets that have the deep pockets to get the "airtime".

That is one reason we keep hearing the same chord progressions in the same type music, song after song. Another reason is that there may actually be a reason that certain chord progressions work. See this explanation for example Why are 4 chord songs so popular

But one of the best reasons to write music, is for your own enjoyment and to share with your friends and family. For this - there is no reason to follow any particular prescribed formula, just because it has proven successful in terms of the number of popular songs based upon that formula. The songs you write because YOU want to write them, should be a reflection of who you are and what is in your heart and soul. Not a reflection of how well you can follow the "rules and formulas".

Many great composers were more appreciated long after they were gone than when they were still living - so even if you are composing music that nobody other than you seems to like today (perhaps they have not been conditioned to like it yet), who's to say that 100 years from now, you will be known as the father of modern music. Maybe your ideas can become revolutionary.

You can certainly read about theory, and why you should or should not do this or that or stick to a certain formula or learn the so called "rules" before you try to break them.

But I believe you should embrace your ability to create music outside the norm. Make no attempt to squelch this ability by trying to fit in box or conform to certain ideas, concepts or principles. You might be just beginning to discover the musical genius that has been locked up in your brain since your were very young. Don't stifle it. Don't twist it. Don't kill it by trying to follow what someone else "thinks" you "should" do. Let it flourish. See what happens.

If you like what you end up creating, by embracing your unique way of arranging your music, then don't let anyone tell you what you composed is wrong or too deviant from the "norm". Maybe your music can become the new norm.

I am actually quite envious of your apparent creative proclivity to compose based on what you feel and hear in your heart, and your willingness to try interesting musical ideas that come to you - as opposed to following a certain formula.

I started writing the easy way, followed the simple tried and true formula. Now I am seeking devices on Music and Theory; Stack Exchanged, to try to break free from the composing rut I fell into by following the simple route and sticking to the rules. I became conditioned to following these formulas - much the same way you develop muscle memory by practicing certain pieces of music on your instrument.

Go with the flow. Don't force anything one way or another. See where your unique and individual creative juices lead in the absence of external influence (other peoples ideas). If you are not happy with the end result, Keep tweaking until you get something you are happy with. If all else fails, take some of what your creative mind produced organically - that you do like, and use the rules and formulas to mold the rest of the song into something more typical or more traditional.

But please don't be trying to fix it if it ain't broke. What is coming from within your untrained (read un-tainted) musical mind, may one day be recognized as nothing short of brilliant!

4

I would call this common, but not a mistake. When I try to compose a new song, I cannot stick to just a couple of chords; that's boring for me. I try to add more and more stuff.

The advice I should give you is not to play just 4 chords; play as many as you want, but not more than you can handle.

What I'm trying to say is that don't go out of the way just to add more chords that 'sound cool'. These will come after some time of songwriting. Stick to what you can easily play and work (expand) on that.

For instance: Let's say you can easily play the chords from the C major scale. Don't try to add more chords as of yet. Explore all the combinations of those chords and see what you can get. When you feel that you need a different sound, then it is time to add more chords.

Since you are a beginner, I can understand your excitement about adding a lot of new stuff you've learned about; most people have it. But you have to combine that excitement with restraint. Like when you see a girl you like on the road; you won't ask her at that precise moment to sleep with you.

Also, you will see that if you work really hard just to add some cool sounding chords, the result might not be what you expected. You want the song to have a nice, natural sounding progression; if you keep adding chords, you might lose that. Sometimes the result might be 'trying too hard'.

  • Agreed. My hubby wrote a great and very memorable song which only uses 3 chords, though i can fill it in with I7 here and there. – mey Feb 26 '15 at 9:25
4

When I was writing my first few songs, after a while, I remember that I got very ambitious. I think it's not something happening to musicians only, but to almost every skill you can learn... As soon as you understand the basics of something, you want to go further and do more than what you did before. Every rookie wants to do everything at once and even more, which is a good thing!

Unfortunately, if you're not a very skilled writer yet, the result could be disappointing, because the idea in your head was probably a thousand times better. Yet I don't believe that you should limit yourself, absolutely not!

