Monday, April 19, 2010

Crazy Chord-itis

When an aspiring songwriter first gets a taste for harmonic theory, he or she sometimes goes overboard trying to come up with all kinds of whacked-out chord progressions. I call this "crazy chord-itis" and believe me, I speak from personal experience! Quite often, the writer gets the idea that a chord progression is no good if someone else has even come close to using it. This "search for the lost chord" (or chord progression) is an understandable, but often unnecessary, endeavor.

First of all, when it comes to Western popular music and (basic) chord progressions, there isn't much you can come up with short of utter cacophony (and even some of that) which hasn't been utilized in some form or another. If it sounds even remotely pleasant, there's a good chance someone else has tread there before.

Secondly, even if you do come up with some wacky chord progression that you like, bear in mind that the average listener can pinpoint a strange chord progression far more easily than a common one. So, if you happen to stumble across the chords from, say, "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead, there's a better chance that someone's gonna "catch it" than if you use a simple I - V - vi -IV (which is in about 10 billion songs).

Ironically, the use of a less common chord progression is easier to discern than one that's in every other song (with all else being equal) because these "odd" chord progressions have a certain character that defies harmonic "logic" and makes them stand out more. So you could use I - IV - I -  V in 50 different songs before anyone's the wiser, but repeat the chords from "I Am the Walrus" just one time and everyone's accusing you of ripping off the Beatles.

Finally, it's a bad idea to get in the habit of relying on harmonic motion to carry all your songs. While it's nice to come up with cool chord progressions, you don't want to fall into the trap of always relying on wild chord changes to save the day. Lots of incredible, classic songs have only one or two chords, and use rhythmic or melodic motion to sustain interest. Challenging yourself to write a compelling song with only one or two chords, or a super-common chord progression like I - IV  -V, is a good way to work on your songwriter "total body fitness" and cure yourself of "crazy chord-itis."

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