Songwriting Basics: Chord Progression
Chords add harmony and color to your melody as well as providing context. A good chord progression doesn’t need to be complex. Many worship songs are written with just three or four chords.
While there is quite a bit of theory behind why and how chord progressions work, it is easy to experiment and discover which chords sound good together. Typically, the melody will also give an idea of what the chord progression should be. The notes used in the melody will often be part of the chord played at the same time.
The two most common types of chords are called major and minor. Major chords have a happy sound while minor chords have a sad or melancholy sound. The ideal chord progression combines major and minor sounds to create tension and release.
Major and minor chords are grouped together into “families” which we call keys. Use the chords below as a starting place for your chord progressions. Feel free to mix them up and see how they work together. Once again, you will probably need a few chord progressions to accomodate your song’s structure. Sing your melody while playing your chord progression to make sure they work together.
Key of C: C, F, G, Am (the ‘m’ stands for minor)
Key of G: G, C, D, Em
Key of D: D, G, A, Bm
Key of A: A, D, E, F#m
Key of E: E, A, B, C#m
Key of B: B, E, F#, G#m
Key of F: F, Bb, C, Dm
Be sure to check out my other posts on songwriting here: Theme, Structure, Melody.
What are some of your favorite chord progressions?
Songwriting Basics: Melody
Melody is a series of notes from the scale of a particular key. A good melody has enough repetition to be memorable and enough variety to be interesting. If I sing one note over and over that would be easy enough to remember, but way too boring. On the other hand, I could sing all kinds of notes up and down the scale and sound good without being able to remember their sequence. Finding the balance is key.
Depending on your song’s structure, you will need two or three different melodies: one for the verses, one for the chorus and one for the bridge. Create as many melodies as you can. I am constantly recording melodic ideas on my phone to use at a later time. Don’t assume your first melody is going to be best for the song. Having more melodies than you need allows you to be selective and purposeful. Also, one of the extra melodies may make for a good instrumental or intro riff.
Consider the the theme of the song when writing your melody. If your song is about the joy of the Lord, please do not have it sound sad! Unless sarcasm is your goal, your melody should communicate the same message as your lyrics. It gives us additional emotional content that the lyrics alone cannot provide.
Melodies are expressed in phrases. Organizing the phrases is a way to develop the melody. If we name the phrases A and B, we might create a melody like this: ABAB or AAAB. Notice how both examples show repetition and variety. Other examples could be AABAAC or ABCABD.
Question and Answer is a type of melody where the first phrase (Question) ends on a high note similar to the vocal inflection used when asking a question. The second phrase (Answer) may start similarly, but ends on a low note often the starting note of the Question.
Worship songs are most congregational friendly when they are written within one octave. More notes is not necessarily better. Many melodies only use five notes. A singable melody is what we are after. Be creative and have fun crafting a great melody!
Check out more songwriting posts on Theme and Structure.
Have you started writing? What are you waiting for?
Songwriting Basics: Structure
Last week, I started a series on songwriting with the topic of Theme (read about it here). As I said previously, there are many different ways to go about songwriting. This particular order of posts is a good starting place, but feel free to write your song in an entirely different order.
Much like selecting a theme at the beginning, choosing a structure for your song is like drawing plans for a house. Having a structure helps to organize the information and makes sure nothing is left out. The structure is a guide during the creative process.
Let’s look at some of the most common parts of a song’s structure:
- Chorus – If your song is a house, the chorus is the main room or living space. It summarizes the theme perfectly and is repeated over and over. The simplest songs have only one part, and for that reason, are called choruses. A good chorus will have a catchy melody and be easy to remember.
- Verse – With the chorus as the main room of our song-house, verses are like bedrooms. Each verse contains specific information that relates to the theme, but is different from the other verses. If our song is telling a story, each verse describes a different event as it unfolds. Verses are not typically repeated like the chorus and they usually share a melody and chord progression that are different from the chorus. Hymns are a good example of songs with only verses.
- Bridge – We could consider the bridge to be the deck or patio of our song-house. It continues the theme by restating it with different words, melody and chord progression. Typically the melody is higher and bigger than the chorus. The bridge is usually the climactic point of the song.
Other elements of structure include music before, between and after the Verse, Chorus or Bridge.
- Intro – The chord progression and melody used to start a song are called the Intro. It’s like the porch and front door of a house.
- Interlude/Instrumental – This is like the hallways of a house, they help us get from one room to another, but there are no lyrics.
- Ending/Outro – Similar to the Intro only at the end. Sometimes the intro and outro are identical. Other times, they are very different.
A great way to learn structure is to listen to your favorite worship songs and analyze their form. Using an existing song as a template is perfect for getting started. Mimicking successful songwriters speeds up the learning process.
