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

Here are five more song-writing 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 Borrowed IIIb

IIIb in a major key (I – IIIb – IV – V and variations)

Key of C major: C – Eb – F – G

Borrowed chords are those nicked straight from the parallel minor, cheeky. Here we have a flattened 3rd. There is no Eb in C major, not by a mile. But there is one in C minor!

It offers a much darker and harder sound, rockier some might say.

Popular Song Examples:

The Everly Brothers – Wake Up Little Susie [1957]

Intro: I – IIIb – IV – IIIb – I

[D – F – G – F – D] in the key of D major

Skip James/Chris Thomas King – Hard Time Killing Floor Blues [1931/2000]

Riff ending verses: I – IIIb

[D – F] in the key of D major

Portishead – The Rip [2008]

Latter half of continuous progression: IIm – IIIb – IIm – I

[Am – Bb – Am – G] in the key of G major

Deerhunter – Earthquake [2010]

Intro: I – IIIb – I [A – C – A] in the key of A major

2. The Buddy Holly Chord (I – VIb – I)

Key of C major: C – Ab – C

Another major chord swiped straight from the parallel minor! This time a flattened 6th, often nicknamed “The Buddy Holly” chord for its crime-stopping appearance in the ‘Peggy Sue’ bridge.

Often employed by seekers of a left-field radical sound, this one is so far away from its relative key that you’d struggle to keep a lid on its antics. However, if you are able to tame the beast and make it work, hats off to you. The results would be stellar.

Popular Song Examples:

Buddy Holly – Peggy Sue [1957]

Bridge “Pretty pretty Peggy Sue”: I – VIb – I

[A – F – A] in the key of A major

Peter & Gordon – World Without Love [1965]

Bridge: IIm – VIb – V7 – I

[F#m – C – B7 – E] in the key of E major

3. The Dominant Rock Primer (VIIb – V7)

Key of C major: Bb – G7

You don’t always have to “set-up” the dominant by using the imperfect cadence or the cycle of fifths, no no. Not even with the doo-wop loop if you don’t feel like it. You can prime it with a tasty flattened 7th!

This chord change is in debt to the chromatic voice leading from within for its’ classy sound: the notes Bb-B-C from the chords Bb – G7 – C [VIIb – V7 – I] in C major. This carefully constructed run evokes a swooning sound to be coupled with a dashing lyrical climax.

Popular Song Examples:

Beatles – Help! [1965]

Chorus: IIm – VIIb – V – I

[Bm – G – E – A] in the key of A major

Otis Redding – Dock Of The Bay [1967]

Bridge “So I guess I’ll remain the same”: I – V – IV – VIIb – V7

[G – D – C – F – D7] in the key of G major

Beach House – Zebra [2010]

End of Chorus: IIm – V – VIIb – V7

[Am – D – F – D7] in the key of G major

4. The Double Plagal Cadence (VIIb – IV – I)

Key of C major: Bb – F – C

The Plagal cadence is the IV – I closure to a sequence. A standard formula which works because each chord shares the root note (in our example of C major: C). Therefore a double Plagal is simply two consecutive Plagal cadences. Although housed in gospel origin (The Amen Move), a lot of bands nowadays use it for a more rockier effect.

If you stack em’ up, going beyond simply doubling, you will create the circle of fourths!

Popular Song Examples:

Beatles – Hey Jude [1968]

Coda (Na-na-na-na-na-na-na): I – VIIb – IV – I

[F – Eb – Bb – F] in the key of F major

Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil [1968]

Verse: I – VIIb – IV – I

[E – D – A – E] in the key of E major

5. The Aeolian Rock Descent (Im – VIIb – VIb – V7)

Key of C major: Cm – Bb – Ab – G7

This is probably known widely as the ‘Feeling Good’ progression, with a steady fall from the tonic.

Lines like this which fall drunkenly through the scale have demonstrated their solid romantic successes throughout history.

Popular Song Examples:

Del Shannon – Runaway [1961]

Verse: Im – VIIb – VIb – V

[Bbm – Ab – Gb – F] in the key of Bb minor

Nina Simone – Feeling Good [1965]

Verse: Im – VIIb – VIb – V7

[Gm – F – Eb – D7] in the key of G minor

What are you waiting for?

Go and write a number one song!

Only 5 more tricks to come, so check back!

(Tricks Adapted From The Dominic Pedler Book)

-James Godwin, May 3rd, 2011