Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording ArtistFollow @rwleslie2
Rippin’ it up …
One of the most important aspects of fitting a tune to a lyric is variation. Now, there are indeed many songs around that seem to do the very opposite and are nevertheless hits.
Try this one for example: Who Do You Love? by Juicy Lucy
It’s what I tend to refer to as a “one-chord wonder” in that you could play a rhythm guitar part over a single chord all the way through without sounding out of place.
However, if you check out the arrangement, you’ll find that the bass changes from playing a kind of fast country E .. B .. E B D E during the vocal to a bluesier pentatonic run in the instrumental.
[Pentatonic means “with 5 tones/notes”, and in the key of E those 5 notes are E, G, A, B, and D. The really handy thing about those 5 notes for a beginner blues player is that you can pretty much play them over (or under) anything bluesy and it’ll sound OK.]
And the slide guitar moves from playing a riff under the verses to a frenzied solo that really drives along.
So, relatively simple song structures can be rendered more interesting by using dynamics and arrangement.
Indeed, that, and catchy hooklines and choruses, was the basis of Rhythm’n’Blues and its successor Rock’nRoll throughout the 50s and early 60s.
There’s not a huge musical difference between Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.
But they are memorably distinctive because of the catchy lyrics, the dynamics, and a totally different approach to soloing on the part of the artists:
- Chuck’s lead guitar is a carefully worked-out extra part of the composition
- Jerry Lee’s solo is a piece of percussive madness designed only to whip his teenage audience into a frenzy.
So, if your song has a very simple and repetitive chord structure, think about arrangement (e.g. start simple – maybe just acoustic guitar and voice – and add other instruments at strategic points like the chorus or lead break), dynamics (where to be loud and where to be soft), and maybe an added instrumental hook specially designed for the song (as we heard in Baker Street in the previous post to this one).
Looking for your relatives …
But what if you’re looking to boost your melody – either as an alternative to these approaches, or as an additional element?
One way to do that is to sing the tune over different chords. Let’s look at the minor alternatives.
In western music, minor keys are often perceived as imposing a gentler or sadder mood than major keys.
Each major key has an associated key called its relative minor. It’s related because where the major key starts on Doh, its relative minor starts on Lah of the same scale.
- So the notes of a C major chord are C – E – G
- If we go down the scale of C, like this C – B – A etc. we arrive at the note corresponding to Lah in that key: A
- The chord based on that is A – C – E … otherwise known as Am
- So the relative minor of C is Am!
Now, every note in any key can be covered by 3 chords – those are the chords you start out learning songs with.
In the key of C, those chords are C, F, and G (or G7 as an alternative).
In the key of Am, those chords are Am, Dm, and E (or E7).
If we assemble all the notes covered by the three chords in each key, and display them both starting alphabetically from A, this is the result:
- Key of C –
A B C D E F G
- Key of Am –
A B C D E F G#
What’s the difference? One note! Essentially, you could sing a tune over both sets of chords that would differ by, at most, one note!
In fact, if you substitute Em for E, then they cover exactly the same notes!
How strange the change from major to minor …
Let’s revisit the country-ish lyric That’s All the Reason You Need we created in the Songwriting 5 blog post:
Why do you cry
In the still of the night
After peace is declared
And there’s no need to fight?
Is it just that it’s happened
So often before
And you know that this battle
Does not end the war?
So while he still sleeps
You get up and pack
Get a cab to the station
And never look back
I’m going to write a very basic melody based on chords C G F G for parts 1 and 2, then change the accompaniment to Am Em7 Dm G for part 3 while singing the same melody.
On top of that, I’ll lay down some harmonies on part 3 and put in a wee touch of repetition to add even more variation.
See how the change to a minor key, and a little bit of arrangement completely changes things even though the melody is still the same?
After this refrain, we’ll refrain …
Now, to finish that off, let’s see what we can do with the chorus:
You still wish for the dream
Of the boy you once loved
But the man he became
When the curtains were closed
Is the reason you’re out flyin’ free
And that’s all the reason you need
If the verse ends on the Doh chord – since we’re in the key of C that’s the chord of C major – the following is a pretty standard manoeuvre in popular song:
- the first line of the chorus often starts with the Fah chord (or the 4th as it’s known – since Fah is the 4th note in the scale) – which would be F in this case
- the third line often starts with the relative minor chord, ie Am
- OR you can swap these two over as a variation
That last one is what I’ve decided to do here.
So, I’ll keep the F for the 3rd line, and go down the minor route for line 1.
- The first chord is therefore Am, and then I’ll move to Em7 – that echoes how we started part 3 of the verse, and that echoing helps to tie the song together
- Then, as I said, the third line will start with F
My next move is a wee trick that often comes in handy:
- I’ll put in a Dm, then I’ll change it to D major – one bar minor , then one bar major can be very effective in a song
- That D chord, just take my word for this, loves to be followed by G if you use it when your main key is C.
- So, D moves to G, then we’re into the hookline.
A hookline can always stand a bit of repetition, so I’ll do that twice, but with a little bit of the same kind of variation we used on the verse:
- first time, I’ll play F then G and end on Am
- second time F then G and end on C.
And we’re done!
That’s All the Reason You Need © Bob Leslie 2018
Next time, we’ll look at substitutions that involve key changes – and that gives you lots more notes to play with!
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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter