There’s no one way to write a song. Talk to ten successful songwriters and they might describe ten different approaches. And then there’s genre to consider; most songs in any style have
a melody, a lyric, chords, and a groove, but the type of music you write is going to have an impact on your method.
Today I want to talk about an element of songwriting that many beginning writers miss. The concept of form and structure, and how your chord choices help shape the form.
Think of “form” as the map of the song. The individual sections, how long they last, and when they happen. There are standard forms, which some might consider to be easy formulas,
such as the 12-bar blues, a modern verse-chorus pop song, or a honky-tonk shuffle. The songwriters are not using these forms to be lazy; these formulas exist for a reason! The way chords
are put together create a sense of movement through the song that support the unfolding lyric. This weekend, you can explore how and why this works through a few simple examples.
First, let’s look at one of the simplest forms of all, a 16-bar pattern using just two chords. Play this with a steady back and forth eighth-note strum, accenting counts two and four of each bar to bring out the backbeat.
Looks pretty simple, right? It is, and it’s a great illustration of chord changes creating movement. First of all, notice that it’s symmetrical, made up of two identical eight-bar phrases. Second, notice how each eight-bar phrase is also symmetrical, but that the second half is a mirror of the first: A A E E is followed by E E A A.
Now play the whole thing through, counting the bars and noticing how the second line of each pair seems to “answer” the first line. To really drive that point home, play the first four bars and stop. Sounds unfinished, right? Then play the next four bars and notice how it completes the idea the first line started.
You just learned something fundamental about chords and harmony. This pattern is in the key of A, and so we could classify the A and E chords as 1 and 5, or tonic and dominant. The numbers come from the sequence of letters. If A is the first note, or note 1, then E is the fifth note, note 5. The chords that go with those notes use the same numbers , the 1 chord and 5 chord.
In classical theory, the 5 chord is called the dominant chord because it pulls the ear back to the tonic. That’s why the first four lines of exercise 1 sound unfinished if we stop at bar 4. The E chord it setting up your ear to expect a change back to A. Think of A as home and E as a place you go to but plan to return from. This is actually the driving harmonic concept behind most classical music. There’s a sense of tension and release that comes from leaving “home” (a point of rest), going somewhere, and then coming back. But this musical concept shows up in one way or another in most styles of popular music as well.
Songwriting Form Examples
The form of example 1 is a very simple one found in a lot of traditional country music. Listen to two songs from two different eras: “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams Sr (1952) and “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down” by The Mavericks (1996).
The recordings are in different keys, but the chord structure is the same if we express it this way:
Using numbers instead of chord names is something most musicians do in one way or another, but in Nashville it’s actually the way songs are notated. It’s called the
“Nashville Number System” and worth a whole article of its own. What it does is allow you to see the chord relationships immediately, making it easy to figure out the chords
in different keys.
As you listen to both songs, notice how the vocal phrases work together with the 4-bar sections. Each 4-bar section gets one line. The first line is essentially “answered” by the second, creating what we might call a “couplet.” And just as the chords alone sound unfinished if we only play the first 4 lines, the lyrical ideas also feel incomplete if we don’t answer the second line with the first. The rhyme scheme lines up with this as well.
As an exercise, try playing this progression in a different key. If we play in C, like “Jambalaya,” our 1 and 5 chords are C and G. If we play in E, the chords are E and B. It might take some thinking to find the 5 chord in every key, and you don’t need to try them all now. After a while, you’ll know these patterns as well as you know the alphabet.
16-Bar Form with 4 Chords
Let’s look at another 16-bar form. This one uses 4 chords in the key of G: 1, 2, 4, and 5, or G, A, C, and D.
The 2 and 4 chords are what we might think of as transitional chords. They give us somewhere to go, but can lead a variety of places. Of course, so can the 5. Every “rule” we’re talking about here has been broken thousands of times, but we’re thinking generally. We might call these “subdominant function” chords. Their role is to make the music move but not demand resolution as strongly as a 5 chord does.