I've been writing songs for about two years now and I've made too many mistakes to count. But making mistakes is a part of the whole learning process, if you just limit yourself to the same 4 basic chords over and over again, I don't think you'd learn how to write good songs very quickly.

As long as it is not frustrating, keep going over boundaries, but don't forget to know the basics as well. It would be impossible to write a good song with complex chord progression, if you didn't write countless songs with the same basic chord progression. Best thing is to write as much as you can. Stay focused on the basics you know, but don't be afraid to go further!

One advice I can give you, would be to write a simple song in a basic chord progression, and then rewrite or expand the same song in a more complex and experimental context. So at least, if the new song is bad, you still have the old basic song, which you can always improve later on, if you want to.

"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist." -Pablo Picasso
  • I write melody-first, then fill in harmonies later, so I've effectively written several songs with complex chord progressions (at least one of which is good, I hope) while writing far fewer songs with the same basic chord progression. – Dekkadeci Sep 17 '17 at 16:38
4

I think I read somewhere that somebody ran a sizable corpus of Beatles songs through computational analysis with the result that each song had pretty much exactly one chord that stood out as unusual in its chord progression.

Basically, you don't want to wear down your listeners with earcatchers. They need something to focus their anticipation on.

  • Yes, there is an answer about this on the site already: music.stackexchange.com/a/7673/9198 – Bob Broadley Feb 25 '15 at 12:53
  • My reaction when the Beatles stopped thrashing three chords and got a bit more harmonically adventurous was "So they've discovered Burt Bacharach then" :-) – Laurence Payne Feb 25 '15 at 13:33
3

You have to develop your skills, and you can't do that unless you exercise them. If complex harmonies excite you, then by all means learn to work them in to your songs. The skill is to do so in a way that doesn't sound contrived.

A couple of pop artists to listen to who spring to mind are Steely Dan and Paul Simon. Many of their songs are built around quite a simple 'core' progression - sometimes for long sections just riding along on the tonic chord - but then move through a complex sequence quite quickly in a way that often follows the melody closely, so it doesn't seem like a gratuitous addition.

Another route to go would be to try to work out what's going on in some jazz standards. Many of these are familiar enough that by doing something along similar lines, you'd hopefully manage not to offend with your cleverness!

Of course cleverness isn't always about complexity. Some of the very best music of all genres takes simple, familiar elements, and weaves them into something more than the sum of its parts.

2

Much of the current Top 40 consists of a very few notes chanted over very simple harmony. So if the aim is money and success, maybe you should restrict your musical horizons rather than trying to expand them!

Don't throw wild curve balls just to be clever. They won't bounce the way you expect :-)

You maybe started off with 3-chord songs in C major. Then you discovered that Dm7 is an alternative to F, that Fm has an interesting flavour, that Bb is perfectly "allowed" in C major, that major 7ths and flat 5ths can be pretty... Then you maybe notice the tricks common to the Great American Songbook - a phrase in C repeated a minor 3rd higher in Eb, the unprepared leap to a remote key then a journey home through the cycle of 5ths... and lots more. As these techniques become part of your vocabulary, use them. A less sophisticated musician may see it as "way out", but YOU'RE just writing within your comfort zone.

Then go back and write a really catchy 3-chord song!

  • It's not about money/success and I don't buy into snobbery "that's just chart music". My thought was that so many great songs - classics by anybody's standard - are so simple, that I shouldn't need to be complicated to make a good song. – Mr. Boy Feb 25 '15 at 15:20
  • "I've never seriously tried writing a song until this week" :-) Come back when you've written the first dozen. No, they don't have to be complicated, but they can be if you like. – Laurence Payne Feb 25 '15 at 15:34
1

First off, you can't really call anything you do in a creative platform a mistake. Sure, you can make a mistake in the sense that you did not do what you intended but to call an approach to creatively expressing yourself a mistake is to undermine what creative expression is.

