Don’t Let the Quest For a Polished Demo Distract You

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Singer-songwriter with guitarThese days, so-called “demos” tend to sound almost like finished products. You only have to go back one generation to find that demos used to be pretty rough around the edges, meant to give a general sense of the possibilities. The performers, along with a smart producer, could turn that mess into gold.

I try to remind singer-songwriters that in today’s musical world, demos need to be clean and relatively polished renditions. That’s because most people actually have the technology to do that, and it’s sitting in their den or bedroom right now.

High-quality, polished demos have a downside, you need to know, and it’s this: when something sounds excellent and finished, it’s harder to consider that there might be a different (i.e., better) way to present that song.

A demo that’s ready to work with, but not ready for prime time, like Elton John’s “Levon” (1970), has advantages over demos that sound perfect. Mainly, the stripped-down instrumentation allows you to focus on melody, chords, lyrics, tempo, even meter (i.e., song structure) without being distracted by a polished production that makes you think the song is finished.

So it sounds like I’m making a brilliant case for not spending a lot of time making a high-quality demo of your music. I’m not. I’m just pointing out something that you need to remember in the music business: it’s always about the song.

These days, you can get something that sounds crisp, clean, balanced, well-performed and mixed, and you can do it “easily”, and you can do it quickly. But the ease and speed that that can all come together has a tendency to mask an important principle, which is that it’s always about the song.

Song’s need to connect on an emotional level with listeners. They need to be 4-minute journeys that allow musical energy to grow, stories to develop, musical ideas to evolve, and then leave the listener feeling something that entices them back for another listen.

A bad song that’s been expertly produced can actually come close to doing those things. But there is nothing like having a well-written, passionate song as a starting point. Jumping from a few fledgling musical ideas into a polished, finished-sounding demo can make you feel that you’ve got something fantastic, but you may have missed your target entirely.

So how do you make sure that the song you’ve written really works? The best first step that I know of is to record yourself singing it with a minimal instrumental backing track. Just pick up a guitar, or sit at a piano, and sing.

Then sit back and listen to the song, and try to ignore issues relating to instruments, levels, or production. Just focus on melody, chords, lyrics and basic song energy. Just listen to the song. Do you like what you hear? Is this unplugged version enjoyable? Does it work?

Most songs need more than that, but that’s where the producer’s imagination kicks in. But the bare-bones version of your song is arguably the most important step to getting a finished product that really connects — that really works.

If your song can captivate at that point, now you’ve got something you can turn into a creative musical journey.

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Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro

Why Simplifying the Rhythm of a Chorus Melody Works

From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro

The StrutsThere are truly endless examples of song melodies that demonstrate this common rhythmic principle: melodic rhythms become simpler and less active in a chorus than they do in a verse. The question is why.

The simplification of chorus vocal rhythm happens especially when the song title is sung. Take a look at this classic example:

Blackbird” (Lennon & McCartney). The rhythm of the verse melody includes a mix of 8ths and 16ths, but it all switches to much longer note values in the chorus when the song title is sung: Melodic Rhythm - Blackbird So you don’t think that it’s something that only happened back in the time of classic rock, take a listen to “Could Have Been Me” (The Struts), which achieves the slower rhythm by literally switching tempo/time signature, from a brisk “cut time” feel to a punchier “half-time” meter, effectively making melodic rhythms feel twice as long.

And so why is this a good idea? Mainly it has to do with the emotional value of the chorus words. The title of the song typically happens in the chorus in songs of most pop genres. That song title is often the hooky part, the words you want everyone to remember and everyone to hum.

You also want those title words to be ones that strike to the heart of your audience. It’s the part to which you want everyone to have an emotional connection. It’s not easy to have that kind of connection when the words are being spit out at a frantic speed, where they risk being missed entirely.

In many songs, it’s not just that the words use longer note values, but you’ll also notice that there is a simplification of rhythm. “Just Give Me a Reason” (Pink, Jeff Bhasker, Nate Ruess) achieves the simplification not so much by switching to noticeably longer note values in the chorus, but rather by switching to an uncomplicated 8th-note pattern: Just Give Me a Reason - Melodic Rhythm   To maximize the emotional clout of your song, remember the following tips:

  1. If the song title is a bit of lyric from the chorus, elongate and/or simplify the melodic rhythms whenever it gets sung.
  2. Think about the average listener in your target audience, and make your song title singable to them (i.e., make it singable even to a non-singer).
  3. Shape your melody so that emotional words generally get placed higher in pitch than other words.
  4. Think about the way you say a line when you try to figure out how to sing it.

