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Ken Stephenson, in What to Listen for in Rock, holds that harmonic contrasts help delineate form in rock music. "In rock, where repetition of harmonic patterns is so common," he explains, "any break in the pattern will likely mark a significant moment in the form [of a song] . . . many rock songs use differences in chord successions to help distinguish sections."

Specifically, he gathers that "in most rock pieces, verses start with tonic harmony . . . other sections (i.e., choruses and bridges) normally distinguish themselves by beginning on IV, V, or vi."

This information is useful in rock songwriting insofar as it helps create a basic skeleton of the form for a song. But I still get tripped up in the later steps. I have two specific issues:

1) Differences in Chord Progressions If I have already decided on a verse or chorus chord progression, how can I use that progression to determine what the other section should look like? For example, if I like the chorus progression (IV-V-I), is there any logical way to pair that chorus with the verse (I-V-vi-V/vi)? If you're curious, this is The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Is this process a guessing game, or is there any theory that dictates how to proceed once a songwriter is confident in one particular section but totally clueless on the other?

2) Harmonic Rhythm I am curious of the effects of using the same or varied harmonic rhythms in a song. For example, consider the difference in the following verse-chorus units (VCU): (I-vi-IV-V) , (I-iii-ii-V) and (I-I-IV-IV) , (I-iii-ii-V). Notice that the key difference between the two VCU's is the harmonic rhythm in the verse. How does this affect the appeal of the chorus? Is a chorus with fast harmonic rhythm (one or more chord changes per bar, for example) more welcome when the verse is simplistic? In the earlier case of The Beatles, is the straightforward progression of the chorus more welcome after the busier harmonic pattern in the verses?

I appreciate your insight.

  • What have you tried so far, and did you have problems with that approach? Would something bad happen if you just tried something? Are you looking for a formula that prevents you from making mistakes? Try doing it both ways, first one following your nose without an overview map, and then another with a structural design? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Aug 28 '19 at 16:43
  • @piiperi so far I have followed my instincts. Sometimes this works, but sometimes I am left aimless. I would be happy to "follow my nose" if it was efficient or if I could do it with confidence, but at the moment I am hoping for a theory to guide my choices. – 286642 Aug 28 '19 at 16:59
  • So ... you're not sure if you like something? Or if you like something, you want a theory to tell if others will probably like it too? Or, you make something but it doesn't sound good enough, and you'd like to know why you don't like it? Or are you asking for a method to create chord progressions that make you feel good? I guess you have a real issue here that we could do something about, but still this feels like yet another question that will only get closed. :/ I'm not sure if this site's format is well suited to actual music-related questions that real people are able to formulate. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Aug 28 '19 at 19:45
  • @piiperi my questions are clear. If they are not welcome here that's a different issue. – 286642 Aug 29 '19 at 0:42
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    "Is this process a guessing game" no it is not chaotic, you can learn to do it. "is there any theory that dictates" no, there is no theory that dictates, theory does not dictate, theory describes. Maybe you should ask for methods and practices you could follow to gain confidence. (though that's asking for recommendations and opinions, which is not the kind of "correct / incorrect" sort of laboratory measurement truth that the stackexchange format wants everything to be) – piiperi Reinstate Monica Aug 29 '19 at 7:10
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In one sense the questions are "clear" (as you say) but in a more important sense any answers are somewhere between misguided and irrelevant.

Looking at a collection of musical works and identifying some common characteristics of them is what musicologists do for a living, and if what they find is something that a typical listener can actually follow just by listening, that may increase the listener's awareness of what is going on in the music.

But on the other side of the coin, that doesn't produce any evidence that the composers of the music thought about it the same way as the musicologists. I doubt whether the Beatles ever had theoretical debates among themselves about the effect of changes in harmonic rhythm between verse and chorus. They just wrote songs, which caught the mood of the time they lived in.

Even if you can "understand" the Beatles' song output in terms of some common musicological features, the only thing that gives you is the ability to make something that sounds vaguely like a Beatles song. If you do that well enough to become well known, you may end up in court over copyright violation. And however well or badly you do it, 2019 isn't the 1960s - so if you really want to have millions of teenage fans, you should probably be analysing K-Pop, Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift, not the Beatles!

You already have the right answer: "follow your instincts". The more you follow them, the easier it gets and the more confident you become about what your instincts are telling you.

The best way to write a good song is first to write a hundred bad ones. If the hundredth song is no better than the first, maybe songwriting isn't going to be the most fulfilling way you can spend your life, but trying to invent a "formula" for making them "better" isn't going to solve the problem either.

