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

Here are five more songwriting skills to act as either an inspirational starting point, or to enhance a lifeless tune that might be knocking about in a drawer somewhere.

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 Pop-Rock Lydian II

(I – II – IV – I)

Key of C major: C – D – F – C

The Lydian scale is C-D-E-F#-G-A-B, and can be described as a major scale with the fourth scale degree naturally raised a semitone, F♯ in place of F♮.

Pop convention has always been to move from II to V (as in Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’), so to progress from II to IV is quite gutsy and dark. The IV liberates the II, which initially feels a little awkward and claustrophobic. Whilst the internal chromatic line created as a result of the C – D – F – C progression (track the notes G, F#, F, E in each chord of our C major example) is simply whispering pure class.

Popular Song Examples:

Beatles – Eight Days A Week [1964]

Verse: I – II – IV – I [D – E7 – G – D] in the key of D major

Rolling Stones – As Tears Go By [1965]

Verse: I – II – IV – I [G – A – C – G] in the key of G major

Queen – A Kind Of Magic [1986]

Verse: I – II – IV – I [A – B – D – A] in the key of A major

2. The Deceptive Cadence

(V – VIm) or a sequence resolution from V to any chord that isn’t the tonic (I)

Key of C major: G – Am

Denying the emotional stability of the tonic right when your listener is crying out for it most by side-stepping to the relative minor! Rude.

This “false” ending provides a quirkiness that is often hard to pinpoint. It’s a commonly employed ending variation on the standard big-rock-band crash-bang ending. Think in particular lead guitarists who hold their picking hand motionless in the air with all eyes glued on the drummer in the brief pause before everyone utterly slams that tonic straight out. Did somebody say cliché? You too can avoid this common error by following this simple rule, every now n’ then.

Popular Song Examples:

Badly Drawn Boy – Something To Talk About [2002]

Verse cadence into Chorus “The joy is not the same without the pain/ooo”:

V – VIIb – IV – IIm – V7 – VI [G – Bb – F – Dm – G7 – Am] in the key of C major

Kurt Vile – Jesus Fever [2011]

Verse cadence into Chorus “I saw it fall/Jesus fever’s flowin’ all over”:

I – IV – I – V – VI [Eb – Ab – Eb – Bb – Cm] in the key of Eb Major

3. The Aeolian (or ‘Modal’) Cadence

(VIIb – I)

Key of C major: Bb – C

Here is a modal move favoured by folk artists in particular. It lacks the certainty of the conventional V – I resolve and glows with laziness, ambiguity and attitude. Use if you want to stick it to da man.

Popular Song Examples:

The Smiths – The Headmaster Ritual [1985]

Verse: “Spineless swine’s/cemented minds”:

IV – V – VIIb – I [A – B – D – E] in the key of E major

Fleet Foxes – Lorelai [2011]

Verse: I – VIIb – I [A – G – A] in the key of A major

4. The Parallel Minor/Major Switch

(Im to I ) Tonic minor that switches to tonic major, and vice versa.

Key of C major: Cm – C

Parallel keys are the major and minor scales which share the same tonic. A major and minor scale sharing the same tonic are said to be in a parallel relationship.

I won’t keep saying vice versa, so the adjustment from minor to major transforms the dark into light. Perhaps after a period of lyrically mourning, the new-found happy sound can match your optimistic lyrics? Minor verses and major bridges were used by George Harrison in ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.

A similarly based trick is Tierce de Picardie, which is when a major chord appears at the end of a passage in a minor key (see Radiohead example).

Popular Song Examples:

Beatles – While My Guitar Gently Weeps [1968]

Verse: Am – Am/G – Am/F# – Am/G [I]

Chorus: A – C#m – F#m [I – IIIm – VIm] in the key of A major

Radiohead – Exit Music (For A Film) [1997]

Verse:   Im – V – III – IV – Im – V – I

[Am – E – C – D – Am – E – A] in the key of A minor

Note: Thom Yorke plays these chords with a capo on second fret, so it’s actually in B major, but he doesn’t really know those chords

Gnarls Barkley – Crazy [2006]

Verse: Cm – Eb – Ab – G [Im – III – VI – V] in the key of C minor

Bridge “My heroes had the heart”: C – Ab – Eb – G [I – VI – III – V] in the key of C minor

5. The Minor Plagal Cadence

(IV – IVm – I) (stylish variaton: IIm – IVm – I)

Key of C major: F – Fm – C

The Plagal cadence is IV to I, and also known as the “Amen Cadence” because of its frequent setting to the text “Amen” in hymns. Sticking the groovy and mellow minor chord in between the two enhances the standard Plagal cadence with a swooning characteristic.

The IVm chord is a delicate and heartfelt one. Of course it’s big AND clever to ditch the IV altogether, admirably treating IVm independently from the rest. Stylish.

Popular Song Examples:

Radiohead – Creep [1992]

Verse: I – III – IV – IVm – I [G – B – C – Cm – G] in the key of G major

Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger [1996]

Pre-Chorus “So I start a revolution from my bed”:

IV – IVm – I [F – Fm – C] in the key of C major

Bob Dylan – Make You Feel My Love [1997]

Verse: I – V – VIIb – IV – IVm – I

[Db – Ab – B – Gb – Gbm – Db] in the key of Db major

Excuse the Adele video, Bob doesn’t like his stuff sitting on YouTube.

What are you waiting for?

Go and write a number one song!

10 more tricks to come so check back!

(Tricks Adapted From The Dominic Pedler Book)

-James Godwin, April 27th, 2011