Saturday’s are for Songwriters

I’m not much sure what this will look like . . .

I love starting anything new with those words. Each Saturday I’ll posting a little musical idea or principle here. I’ve been running a little group called “The Fearless Songwriter,” on Facebook for a long while. This is a little bonus for them. If you’re a songwriter, come on over and join us here:

Let me know what you think. If anything is confusing, let me know! It’s so helpful to know what works in a presentation of ideas and what trips people up.

Here’s a link to Steve Bowersock’s “Are You Sailing Away,” if you prefer to write from the image only.

Here’s a link to a .pdf of this sheet:

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Dang Good Chords

Here are two sheets I put together a dog’s age ago, with the clever titles “Dang Good Chords” and “Good Chords Fool.”* They talk about chord relationships and what chords tend to like to do, in the keys of G and C.  This is all based on “The Chord Ladder” which is an alternate perspective on Chord Stories and Circle of Fifths.

The Chord Ladder takes the letters from the Circle of Fifths and stacks them up. If you climb a step up the ladder, the tension of your chord progression increases a bit. If you descend the ladder a step, it resolves. (Climbing the ladder brings you clockwise around the circle of fifths. Descending it brings you counterclockwise around the circle). Just like with the circle of fifths the letter could represent a chord, a whole key, or simply a note. There’s a lot of info packed into these sheets. Some of it could probably be explained more clearly, but I want to share it because I think it could useful.

Each rung on the ladder has a big grey box on it—the biggest letter in represents a major chord. On the top right side of the grey box is a smaller white box. That box tells you what the relative minor of the major chord is. In the case of G its Em, for C it’s Am. (I haven’t talked about relative minors anywhere on the blog yet, but will soon).

Underneath the little white box is a letter with slash next to it. Use a chord with this note and you can create a lot of drama and tension. Like most drama, it can be confusing to explain why it happens exactly, but it has to do with Mozart’s Alarm Clock which you can read about here.

There are two sets of examples building chords with this letter. The first is probably most familiar as a D/F# chord. (It’s the one where you play D chord normally while you strangle the neck of the guitar to declare a thumb war on the sixth string and wrestle it into submission at the second fret of your guitar).  Here it is:
This chord uses the principle of Mozart’s Alarm Clock to point back to a G chord (or a G note). Here’s Lindsey Buckingham using a D/F# in Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide at 01:11, which signals the switch to the “I’ve been afraid of changing” section.  There’s one of these slash chords for every major chord. (Some are easier to play on the guitar than others).

You could use that same note as the root of a major chord, or a (dominant) seven chord to create even more tension and feeling.  Here’s John Lennon using this principle right after singing “You may say I’m a dreamer” at 00:01:38 (also 01:45 & 01:51)

Each of these things are describing a principle of what music “likes” to do. At some point soon I’ll go into more detail about all this stuff and work to make it more accessible. But there’s a Fearless Challenge Starting Sunday, so I want you to have it now.



*Clever because each is a mnemonic for the three major chords in the G and C scale, respectively, arranged by the Circle of Fifths.

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Mozart’s Alarm Clock

The Wheel of Chord Story, (the circle of fifths), maps out what chords “like” to do, but it doesn’t really explain why.  

The jump of a fifth between two notes is actually pretty stable. The only jump between notes which feels more stable is the interval between two notes with the same name, G to another G for instance. What is the jump between notes with the tension to really move you? 

There’s a story that Mozart’s father had a secret to getting young Wolfie to the piano to practice. He’d tinkle out the notes of a major scale on the harpsichord: do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti and . . . wait. Supposedly Wolfgang would come running from any room in the house to complete the scale and kill the tension.   

The modest jump from ti back to do is what really moves things in music.  It’s the jump of one fret on the guitar. It’s called a half-step. The first few notes of the Jaws theme move a half-step.

The first notes strummed in Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song” descend a half-step from do to ti.

Now, look at the notes of a G and C chords spelled out below, (G to C is an antagonist/hero pairing on The Wheel of Chord Story). Do you see Mozart’s Alarm Clock going off?  

G major: sol ti re
C major: do mi sol 

The “ti” of the G chord desperately “wants” to resolve to the “do” that is the foundation of the C chord.  (“Do” by the way is just the just another name for a C note).

Mozart’s alarm clock, (the “longing” of the final note of a scale to resolve to the root of that scale is named after), is built right into every Hero/Antagonist chord story.  If you love music, it’s probably what gets you out of bed in the morning.  

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Music Shapes

Here’s experiment you can try for yourself.  Draw a circle with 12 points on it. It’ll look like a clock without numbers:

Now what is the most interesting pattern you could create to get around the circle, moving the same number of spaces each time. You could move one space at a time, which gets you all the way around the circle, but it’s kind of a boring way to do it. 

If you move by twos you create a hexagon, and you miss half the notes.  Moving by three creates a square. Fours creates a Triangle.  Both are closed loops and with a bunch of points which get missed. 

Moving by five dots at a time however, is pretty cool, you a star and you touch all the dots.  


Six is a line.  


After that it’s all repeats in reverse.  Moving by seven spaces is a again star, eight triangle, nine square, etc. 

Now name the points on the “clock” with the twelve notes from frets one to twelve frets on the guitar. Use any string you like.  I chose the low E string.  Follow the path of the star around the circle and you end up with the same pattern as the Wheel of chord Story (the circle of fifths. 