Who are your favorite songwriters? Why do you like their songs?
Songwriting Basics: Theme
Today, I am starting a series on songwriting. If you are already familiar with my blog, you know that I am a big proponent of spontaneous singing, but just because I love spontaneity does not mean I am against songwriting. Writing original songs for worship is an important piece of any community because it reflects the unique work of the Holy Spirit at a certain time and place.
However, crafting a song takes time, and as I have found, being a good worship leader doesn’t equal being a good songwriter. It takes intentionality to develop as a skillful writer. It’s true that not every worship leader needs to write songs, but how about organizing people in your church to start writing songs for worship? Finding and nurturing budding songwriters will be a blessing to your community.
So, where do we start?
First of all, there is no correct way to write a song. Some techniques may work better than others, but since each of us are different, you’ll have to discover what works for you. I will write this series of posts using a specific order which you can follow, but I have intentionally left out “Part 1”, “Part 2”, etc. so that you can access them in any order you choose.
Secondly, if you’re just getting started, don’t expect your first song to be awesome. Write to worship. Write to gain experience. Awesome songs will come in time.
Third, don’t wait for inspiration. Set aside a time and place to be creative and then just keep going back. What looks messy today might end up being a masterpiece tomorrow.
Now, let’s talk about theme.
Deciding a theme is a good starting place. In a well-crafted song, the theme is supported by each element individually and synergistically. Knowing your theme from the beginning helps you make decisions that keep your song focused. Focus is important because it gives your song a specific purpose. Without that purpose, it will likely have too many ideas.
Choosing a name can be a good way to identify your topic and find additional ideas that you will use later. Once you have a name selected, write down as many other words/thoughts/feelings/scriptures that you associate with the title. Spend time being descriptive. None of the process will go to waste. Be sure to save all your ideas and organize them. These are the beginning of your lyrics.
If you’re short on ideas for a theme, look at the themes your pastor preaches. Having worship songs that support the message are incredibly powerful. Also, think about experiences you’ve had with God. What was He ministering to you? Writing what you know will always produce a better song than writing from theory.
Ready to get started? What theme will you write about?
Practice Makes Permanent
Most people have heard the adage, “practice makes perfect.” However, this statement is not entirely true. Drawing from the wisdom of my former teachers, and my own personal experience, “muscles have memory” and “practice makes permanent.” Since permanence most certainly does not guarantee perfection, here are a few tips for making sure you get the most out of your practice time.
Before you do anything else, make sure your mind is clear and able to concentrate. Without the ability to focus, your practice will, at best, maintain your skill, but more likely, introduce or reinforce bad habits. It is better not to practice than to do so with a foggy, tired mind. Take a nap, have a snack, start relaxed.
2. Warm Up
Just as athletes warm up before any sport or fitness activity, musicians need to warm up as well. Since muscle memory is what we are building through practice, we must be intentional about getting those muscles ready to learn. Scales are a good way to warm up. Use something fun and familiar. Five minutes is usually enough and having a set routine makes it easy.
I remember teaching a song to my worship team when my voice was not warmed up. During the service when my voice was fully warmed, my muscle memory brought back all of the straining from trying to sing the song cold. Not fun.
3. Go Slow
Especially when learning a new song, take your time. Mistakes usually come from going too fast. Speeding up the tempo after you have learned the song is much easier than learning mistakes and having to reprogram those muscles.
4. Take Breaks
Don’t feel the pressure to have a long practice time. Even if you do practice long, take breaks. Give those muscles a chance to recuperate. Play five minutes, rest five minutes. This method will greatly increase the effectiveness of your practice time.
5. Repeat Often
It is so much better to practice everyday for 10-15 minutes rather than twice a week for two hours. Squeezing more practice times into your week will provide greater and faster results.
6. Have Fun
When practice is only about learning new songs or working through difficulties, it can be hard to stay motivated. Playing songs you love or simply improvising as an emotional release is critical to an enjoyable practice. Let your heart be happy during practice time. Make beautiful music.
7. End Early
It is possible to over-practice. Knowing when you’re done and quitting while you are ahead is important. There were times in college when I worked my fingers until I couldn’t play a song at all. If you notice that you are making more mistakes than when you started, you have practiced too long. Again, as in the first tip, only practice for as long as you can concentrate. You should feel encouraged and refreshed after practicing, not exhausted.
Did I miss anything? What makes your practice time effective?
Spontaneous Choruses Part 2
If you missed my first post on Spontaneous Choruses, you’ll want to check it out. As it was quite the lengthy post, I thought I would wrap up a few details in this one.
When you are first introducing your congregation to spontaneous choruses, don’t try to do too much. Keep the choruses simple and not more than one or two per set. You want them to be interested rather than turned off.