It’s important to note that this simplification of chorus melodic rhythm happens even though the instrumental accompaniment might be getting rhythmically busier. It can provide a nice sense of contrast between vocals and instruments when you hear a band really crank it up during the chorus while the melody simplifies.

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Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

Songwriting Excellence and Floppy-Eared Rabbits

Essential Chord Progressions - Gary Ewer

Songwriter working at a piano keyboardI’ve written numerous times on this blog about the importance for songwriters to be constantly excellent. That means you need to be writing excellent songs, and achieving that level of excellence over and over again.

As a songwriter, you need to come to terms with what the word “excellence” really means. An allegory might help. Imagine that you’re visiting a local artisan or craft market. You see a fabric, floppy-eared rabbit, and you give it close inspection.

You see that the stitching is immaculate, the physical proportions are perfect, and it was obviously done with great care and love. In every sense of the word, you are looking at something that’s been excellently made.

But it’s a work of craft, not a work of art. It does no good to try to call it art, because art should do the following:

  1. Express something uniquely personal.
  2. Make that expression mainly an emotional one.

There may be other characteristics you could name, but those two are critical to songwriting excellence.

So let’s look at the number of ways in which those two statements might apply to your songwriting:

  1. Your latest song sounds fine, but doesn’t substantially differ from other songs by other songwriters in your chosen genre.
  2. Your latest song sounds similar to other songs you’ve written.
  3. You write about things that don’t require the listener to engage on an emotional level.
  4. It’s too easy for listeners to turn your music off, or take no real notice of it.
  5. You stick too closely to an accepted image of what’s correct as you compose your songs.

In other words, you may be writing the musical equivalent of a floppy-eared rabbit. You start off by knowing what your song should sound like, and you keep honing it until you’ve reached that goal.

There is risk in good songwriting, and any song that doesn’t confront that sense of risk simply won’t build a significant audience for itself. Floppy-eared rabbits are risk-free, because there’s a preconceived image of what it should look like when it’s done. And any sense of emotional expression with a floppy-eared rabbit is minimal if not entirely missing.

Any time you write something that’s uniquely personal, it’s a risk. It’s got to sound enough like something else in the listeners’ collective experience to not sound completely irrelevant, but it also needs to step out and be an individual expression. It’s a tight-rope walk.

And any time you write something that taps into your audience’s emotions, you’re encountering a new kind of risk.

So put your pencil down, turn on your own music, and start listening. And ask yourself if you’ve just listened to something unique, something personal, and something emotional – or did you just listen to the equivalent of a floppy-eared rabbit?

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Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Liza Anne’s “Watering Can”: Using Chord Progressions to Build Musical Momentum

Avoiding the tonic chord has the benefit of making listeners wait around until they hear it.

How to Harmonize a Melody eBook - Gary Ewer

Liza Anne - TwoOne of the most obvious ways to keep people listening to your songs is to create hooks that constantly demand attention. It’s something that producers and industry personnel love, because a hook is conspicuous. You can wave a good hook around like a flag and listeners flock to it.

But sometimes, subtle is better. With Nashville folk singer-songwriter Liza Anne, she uses a less obvious but quietly every bit as powerful technique in her song, “Watering Can“: avoid ending a phrase on the tonic chord.

The tonic chord is the one that represents the key of your song. If your song is in C major, the tonic chord is C. There’s a sense of destination, of musical relaxation you might say, that comes with a tonic chord. Play through the following progression, and you’ll hear that sense of rest when you get to the end:

C Am G Em F G C

It’s fairly common to use the tonic chord as a kind of musical target which gets placed at the end of a phrase, so I am certainly not saying that ending a phrase on the tonic is wrong. Think of the end of the second phrase of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”, and you’ll hear what I mean. (“Speaking words of wisdom/ Let it be…”) The tonic chord that ends that phrase has a way of saying, “This section is now finished.”