I come from a background of trying to write something you've never heard before and it has not really been the easiest of paths, and not just because it is hard to write something completely new. Often times I come up with a chord progression that I find to be really awesome but it is rather foreign due to it's less than conventional progression. The complicated nature of what I try to write makes it much harder to compose the rest of the material for it. For instance, a chord progression that is constantly changing keys to relatively unrelated tonal centers requires a melody that has lots of chromatic notes. This not only makes it harder to find a melody that fits but harder to find a melody that seems to be cohesive. Intuitive melodies tend to be mostly diatonic, so having chords from multiple tonal centers basically prevents an intuitive melody from working, shy of lots of dissonance. So I end up coming up with this idea that I love but have a hard time moving forward with it and turning it into an actual song. This ends up getting a bit easier as you do it more frequently but with that approach, the next song I would write could very well have the same issues. I've ended up having a lot of song ideas or interesting rhythm section ideas that don't actually go anywhere.

Eventually I started writing some more stuff with more standard sorts of approaches but focusing on specific styles that I love, such as Funk/Fusion, and now have significantly more songs that are fully fleshed out. I find that my experience in trying to write incredibly complicated, unique sounding songs has a place in my more standard songs. I tend to utilize something more standard as the driving force of the song and place more complicated passages selectively, like throwing an unexpected chord at the end of a phrase to create a sort of dissonance that a dominant chord might offer in a more standard approach.

In considering where this music might land, I feel that the songs that are less complicated are more likely to be well received by an audience. I would like to be a successful musician and I would love it if that success came from the most unique and creative expression I have but that is not so likely. The general public tends to appreciate more simple approaches and relative repetition much more than something unique and new, hence the seemingly endless amount of songs that all sound (and are) incredibly similar. But every once in a while someone comes along with something rather unique, maybe or maybe not theoretically complicated, and changes the game, which people then end up imitating endlessly, so originality can still be of value. Bands like Primus, who basically sound like nothing else, are a rarity but a beacon of hope for people like myself.

I might suggest combining your approaches. Write something beyond the full scope of your knowledge/experience/proficiency and see what the best thing you can do with that is. Then write something that is entirely 'in the box'. By working both sides of the fence, you can really gain a catalog of songs by not getting stuck on the complicated songs, while still pursuing a more unique or complicated approach. Hopefully in the end you will end up more proficient at less intuitive ideas and more able to spice up a relatively standard song.

As I mentioned in a recent answer to Rockin Cowboy's question on writing new melodies, it is important to practice songwriting and composition in the same way you would your playing. By practicing the act of writing, you can try new things without worrying about whether or not they will create the best song. This lets you work out ideas in a place that doesn't matter so that you can apply the skills you are practicing to other songs that you consider important.

0

To answer you question I would say yes it is a common mistake. But you learn through the process. If you breakdown many songs, you will discover common chord progressions everyone uses. Not asking you to follow rules and break them, but you will naturally gravitate towards chords that express your thoughts because that is what we hear all the time in music.

Chords are the building blocks and melody is the decorative feature on top of it. Many composers have ability to get very creative over common progressions. How many songs follow the standard progressions? Check: http://www.hooktheory.com/theorytab/common-chord-progressions

and

http://www.musictheory.net/lessons/57

0

If you're just starting out, you should write what appeals to you --trying to fit into a preconceived box will just cramp your creativity. It some ways, as well, it's easiest to produce something truly original before you internalize all the "rules."

With that said, one common pattern that has proven successful in many songs is to give the chorus the simplest chord structure, and the bridge section the most complex chords. Ben Fold's "Annie Waits" is a pretty decent example of this structure. Bob Dylan's "This Wheel's on Fire" doesn't have a bridge, but it has plenty of minor and even diminished chords in the verse, versus almost all major chords in the chorus.

0

Using complicated chords for the sake of it or because they are "cool", as you say, is definitely a mistake. You should use whatever chords suit the song you are writing. If that is complicated, cool chords then so be it. using them because you feel you're supposed to is a fools errand.

Songs are successful or not based on many things, but the complexity of the chords used would be way way.... way... down that list.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.