A theory geek note: technically speaking, the 4 chord is the “subdominant” and the 2 chord is the “supertonic,” but try substituting a 2 for a 4 in any situation and you’ll often find that it works just as well. Functionally, meaning in terms of how the ear perceives their effect on musical motion, the 2 and 4 have a similar effect. I should point out that in this example the 2 chord is major. If we’re working exclusively within the notes of a key, what we call diatonic notes, the 2 chord ends up minor. And using an A minor sounds just fine here. This illustrates another big songwriting point: major and minor are colors, and can often be swapped to create different effects without sacrificing the sense of movement of the overall progression.
Listen to the verse of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” our model for this example. Notice how the melody goes up at the end of the second line? There’s our 5 chord, and the combination of that chord and that note leave the line open-ended. We can’t stop here, because those note choices set up the expectation that something else is coming. Also notice how nicely the A chord sets up the D “subdominant function” because it leads your ear to the dominant.
The C chord is being used to move away from the 1 chord G, but notice that then it moves back to G. Using the 4 chord to create a sense of movement or variation before cycling back to 1 is a common
pattern. It’s worth pointing out as well that the primary note of the first line of “Honky Tonk Women” is a G, which fits both the G and C chords. Try singing the first line of the song using only
G chords. It fits, but it feels static and stale. The C chord creates a sense of movement.
One last point on this example. Recall that in example 1 the first line was open-ended and answered by the second line. In this case, the first two lines are the first half of the cycle. The second line is open-ended this time, and the whole 8-bar phrase is “answered” by the second 8 bars. Notice how at the very end we hit the D at bar 14, but resolve back to G to complete the musical idea.
As an exercise, try changing up the chords. Switch the 2 and 4, and try both majors and minors for each. Your ear will start moving away from “Honky Tonk Women” and the changes might suggest a different or even a brand new song. This makes another great point, you can borrow chord changes, because they’re standard and familiar patterns. Lyrics, melody, and signature riffs belong only to the song they came from and the person who wrote it. A chord pattern is universal and belongs to everyone. Making little changes like this can really help you create something new. You should also try transposing this sequence to another key. Here’s the “number chart” that will help you do that.
Some songs will use the same chord pattern for the verse and chorus, while others will have a completely different set of chords. Some songs don’t have a chorus section at all, but build the hook or title into the main chord sequence. This next exercise is another 16-bar form, but with a very different chord structure.
16 Bar Form with Beatles Influence
This one is inspired by the Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week.” Many of the Beatles’ early songs didn’t have a dedicated chorus (“Love Me Do” is another example) but have a contrasting “middle eight” section instead.
Let’s look at the chords in numbers: Notice the small “m” after the 6 chord, indicating minor. We’re in the key of D, which gives us D, E, G, and Bm for 1, 2, 4, and 6.
Listening to the Beatles, you might notice that the first two lines are not open-ended, but resolve back to the 1 chord. We don’t have a line ending with a “tension” chord until the third, contrasting line, which ends on the major 2 chord E. There’s no 5 chord in this pattern, Lennon & McCartney saved it for the middle eight section. So in this case the E and G chords are used to set up the return to the 1.
Play this one a relaxed shuffle rhythm, and notice how the symmetry between lines 1, 2, and 4 are broken up by the variation in line 3. So while our previous examples worked in pairs of lines, this one is an entire 4-line, 16-bar sequence that uses the repeated chord cycle D-E-G-D as a “circular” pattern. It ends where it began instead of pointing to another change.
As an exercise, choose a key and try to write three eight-bar sequences using two, three, or four chords. You can follow the formulas laid out in these three examples, or ignore them entirely and just try whatever comes to mind. Just remember that you have two goals. One, of course, is to create a chord pattern that sounds good. Two, to listen for the way chords lead into one another and use that to create a pattern of tension and release that articulates a symmetrical form. Got all that? Great!
For another perspective on how to use 1, 4, and 5 chords, check out this lesson from Mark Lincoln’s songwriting course on Jamplay:
I, IV, V Progression by Mark Lincoln
Taught by Mark Lincoln
Mark further elaborates on chord relationships within a song. He covers the I, IV, V progression in greater depth and provides a new songwriting exercise.
Now get out to the woodshed and write yourself a song!
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Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading! Have fun with this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!
Nashville Session Musician