“Watering Can” is in Db major, so Db is the tonic chord, the one that usually gives the impression of musical repose. Liza Anne uses standard progressions from Db major, most of them playing around with Gb  Bbm  Db  Absus4  Ab.

And no matter what slight alterations we hear in those chords, we never hear the tonic chord happen at the end of a phrase. The Db is always quietly tucked in somewhere in the middle.

The chord she chooses to end phrases with is Ab, and sometimes Bbm. What does this do? It builds musical momentum by delaying the sense of rest — of musical relaxation.

In that sense, “Watering Can” is a run-on sentence, in the very best sense of that term. One phrase begs for the next one, and keeps people listening every bit as effectively (but much more subtly) as an up-front hook might do.

Manipulating chord progressions in this way can yield interesting results. When listeners hear the tonic chord being delayed or purposely obscured, there is a sense of the musical journey needing to continue. Just as a commuter stays on a train until they see “home,” a listener will stay with a song until the end.

Liza Anne’s newest album release, “Two,” includes her song “Northern Wind,” which, rather than avoiding the tonic chord, purposely obscures it by making it unclear if the song is in C major or A minor.

If you’re not familiar with Liza Anne’s music, it is definitely worth checking out. She’s a singer-songwriter to watch. You can preview her music on iTunes, and check out other songs on her YouTube channel.

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– Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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10 Truths to Get You Excited About Songwriting

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook BundleJust before the concert

Ever hear the phrase “paralysis by analysis?” It means that you spend so much time analyzing why something isn’t going well that you wind up stuck, unable to move in any direction. It’s a common feeling in the arts.

So it’s time to stop thinking so hard, and time to simply get writing! Here are 10 quick, short-snapper truths that are meant to get you to stop thinking so hard, and start writing – NOW!

  1. Waiting to get inspired is just an excuse. Start writing NOW, and write as if your life depends on it.
  2. Your own music should be your greatest source of inspiration.
  3. If you don’t listen to music critically every day, you are working in a vacuum.
  4. If you listen and work in one single genre, day in, day out, you are stunting your own creative growth.
  5. Yes, it is possible to write what you don’t know about. Especially if not knowing is what your song is about.
  6. There is no rule that governs how long a good song takes to write. It can be minutes; it can be years.
  7. If you’ve written a song that doesn’t generate an emotional response in a listener, you’ve wasted a lot of time.
  8. It is normal to despair when someone hates your music. (Nonetheless, don’t despair.)
  9. Someone hating your music is not an indication that you’ve written a bad song. In fact, you may have written a masterpiece.
  10. It’s not plagiarism to deliberately try to sound like your songwriting heroes. (The Beatles did it all the time.)

_________ Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. Gary has written a set of songwriting ebooks that will get you back in the groove! If you can’t figure out why your songs aren’t making an impact, let Gary’s method guide you back. Purchase “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, with a 7th FREE ebook, “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro”

Try This Method For Writing a Verse Melody

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There are several important characteristics of good song melodies, even if those characteristics don’t all show up in the same melody. Here’s a few you’ll see in most songs that make it to the top of the charts:

  1. Lots of repetition, either exact or approximate.
  2. A nice shape that can be drawn as a line.
  3. A climactic moment that usually coincides with the highest notes.
  4. A great partnership with a chord progression.
  5. A great partnership with a lyric.

There are more, but I wanted to concentrate on the second point in this blog post. It’s possible to draw a line that represents the direction and basic shape of your song melody. Here’s the melody of the first phrase in Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, represented by an orange line:

Line drawing of "Like a Rolling Stone"

Dylan’s melodic idea has two things going for it:

  1. Simplicity.
  2. A memorable contour.

So let’s take that ability we have to create simple line drawings that represent melodies, and use it to help us create a full verse melody. What follows is a step-by-step that can allow you to do just that.

Mind that it’s not the only way to write a melody, of course, but should serve as a great exercise to experiment with. It’s best to start with a 2-, 3- or 4-chord progression above which you’ll create this melody. If you can’t think of one, try this:

Cm  Ab  Bb  Eb [LISTEN – Opens in a new tab or window]

1. Make a simple line drawing.

Remember that melodies are memorable if they have a simple, distinctive shape. How about this one:

A simple melodic shape

2. Create a Melody That Follows That Shape.

The melody needs to fit the chord progression you’re working with. Here’s what I came up with: [LISTEN] I chose to start on an Eb note, as it fits nicely with the Cm chord that my progression begins with. You can hear that my melodic fragment starts relatively low, then makes that leap upward, comes back down, and then ends on a slight upturn. It’s short, catchy, and memorable. I’ve now got the first phrase of my verse melody.