The other thing that you must do is repeat, repeat, repeat. Eight times per new chorus is good. The first two times you sing the chorus all the way through are the writing process. Once the chorus has been written, then your worship team vocalists can join in. If they join in too soon, there is a disaster waiting to happen. Instruct them to join in after you sing the entire chorus two times through, and have them only sing the melody. This helps the congregation learn the chorus well.
After two times through with the worship team singing melody, then the chorus is established and you can introduce harmony. This helps to build the chorus and avoid monotony. Continue to build with instrumentation during the last two repetitions. Of course if the chorus is a real hit, you don’t have to stop after 8 times, but go at least 8 times so that people get familiar enough with the new words and melody to worship.
Here is a breakdown in list form:
Write: Sing chorus 2 times through solo
Establish: Sing chorus 2 times adding vocalists (melody only)
Build: Sing chorus 2-4 times adding harmonies and other instrumentation
End: Sing a name of God
Ending a spontaneous chorus is easy provided the worship team is communicating before and during the worship service. Use a phrase or name of God to signal that you won’t be repeating the chorus. An example chorus, “All our love is to you // You are our reward // All our praise we give you // You’re worth living for”, can be end by singing “You’re worth living for, Jesus”. That addition of the name “Jesus” lets the team know you are ready to end.
One more thing that can really help you do spontaneous choruses well is getting your video projector operator on board. Many worship projection programs have an option for spontaneous text. Have your projector person type the words for the chorus on the spot so the congregation can engage even more easily.
Alright, I’m sure I could find a few more things to say, but we’ll keep this one short!
What are your questions? Would you sing a spontaneous chorus during a worship service?
Spontaneous choruses. What are they and how do you use them? First the name is rather self-explanatory. A spontaneous chorus is a chorus which is written and sung in the moment without rehearsal. Developing spontaneous choruses is a skill that comes very naturally to some people. If that’s not you, don’t worry, you can learn how to write and use them effectively. Another option is to delegate chorus writing to a capable vocalist on your team.
As with choruses from existing songs, our spontaneous ones need three things: melody, lyric and a chord progression. Typically, we will borrow an existing chord progression from the song we are singing before the spontaneous chorus. This isn’t always the case, but it is easiest and you need to tell your team if you are planning to use something different. An example of a good chord progression is: C G Am F or I V vi IV. It has a circular motion and is simple enough to create many memorable melodies.
When it comes to melody, we must think of structure. A good melody is easy enough to remember. Catchy is another word that describes good melodies. Spontaneous choruses with hard arduous melodies are not fun for anyone. So in our structure, we must incorporate some repetition. Too much and it will be boring. Too little and will be unfocused. An example of good repetition can be found in the melodic structure we call question and answer.
As children we were taught to raise the inflection of our voice when asking a question. The same is true with this type of melody. The first line ends on a high note (a question). To answer the question we can repeat the melody only ending on a low note instead. Hum the tune Mary had a Little Lamb to yourself. Notice the question and answer structure. What other songs can you think of having a similar melodic structure? We can also call this type of melody: AB.
Following the AB line of thinking, we could create many other melodic structures like: AAAB or ABAC or ABCABC. Be creative and recognize what works well. We will use this same structure for lyrics too. Here’s an example of AAAB:
You are good
You are good
You are good
And Your mercy endures
The first three lines are the same. Same words. Same melody. Only the fourth line is different. This is an example of good repetition with just enough variety. Try creating your own melody with the lyrics and chord progression above.
Moving on to lyrics, scripture is very helpful. Something extremely profound happens when singing the Word. It gets caught in the human spirit and renews the mind. The other consideration is discerning what God is saying in the moment during worship. Holy Spirit will bring scriptures or other words and ideas to our minds if we are listening. Use those thoughts to create a spontaneous chorus.
Now you might be feeling overwhelmed if you’ve never done this before. That’s okay. Give it some time. Meanwhile, you can practice your chorus writing ability with this baby step: modify an existing chorus to express a new meaning. An example of this could be the old chorus I Exalt Thee. Change the “I” to “we”. It’s not a big change, but it could be spontaneous and bring a stronger sense of community to the corporate worship setting.
Another example, singing the chorus from How Great is Our God, change “is our” to “are You”. How great are You God // Lord we sing, how great are You God // and all will sing, how great, how great are You God. This change redirects the focus from singing about God to singing to Him. There are many songs that you could try these two changes on. Practice with those first before trying to launch into a truly spontaneous chorus.
Spontaneous choruses can be used during or in-between songs in worship. Incorporating them into your leading will bring a new dimension of worship and greater awareness of God’s presence and involvement.
