How To Write a Popular Song and Make Millions I: 5 Songwriting Tricks

Anyone can play guitar. And nowadays everybody does, to some extent. The most lucrative music career available is easily Popular-Song-Writer/Hollywood-Film-Composer if you’re after a quick penny, so perhaps this might be a field of expertise to get practising in?

The ideal length of time to start and finish a masterpiece is 3 hours, as implemented by Lennon & McCartney. The best bit of advice is to finish the song whilst you’re still in the same frame of mind.

For the purpose of this article and to minimise complexity, each chord progression will be in the key of C major, where there are no scary sharps or flats.

1.     The Relative Minor See-Saw

(VIm – I – VIm – I) and (I – VIm – I – VIm)           

Key of C major: Am – C – Am – C

As a songwriter, your first assignment is to master the Three-Chord Trick, I – IV – V (C – F – G in the key of C). Then of course you add relative minors into the equation.

Relative keys are the major and minor scales that share the same key signatures. When a major and minor scale share the same key signature, they are said to be in a relative relationship. This instigates an emotive bounce between happy and sad so seamless that our sense of major vs. minor key is irreclaimably questioned.

Popular Song Examples:

Beatles – From Me To You [1963]

Intro: I – VIm – I – VIm [C – Am – C – Am] in the key of C major

Coldplay – Ladder To The Sun [2003]

Verse: I – VIm – I – VIm [C – Am – C – Am] in the key of C major

Dirty Beaches – Lord Knows Best [2011]

Entire Song: I – VIm – I – VIm [G – Em – G – Em] in the key of G major

2.     The Doo-Wop Loop (I – VIm – IV – V)                                   

Key of C major: C – Am – F – G

This 50s classic has been lurking since…well the 50s, and in certain circles even earned the crass term “The 50s Progression”. Why is it such a unshakeably steadfast formula? Two consecutive descents of a fifth of course! D’uh.

A more stylish trick would be to substitute the IV chord with its’ relative minor, which in our key of C major is D minor (IIm). Minor after minor creates a swooning feel.

First off, watch this:

Here right before your very ears is a more modern variation on the standard doo-wop progression; I – V – VIm – IV, having been utilised an offensively squeamish number of times in modern pop music, perhaps lending a hand towards the term “manufactured”.

Popular Song Examples:

Ben E. King – Stand By Me [1954]

Verses: I – VIm – IV – V [A – F#m – D – E] in the key of A major

Beatles – Happiness Is A Warm Gun [1968]

Outro “Bang bang/shoot shoot”:

I – VIm – IV – V [C – Am – F – G] in the key of C major

The Police – Every Breath You Take [1983]

Intro: I – VIm – IV – V [A – F#m – D – E] in the key of A major

3.     The Magical Mediant (I – IIIm)                                                

Key of C major: C – Em

Paul McCartney said that this chord change “pretty much always excited you”. You can substitute the relative minor from Trick 1 if you like, to create I – VIm – IIIm (C – Am – Em) in the key of C.

Popular Song Examples:

Radiohead – Like Spinning Plates [2001]

Intro & Verses: I – IIIm – VII – VI

[A – C#m – G# – F#] in the key of A major

Amnesiac Original

Evanescence – My Immortal [2003]

Intro & Verses: I – IIIm – I – IIIm

[A – C#m – A – C#m] in the key of A major

Pete and The Pirates – Knots [2008]

Intro & Verses: I – IIIm – VI – IV [C – Em – Am – F] in the key of C major

4.     The Circle of 5ths

(IIIm – VIm – IIm – V – I) or (III7 – VI7 – II7 – V7 – I)                                    

Key of C major: Em – Am – Dm – G – C or E7 – A7 – D7 – G7 – C

If you’re John Lennon, don’t use this chord progression, for it is not typical or characteristic of you in the slightest. This is much more of a McCartney trick. As the name suggests, each chord descends by a 5th (1.Em, 2.D, 3.C, 4.B, 5.Am) creating a (perhaps horrible?) sensation of inevitable falling.

Popular Song Examples:

George Gershwin – I Got Rhythm [1930]

Bridge: III7 – VI7 – II7 – V – I

[E7 – A7 – D7 – G7 – C] in the key of C major

Beatles – Can’t Buy Me Love [1964]

Chorus: IIIm – VIm – IIm – V – I

[Em – Am – Dm7 – G7 – C] in the key of C major

 5.     The Imperfect Bridge Cadence (II7 – V7)                      

  Key of C major: D7 – G7

The Perfect Cadence is when your V7 resolves to I, providing your phrase with a sense of closure. Here we have the notion that your bridge doesn’t have to end on the tonic (as is typically expected).

It usually follows the II7 chord and by denying tonic relief, encourages awkwardly high tension (because we all love it when a crisis is solved). Perhaps your lyrics could depict the hanging element? In ‘Nothin’ Shakin” Fontaine practically pleads “Give me some a-lovin’ baby please, please, please!”.

Popular Song Examples:

Eddie Fontaine – Nothin’ Shakin’ [1958]

Bridge: IV – I – IV – V7 [Eb – Bb – Eb – F7] in the key of Bb major

What are you waiting for?

Go and write a number one song!

15 more tricks to come so check back!

(Tricks Adapted From The Dominic Pedler Book)

-James Godwin, April 22nd, 2011