3. Move the Melody Higher.

For the second phrase, I choose a higher chord tone to start on as I play that first Cm chord. I’m starting on a G note, and then finding a way to still follow that basic line drawing. Here’s what I wrote: [LISTEN]

4. Create Contrast For the Third Phrase.

Now create some contrast by doing something different for the third phrase. I’ve decided that I want to take the shape I’ve been using (start low, move up, then move down again), and invert it so that I start high, move low, then move high again). What that does is it helps to create a little climactic moment in my melody just where I’d probably want one: in the second half of my melody. So here’s what I came up with: [LISTEN]

5. Repeat the First Phrase.

Repeating the first phrase works well because it brings everything back down again after that climactic moment.

Here’s what all four phrases sound like when attached to be a complete melody:

LISTEN

This is certainly not the only way to write a good melody. But it has several things going for it:

  1. The basic shape of the melodic fragment A simple melodic shape is simple and easy to hear.
  2. That basic shape gets replicated as a larger plan for all four phrases. In other words, the initial fragment is low-high-low, and the entire 4-phrase melody is low-high-low.
  3. It uses repetition in a very interesting way: each phrase of the melody moves higher, following the same line drawing as a plan, but not using the exact same notes.
  4. The melody is memorable because of this use of repetition.
  5. It works for creating verse melodies, but can also work for choruses.

If you use this kind of idea for a verse melody, you might want to construct your chorus melody a bit differently. For example, it might partner well to have a chorus melody that repeats the first phrase a couple of times, before ending with something completely different, as you hear in Coldplay’s “Paradise.”

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Getting Pumped By Your Own Songwriting Ideas: That’s Vital

Discovering the difference between imagination and creativity is a crucial part of musical success.

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Singer-songwriter-guitaristIn a nutshell, here’s how the creative process works when you write songs:

  1. You imagine a short musical idea.
  2. You get excited and inspired by your idea.
  3. That excitement stimulates your creative brain.
  4. You generate more ideas to tag onto the first one.
  5. You throw out any ideas that don’t work, and generate new ones.
  6. Keep the ideas that partner well with whichever ideas you’ve gathered.
  7. Keep doing this until your song is complete.

As you can see, songwriting is a combination of being imaginative (that’s Step 1) and being creative (that’s Step 4). In between Steps 1 and 4, you get excited and inspired. The steps after Step 4 are the ones that allow you to see your song taking shape.

And though the seven steps sound a bit simplistic, and perhaps tongue-in-cheek, writing songs really does amount to that.

Songwriter’s block often happens because the quality of your imagined ideas is poor. So if you’re suffering from a creative block right now, to the extent that you can’t even start a song, you’ll see that Step 1 is causing you problems, which means that Step 2 isn’t happening for you. And of course, none of the other steps are happening either.

If you’re halfway through a song, and you feel unable to continue, it’s Step 5 that’s the problem step.

You can learn a lot about the creative process by looking through those seven steps. For example:

  1. It is possible to be imaginative without being creative.
  2. Songwriting success depends on the quality of the musical ideas you generate in the first place.
  3. You can be a brilliant teacher of creative songwriting while suffering from writer’s block.
  4. Inspiration is Step 2, not Step 1.
  5. Too many people count the number of ideas they throw out, and get musically depressed by it.
  6. The amount of time that passes between generating one musical idea and the next one is usually irrelevant.
  7. You can get musically excited to write music (Step 3) by doing something unmusical, such as attending an art exhibit, learning to dance, writing poetry, or building a bookcase.

Though it may seem difficult, a creative person should be able to write a song even in the absence of an initial shot of excitement or inspiration. In fact, most composers who write to fill commissions, or who write films scores, don’t have the luxury of waiting to be inspired. Waiting is wasteful.

Most experienced writers learn that the best source of inspiration is the inspiration that comes from hearing their own musical ideas taking shape.

