How To Write a Popular Song and Make Millions IV: Final 5 Songwriting Tips

The final five song-writing tricks are upon us. Here to act either as 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. You could come back to it later, and be in a totally different place mentally.

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. Phrygian Cadence IIb – I

Cadencing from IIb to either I or Im

Key of C major: Db – C or Db – Cm

The Phrygian Mode is a modal scale which naturally harbours the IIb chord. The Phrygian scale in A is ABbCDEF-G, and when harmonised spawns A minor (blue) and Bb major (red) chords.

On the page they may look like rather cosy neighbours, but musically they are miles apart. Rings out a siren of sophistication, and perhaps unsurprisingly the uneasiness is exploited profusely in a lot of metal tracks. Kurt Vile reverses the process in an almost deceptive cadence.

Popular Song Examples:

Metallica – Enter Sandman [1991]

Most notably in the riff closure, but also Verse: Im – IIb – Im – IIb

[Em – F – Em – F] in the key of E minor

Radiohead – Everything In Its Right Place [2000]

“There Are Two Colours In My Hair”: IIb – I – IIIb – IIb

[Db – C – Eb – Db] in the key of C major

Kurt Vile – Ghost Town [2011]

End of Verse: I – IIb – V

[E – F – B] in the key of E Major

2. The Half and Full-Step Modulation

Key of C major: C – F – G // Key of C# major: C# – F# – G# // Key of D major: D – G – A

The process of modulating upwards either by a half or full-step, and then repeating the chord progression. An outrageous cliché used and abused by all and sundry. ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Old Before I Die’ amongst others.

Of course modulation is an indispensable divider in separating the amateur from the professional, but one will need to get their creative juices flowing to fully appreciate this hackneyed concept. Perhaps instead of just repeating a chorus, produce a swanky guitar solo?

Popular Song Examples:

Beach Boys – Good Vibrations [1966]

Chorus modulates a half-step up

Abba – Money, Money, Money [1976]

Chorus repeat

Shifts a half-step up from the key of A minor

Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen [1982]

Full-Step from Verse to Bridge: I – IIIm – IV – I – V

[C – Em – F – C – G] in the key of C major

[D – F# – G – D – A] to the key of D major

3. The Minor Dominant Philosophy (Vm – I – IV)

Key of C major: Gm – C – F

One of my all time favourite chords, nicknamed by Paul McCartney as the “surprising place”. It’s a rather subtle modulation to the key of IV (F Major) by prepping it with it’s own IIm – V (Gm – C) with the old tonic (C Major) firmly in place to act as a pivot for the listener, which is why I like it so much.

Again surreptitious modulation separates the men from the boys, and the women from the girls, so even if you don’t fully understand, give it a bloody good go.

Popular Song Examples:

Buddy Holly – Raining In My Heart [1959]

Bridge: Vm – I7 – IV

[Dm7 – G7 – C] in the key of G major

Scott Walker – On Your Own Again [1969]

Chorus: I – Vm – I – VIIb

[E – Bm – E – Dmaj7] in the key of E major

Coldplay – Everything’s Not Lost [2000]

End Chorus: I – Vm – IIm – I

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

4. Pretty Woman Key Shift (IVm – VIIb – IIIb bridge)

Key of C major: Fm – Bb – Eb

Essentially the same concept as number 3. Another cracking modulation technique, generating a cultivated emotional departure through harmonic disassociation.

Popular Song Examples:

Roy Orbison – Pretty Woman [1964]

 IVm – VIIb – IIIb

[Dm – G – C] after a verse in the key of A major

The Beatles – Lady Madonna [1968]

 IVm – VIIb – IIIb

[Dm – G – C] after a verse in the key of A major

5. The ‘Augmented 6th’ Tonal Tease (IV – III7 – VIm) or (VI – V7 – Im)

Key of C major: F – E7 – Am

It’s well documented that III7 cues VIm often, but it’s even stronger when IV is slotted in before, as this implies a planned move to the relative minor. As per usual, the modulation drives the song away to a fresh new tonal home.

The two consecutive major triads strongly evoke an Aeolian (natural minor scale) descent, and you can even swap the VIm with VI for an extra quirk. Give it all a try and let the inspiration flow.

Popular Song Examples:

Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz – Alone Together [1932]

VI7 – VI7 – Im

[A7 – D7 – Gm] in the key of G minor

Tom Waits – Underground [1983]

Verse: VIb – V7 – Im

[Ab7 – G7 – Cm] in the key of C minor

Radiohead – Lucky [1997]

Verse: VIb – V7 – Im

[C – B7 – Em] in the key of E minor

What are you waiting for?

Go and finish that number one song!

(Tricks Adapted From The Dominic Pedler Book)

-James Godwin, July 17th, 2011