Why you need to memorize…
As a worship leader, one of the best things you can do for yourself, your team and your congregation is to memorize your music. Here is a quick list (in no particular order) of reasons why:
- Memorizing a song forces you to learn it better. If you can rely on your music stand you will. No matter how well you think you know the song, you don’t know it fully until you can play it comfortably without the chord chart.
- Memorized music looks better. When you are in front of people, they will look at you. If you are watching your music stand the entire time, people notice. It’s not a good visual. You want to be free to move with the music.
- Memorized music frees you to close your eyes or make eye contact with the congregation. Both are important. Eye contact helps people engage who are otherwise disengaged. Closed eyes helps you focus. Having your eyes free also helps you discern what is going on in the room and communicate with your team.
- Memorized music frees your mind to think about other things while you lead. The less you have to think about the better. You have to focus on Jesus, the band, and the congregation. That’s enough to think about without adding paying attention to a music stand.
- Memorized music gives you confidence. You know the songs and you know that you know the songs. Confidence allows you to lead well. People don’t like following an unconfident leader. They will disengage quickly.
- Memorized music allows for spontaneity. You will never break into spontaneity as long as you are tied to a page. Memorizing is really the only way to get there.
So here’s how you do it. If you have never memorized a song before, go to your instrument right now and try playing anything that comes to mind. See how far you can get. Did you know all the words? Did you know all the chords? Could you tell when you were wrong?
Now, look at the music and see what you missed. Put the music away and try again. Try it with your eyes closed. Repeat it over and over until your confident. Work on it a little bit at a time every day. Doing something for a short amount of time every day has much longer lasting results than practicing for three hours once a week. Muscles have memory and practice makes permanent. So get to it!
Increasing Your Vision for Music
A current trend for that last decade or so has been the constant clarification that music is not worship. In our culture, it is especially easy to refer to the worship time of our services as the singing time. But singing in and of itself, is no more worship than throwing a rock in a pond. Worship is the response of the human heart to God.
Now, having said that, let’s talk music! Even though music itself isn’t worship, music has a deeply powerful effect on the human body, soul and spirit. It’s not a coincidence. God created it that way. (It was an amazing day when I realized that God created music and art and color. You’re believing a lie if you think God is in anyway uncreative or boring. He’s the most magnificent, interesting and wonderful being in the universe.) God created music to be able to engage us in a different way. Different from pictures. Different from stories. Different from movement. Its not necessarily better than other ways. Just different.
There is a story of Elisha the prophet in the book of Kings. When asked to give the word of the Lord, Elisha first asks for a musician to play the harp. While the music was playing, God’s Spirit came on Elisha and he began to prophesy. Likewise, when King David established a tabernacle in Jerusalem for the Ark of the Covenant, he ordered musical worship night and day and taught the musicians to prophesy on their instruments.
If we come to worship and think that an electric guitar solo or a drum solo is just about enjoying the music and having a good time, usually that’s all it will be. I’m proposing that, as worship leaders, we invite God to release His song through our instruments so that we begin to prophesy. I’m not asking you to be weird! Please don’t. I’m not suggesting that we manufacture something either. Other than being skillful on our instruments, the only thing we need to do is be open in our minds for God to move through the notes we play. The change in thinking and expectation is enough to bring it about.
We can also develop our ears by practicing simple chord progressions. Start with something easy and familiar. Play until you’re bored and then begin to listen for new melodies or different chord resolutions. Ask God to sing to you. Try it out. You’ll be surprised. It may take some time, but you can develop your relationship with the Lord and discover how He interacts with you in the music.
When you prophesy on your instrument in a worship service, you will know. Something will feel very fresh and new. Often, someone else will confirm it too by describing how God was ministering to them. If you truly prophesy with your guitar or keyboard, others will recognize and acknowledge God’s involvement.
Have you ever prophesied on your instrument before? I’d love to hear the story.
Music theory, that is. While I am definitely not about putting the cart before the horse, I think every budding worship leader should learn music theory and teach it to their team. Increasing your knowledge and ability in this area will lead to your next breakthrough in excellence.
Right alongside music theory is ear training. The combination of these two elements is critical for skill development. Your ear is like the director for your hands and voice. Ear training is one of the practical sides of music theory. A highly developed ear provides great freedom while playing, singing and leading worship. Conversely, an underdeveloped ear will stunt your growth and keep you from your full potential as a musician.
So, where do we start? In the future, I plan on writing posts with theory lessons specific to worship leading, but for today, I thought I would introduce you to one of the most helpful resources on the web: Ricci Adams’ musictheory.net.
Adams has equipped the site with many lessons, exercises and tools (there’s even an app). Whether you are brand new to music or have a rudimentary understanding of theory, this website will bring the pieces together and provide a wonderfully easy way for you to develop your ear. Check it out!
Is music theory exciting for you or a complete headache? Are you a nerd or a free-spirit?