So that means that the best cure for mild or moderate writer’s block is: start writing.

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Putting Music Theory to Use in Songwriting

Good carpenters have well-outfitted toolboxes. But that toolbox doesn’t make them more creative.

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songwriter's toolboxIf you were a carpenter, it would be a bit strange to look inside your toolbox and wonder, “How am I going to put all of these tools to use?” That’s not how you use a toolbox. You decide on a project first, and then, over time, you’ll find that most of those tools get used for something.

And in fact, you’ll find that your imagination is what guides your woodworking projects. Your tools simply allow you to get the job done efficiently.

In songwriting, you could think of your understanding of music theory as being a toolbox of sorts. The more you know about how music works on a technical level, the bigger and more well-equipped that toolbox is. In that sense, it’s never a bad thing to be constantly adding to your musical toolbox.

But it would be off the mark to assume that because you’ve got a great knowledge of the theory of music, you’re well-set to write great music. Music theory has never had a direct hand in creating any music worth listening to. To repeat, music theory is simply a toolbox that you can use.

Guitar and piano - chord progressionsHaving said that, thought, your understanding of theory, and of how music works, increases with practically every song you listen to, assuming you can figure out why a song sounds the way it does. And that improvement to your musical toolbox is happening whether you know how to read music or not. That’s because the most relevant bit of theory is the understanding of how music fits together.

Anytime you find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s why that bit sounds like that…”, you are adding a tool to the box. Taken together, all your observances and conclusions about how music works all amount to your musical toolbox.

One of the quickest ways to build up that collection of tools is to study music theory. That’s because theory is simply the efficient categorization of centuries of musical observations, all assembled in such a way as to make it clear, and to give you the proper vocabulary to describe it to others.

Guitarist-Singer-SongwriterSome songwriters are worried that the larger their toolbox of musical observations (i.e., theory) becomes, the less imaginative their music will become. This is, of course, a silly conclusion. It would be like a carpenter assuming that the larger their toolbox is, the less imaginative their woodworking projects will be.

The other side of this is that some songwriters think that the larger their toolbox is, the better a songwriter they should logically be. That’s also silly.

A carpenter can only use their tools creatively if they have creative thoughts about their next project in the first place. A toolbox will make it easier to get the job done, but won’t necessarily make your project better.

So if you’ve got a great understanding of music theory, you’ve still got a job to do, just as a carpenter with a well-equipped toolbox has: create something imaginative and inspiring.

Never let your knowledge of music theory make you think you’re better at that part.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

How the Various Components of Songs Progress Over 4 Minutes

Most song elements follow an “always-moving-upward” principle, and it’s important to get it right.

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singer-songwriter-guitaristWhen we put chords together, we call the result a progression. That word progression is an acknowledgement that it’s not good enough to simply follow one nice chord with another random one; that would be called a chord succession, and they’re usually too confusing to enjoy.

With chord progressions, we are demonstrating that there is a kind of musical logic at play. In other words, once you’ve played a C chord and an F chord, your choices for the next one to follow become considerably fewer. You might follow the F with a G. Or perhaps a Dm or Am. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll follow with C#m or Ebm7.

When chords progress, they play with our sense of musical predictability. If you get the balance between predictability and innovation just right, you wind up with chords that sound fresh but pleasantly predictable. Every great song gets that balance just right.

But other song components progress as well, and as a songwriter, you need to show that kind of musical logic in all aspects of your music.

Here’s a short list of musical elements we find in most songs, along with how they progress over the 4-minute journey we call a song:

Lyrics

  1. A verse lyric sets the scene and provides background. It answers the question, “What are we talking about,” and it describes people, places and situations.
  2. A chorus lyric offers an emotional summing up of the singer’s point of view. A chorus lyric says “Because of (or in spite of) what I said in the verse, here’s how I’m feeling right now.”
  3. A bridge lyric gives a final perspective on what’s been sung about. All questions get a final answer here, and if there’s “another shoe dropping”, it will happen in the bridge.

Melodies

  1. Melodies progress mainly by playing with vocal range.
  2. From the start of a verse to the climactic moment of a chorus, the melody continues to move higher.
  3. Bridge melodies usually offer the highest notes of a song. So a line drawing of a song melody will often look like a rising line, or perhaps similar to an inverted U or inverted V, with the highest point more toward the end than the beginning of a song.

