Friday, May 28, 2010

Downplaying the V Chord, or Death Cab Vs. The Dominant Five!

A lot of budding songwriters ask me how they can make their tunes less "obvious." In other words, they want to avoid those moments where the song seems to be screaming out, "GET READY, 'CAUSE HERE COMES THE CHORUS!!!!"

While that type of predictably is sometimes a good thing - it makes a song especially easy to reemember and sing - there are other times when you want to be a bit more surprising. There are myriad ways to achieve that kind of subtlety, but one of the best ways I know is what I call "downplaying the V chord."

As you probably know, the V chord and the V7 chord have a very strong pull toward the tonic. For example, if you play a G7 chord in the key of C, the listener has a very strong expectation of hearing a C chord next. When you couple a G7 chord with a very "climactic" high note, this can reinforce the listener's expectations even more. So here a few simple ways you can take the "edge" off of the V chord, thwart the listener's expectations, and create musical complexity.

1) Replace the tonic with a subsitute chord.
After playing a V chord (G in the key of C), you can easily surprise the listener by moving to, say, vii (A minor in the key of C) or iii (E minor in the key of C) instead of going to the I chord (C major).

2) Modulate to a whole new key.
You can pretty much modulate anywhere when the V chord falls at the end of the pre-chorus. If your pre-chorus ends on G (V) and your chorus begins on C (I), experiment with writing a new chorus in any one of these keys, for starters: D major, E flat, or A flat. (Then try to return to C for the next verse or section.)

3) Hit a "down" note on the dominant V chord, or an "up" note on a tonic I.
Structure your melody so it dips down when the harmony is soaring "up" in anticipation of the chorus. Conversely, try hitting a high "dramatic" note when you play the stereotypically "peaceful and at rest" tonic. For example, in my song "Send me a Sign," the bridge ends on a V chord (C major, in this case) before returning to the main progression of  I - flat VII - IV - I. (F, E flat, B flat, F). However, the melody dips DOWN on the last couple of bars of the V chord, before soaring up for the I chord (which is actually the beginning of the next section.)

4) Ditch the V altogether!
Lots of songs gain their power from a certain amount of tonal ambiguity, flirting with other keys or medieval modes. By avoiding certain chords (or using them sparingly) you can make your songs more mysterious, moody and subtle. For example, Roxy Music's "Mother of Pearl" has a whole second section which consists solely of  D - A - E - E   (flat VII - IV- I, also known as a double plagal cadence) repeating over and over. This gives the song an almost mystical, trance-like feel which is well-suited to the song. Or, consider Death Cab for Cutie's "Soul Meets Body" which employs only three chords: D minor, F and C, to be exact. On first insepection, the song appears to be in D minor natural or D dorian, (or possibly even C major or F major, based on chords alone) but by carefully skirting the "A7" the song retains an elusive, "ghostly" feel - again mirroring the lyrics quite nicely. For practice, try writing your own song that eschews the traditional V and V7 chords.

With just these few tips and ideas in mind, you're ready to start writing far more nuanced songs. Once you've mastered the art of writing "less obvious" melodies and chord progressions you can even mix things up by alternating between the straightforward, on-the-nose stuff and the more subtle material - sometimes within the same song.


  1. Very useful suggestions! Thanks for this.

  2. Thank you sir. Let us know how it goes!

  3. "Soul Meets Body" reminds me of early 80's Yes for some reason. The bridge sounds like something Trevor Rabin would have written for "Big Generator". That's not a criticism, just an observation...