The important take-home message from studying the Beatles isn't a musicological analysis. It's the fact that in 8 years, they recorded 188 original songs (plus some cover versions). That is a new song written, recorded, and released almost every two weeks for those 8 years. How many others were written (or half-written) but discarded, we can only guess.

  • this is a great perspective to have. thank you. – 286642 Aug 29 '19 at 12:58
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It's not a guessing game, exactly, but it's also not like there are hard and fast rules either. Your skill as songwriter manifests in choosing what to do.

That said, there are some useful guidelines and rules of thumb to help you think about the choices.

In my experience as music listener, musician and songwriter, I have found that composition ultimately boils down to balancing two opposing qualities: continuity and contrast.

Too much continuity (too little contrast) and the piece is ultimately boring. The easiest way to achieve continuity is to just keep repeating the same thing over and over again; it's gonna get old, no matter how good it is.

Too much contrast (too little continuity) and the piece sounds disjointed. We can get the most contrast by doing something completely different, but we risk having two or three good songs struggling to get out of one mediocre one (in other words: we have a couple of really cool sections that really don't fit together at all and would work better separately).

As applied to your question, what you'll most often want to shoot for is a chorus that is different than the verse (contrast), but connected to it in some way that is obvious to the listener (continuity). So what are our options? Let's consider some approaches:

Transposition

The simplest way of achieving both a measure of contrast and continuity is to simply take the progression of one section and to transpose it to a different key - especially if we keep the riffs/motifs intact. Transposing a whole step upwards tends to work well if we want to give the whole thing more energy (the truck-driver's gear-shift), but transposing I to IV (e.g. C major to F major) or even I to V (C major to G major) also works pretty well. The transposition process is reversible, so moving from verse to chorus and back to verse is no problem at all.

Minor/major contrast

If your verse is in a minor key, writing your chorus in the related major key (e.g. A minor verse/C major chorus) provides contrast (minor/major), continuity (you're still using mostly the same set of notes/chords) and an additional bit of uplift because of the "happier" character of major keys. A major verse/minor chorus might also work, though here there's a risk of the focal point of your song (chorus) being less exciting than the surrounding verses.

Section transitions

If you have a verse based around a repeating progression (four bars, say), you'll usually want to have it "loop" easily (that is: the last bar/chord of the progression moves back to the first bar/chord in a way that doesn't feel forced or contrived). Look at that last chord and consider: what other chords could I move to from here, without it sounding forced or contrived?

The Stephenson example in your question gives some possible answers. For example, if your verse progression starts and ends on a I, you can ask: what chords other than I would sound good approached from a I? Well, there's V, IV, vi...

Of course, we haven't forgotten that we'll need to get back to that I in the verse progression eventually, so we should write the end of our chorus progression in a way that resolves nicely to the verse.

While we're here, I would generally advise against having a section intented to contrast with the preceding one (such as verse/chorus) start on the same chord as the preceding one. Looping a single section around on the same starting/ending chord is usually ok. Staying on the same chord across sections tends to blur the section break and dull the contrast.

Interludes/bridges/pre-choruses

Sometimes having the same progression on both the verse and chorus works rather well, actually. Sometimes it feels like the best approach; the only problem being the lack of contrast. What then?

The easiest solution is to drop in a pre-chorus, bridge, interlude or whatever you want to call it. The purpose of this section isn't to stand on it's own (like the chorus or verse migh). Its purpose is to get you from point A (verse) to point B (chorus). It will often be a one-shot progression (not intended to be repeated) and you'll want it to:

  1. start on a different chord than the verse/chorus (contrast),

  2. end in a way that resolves well to the subsequent section (continuity).

Any of the preceding approaches may be useful here.

On rhythm/changes

Regarding your second question, you're probably guessing at the answer already: when deciding how often to change chords in one section, considering what we're doing in an already existing one, we'll want to consider the balance between contrast and continuity.

Having one section be busy and another laid back, as far as the number of changes goes, is another way to provide contrast. However, we probably don't want to overdo it, lest our chorus sound like it's from a different song than the verse.

Get with the vocals (melody)

This answer wouldn't be complete without this very important part: if you have an already existing vocal line, melody or lyrics, these should be the principal guide to how the rest of the song is put together.

One thing you definitely don't want is a fight for space between your vocals and your instruments. If the vocal is carrying a busy line with lots of words, you may want a sparser harmony. If the vocal line has many long, sustained notes, you might want to mix the harmony up a bit more, to put those notes in a different light. Depending on the subject matter of the lyrics, you may wish to evoke different feelings or atmospheres with the harmony. The correct approach will depend on your pre-existing material and your imagination and taste as creator.

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