Dynamics (Loudness) and Instrumentation

  1. Songs usually toggle back and forth between soft and loud, even if the distinctions are slight.
  2. Choruses are typically louder than verses, and instrumentation (along with vocal range) help to control a song’s loudness.
  3. Bridge sections are often the loudest parts of songs, but for songs that are high energy and loud from verse through to chorus, it’s not unusual to have a song bridge bring dynamic levels down, if only to provide some contrast.

Backing Vocals

  1. A song’s use of vocal harmonies often partners strongly with instrumentation.
  2. It’s common to use backing vocals more in a chorus and bridge than in a verse.

Rhythm

  1. It’s not unusual to see vocal rhythms elongate and simplify in a song chorus when compared to the verse. That’s usually because long and simple rhythms help draw out emotional value, and make a stronger impact on a listener.
  2. It’s not unusual to see instrumental rhythms get busier in choruses, and then again in song bridges, as a way to heighten song energy.

No matter which song element you look at, always remember that the contrast principle is a tremendously important factor. As any song element changes, you’ll find that there’s an up-and-down pattern to the change over time. For example, we like when we hear music that goes from soft to loud, then back to soft, then return to loud, and so on.

But for each of those changes, we like the return to loud to be as loud or louder than the loud that came before. In that sense, there’s an “always-moving-upward” tendency to most elements in a song.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

How to Use Chord Inversions to Greatest Effect

A chord inversion (“slash chord”) can add a great sense of variety to a standard chord progression.

Chord Progression Formulas eBook - Gary Ewer

GuitaristAn inverted chord (some know them as “slash chords”) are ones in which the lowest-sounding note is not the letter-name of the chord. If you play a C major chord on a guitar while the bass plays a low E, you’re playing a chord inversion. That chord would be notated like this: C/E Inverted chords are really great ways to give an otherwise boring progression a shot of energy. Here’s a quick look at the various “positions” of chords, and their overall effect: Chord Inversions Most of the chords you use are typically root position chords. They provide the most stable sound. A chord in first inversion, where the 3rd of the chord is the lowest-sounding note, is slightly less stable. What that means is that it’s not typically the kind of chord you might end a song section on; it’s often better to end on strong versions of chords. The 2nd inversion chords are least stable of all. Bands rarely just sit on a second inversion chord; it usually needs to move on to something more stable. In pop music notation, the note that comes before a slash is the chord name. The note that comes after a slash is the lowest-sounding note (usually whatever the bass is playing). It’s important to keep in mind that a chord being “less stable” is in no way meant to convey that it is somehow undesirable. “Less stable” is a tonal term, simply meant to say that it often “likes” to be followed up by something stronger, usually in root position. So how do we use inversions? Let’s say that you’ve got a song with this progression:

/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /  |/   /   /   /
C       F        Am     Em        F      C   G    C

Here are some tips to turn that progression into something a bit more creative, using inversions.

1. Use an inversion to add interest.

In other words, you might play this as the first bar of music in the example above:

/   /   /   /   |
C  C/E   F

An inversion used like that makes the progression more interesting by making that first C chord sound a little different before it moves on to F. It’s a nice way to add a variety of sound.

2. Use an inversion to smooth out a bass line.

You might add a first inversion to the Am chord in bar 2 as a way to change that leap to E to something smaller:

/   /   /   /   |
Am Am/C Em

3. Use an inversion to make ends of song sections more intense.

You’ll notice that the progression ends with three chords: C  G  C. By placing a G underneath the first C, you are creating a second inversion C chord (a C chord with G as its lowest note). That builds up considerable musical energy because it’s very unstable, and listeners want to hear that chord move on to something more stable, which it does when it moves to the G chord. You’ll hear that it’s a very common device used in many genres of music, from Classical to rock. With all three inversions, here’s what the progression would look like. (CLICK to listen. Opens in a new browser window/tab)

/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /  |/   /   /   /
C       F        Am     Em        F      C/G G    C

Using inversions haphazardly, by just tossing them in anywhere, can lead to problems. But using them mainly to add interest when a single chord is used over a longish period of time, or for smoothing out a bass line, are the two most common and gratifying ways they can be used.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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