Kinda cool right?  All the other patterns of 2, 3, and 4 spaces create closed loops, (geometric shapes really), but jumps of frets five or seven allow you to touch all the points on the circle.  Of course all these jumps have names in the jargon of music theory:

Jumping of 1 dot (or fret) is a 1/2 step (or semitone)
Jumping of 2 dots (or frets) is a whole step (or whole tone)
Jumping of 3 dots (or frets) is a minor thirds
Jumping of 4 dots (or frets) is a major thirds
Jumping of 5 dots (or frets): is a perfect fourth
Jumping of 6 dots (or frets): is a tritone, augmented fourth, flat five, or diminished fifth (a lot names for a simple line, eh?)
Jumping of 7 dots (or frets): is a perfect fifth

That’s enough for now.  All of that jargon can be a little confusing and abstract to keep straight.  Looking at the shapes they create however give a nice visual reference to think about how these jumps might help you move in a scale, or piece of music.

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Chord Stories (or B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow)

Pat Pattison has a brilliant reduction for the elements of story: 


Unstable . . . 

Pivoting between these two states is the engine of story, (excepting exceptionally dull stories).  You could frame this idea as tension and release as well. A pithy saying which expresses a similar idea is; “If it can’t happen (stability), it must (instability).”

This is known to obsessive watchers of Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, or any other bingeworthy TV. Is there a greater harbinger of disaster, [instability], than a character saying, “Great plan. It can’t fail.” [Stability]. 

Music is story which is told with sound.  Without stability and instability, tension and release, pattern and “surprise!” music is exceptionally dull.  Just like a story. Chords tell story. Are you familiar with the rules? Do you know how to create stability and instability? 

Almost no one will tell you this, but one of the classic stories is embedded in the standard tuning of the guitar’s bottom three strings.  It’s there to see, plain as dry toast.  Take a look: 

EAD Fret O

Standard tuning on the guitar can seem like it was designed by a cruel madman.  It’s full of sound and fury signifying nothing. (Also, the B string is usually out of tune). But standard tuning evolved to help tell chord stories. The story on the E, A, & D strings is basic but flexible and full of possibilities.  It’s could be a lot like the story boy meets girl who already has a boy. In it E, A, & D all represent the major chords their named after.  

Here’s a plot summary: A major is the hero of the story, named Amanda. Amanda lives in a house across the  street from her best friend Derek (the D Major chord).   They have a lot of fun together. Derek’s place is great to hang out at but since Amanda is the hero of the story, going back to Amanda’s house always feel like home.  Edgar (the E chord) is an older neighbor who lives next door to Derek. He’s mostly nice but he’s not happy when they’re in his yard.  Obviously, it’s great fun to find excuses to be in Edgar’s yard, it feels slightly risky and daring. After Going into Edgar’s yard Amanda feels safest returning home to the A chord.

That is close the most basic chord story there is.  (There two chords songs out there though). A is the hero and feels stable. D is the best friend and if feels fun to go to his place. E feels a little tense and makes you want to return home, to the A chord.  Following these guidelines, how might you make a calming chord story? How might you make chord story that feels more tense or exciting? There are 1000’s of three chord songs in the world that all create stability and instability following and breaking the rules of that story.  

This story is as movable as your capo.  Clamp a capo on the third fret and the principles are the same but the chord names will change. (The chord shapes will remain the same). 


C becomes the main character, the hero
F becomes the best friend
G becomes the antagonist

Do the same thing at Fret 7 and you’ll end up with the chords to a classic E major blues.  


E is the hero
A is the friend
B is the antagonist

I can hear you complaining.  Do I really have to know the notes on the guitar at the 7th fret?  –Nah. 

I mean, it’s not the worst idea, but if you don’t feel like it, I’ve got you covered. Though the answer could be unsettling. You must go to the of the fifth circle of hell.  Just kidding. It’s worse than that.  You have to use the circle of fifths.   

I know. I hate the circle of fifths too. But it’s exceptionally useful as a guide to chords stories. (Has anyone told you that?  They never mentioned it to me. I’m a little bitter).  

You now know that A, D, & E major are the hero, best friend, and antagonist of a classic chord story. Take a look at the circle of fifths, can you see those letter together on it?   

Circle of fifths

Do you see it?  Here’s what I’m talking about:

Circle of fifths(EAD)

The principle is this, assume all the letters on the circle of fifths are major chords. Take any three in a row and you’ve got yourself an antagonist, a hero, and a best friend.  The main characters in a chord story. Translated into theory jargon that’s the I (the hero), IV (the best friend of I) and V (the antagonist) of a key.  It works for any key.  The I chord, the hero will be in the middle.  The antagonist (or V chord) with be clockwise from the hero.  The best (or IV chord) friend will sit counterclockwise from the hero.

Circle of fifths(Hero)

I hear you again. Do I really have to learn the circle of fifths?  –Nah. 

Learn this instead: B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow

That’s a mnemonic for the Circle of Fifths in reverse, or B, E, A, D, G, C, F.  Oddly, this is the better way for guitarists, (and perhaps everyone), to understand it.  That’s because chords “like” to resolve down a fifth. B, E, A, D, G, C, F is only 7 peices of the circle of fifths though.  The other part is B, E, A, D, G*, again, but all flatted.  Then you’ve come full circle.   That’s it.  

*Gb can also be named F#, depending on the context.  If that’s confusing, ignore it for now.

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