Chord Stories, Fearless Challenge, Music Theory, Songwriting

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:
D-Major-Fsharp-2,0,0,2,3,2
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.

DangGoodChords(final)

GoodChordsFool(final)

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

  

Fearless Challenge, Shame, Songwriting, Writing

Planning for the Fearless Challenge

I’ve wanted for a while to put together an intake to help people prepare for the Fearless Songwriting Challenge. I’d forgotten about “The Ship It Journal,” Seth Godin’s workbook to help people suss out the resistance they’ll find in working on a project, and helps them plan ahead to beat it.  Here’s a link to the free PDF: “Ship It” Journal by Seth Godin

It’s not quite perfect for the challenge.  There’s lots of group focused language, and we’re mostly writing our songs on our own.  I took that language as an opportunity to think about the committee of voices in head that hold forth as I’m writing a song.  You can see how I worked through it and adapted it below.  

It took me about an hour and a half to complete the journal, try it out for yourself, it gave me unexpected ideas, inspiration and confidence. 

You may be saying; “I don’t have an hour and a half to fill the journal out.” I’d respond; “Are you sure you’re committed writing a song every day for a week?  That will take an hour to an hour and a half every day too.” Probably only filling out just the bits on planning your time out and sussing out resistance would take about 45 minutes to an hour.  

The biggest sticking point for me was when it asked me to list all the tasks I necessary to completing the project. When I read that I was close to telling myself I’d finish filling the journal tomorrow. You know how finishing things tomorrow goes.

If you do try it out.  Let me know how it goes.  I’d love feedback on what works and what doesn’t work.  

And. . . Here’s what I did:

(Please note, the following wasn’t edited, it’s a journal entry I’m sharing in the hope it will be useful to see what I did).

Project:  Fearless Challenge

Ship Date: 7 consecutive days, 7/28 – 8/3 

Reasons for not shipping:  

“I don’t have anything good to say”
“I don’t have the time”
“I stubbornly refuse re: D. Burns”
“I don’t care enought”

The project is to run the Fearless Songwriting Challenge which requires: 

Writing seven songs, one each day, for seven consecutive days
Posting prompts each day at 11:00
Checking in and listening to five songs a day, after posting prompt

When does it ship?  

Sun 7/28 Writing: 8:30 AM – 9:30 AM Recording: 9:30 – 10:00
Mon 7/29 Writing: 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM Recording: 8:30 – 9:00
Tues 7/30 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00
Weds 7/31 Writing: 8:30 AM – 9:30 AM Recording: 9:30 – 10:00
Thurs 8/1 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00
Fri 8/2 Writing: 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM Recording: 8:30 – 9:00
Sat 8/3 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00

Who is responsible for shipping it: Timmy Riordan* <–That’s me

What am I afraid of?  Writing bad songs, failing to write, but more afraid in some ways of writing bad songs, being judged poorly, people thinking I’m a hack writer, a dilettante, that people won’t like me or my songs. 

What are the distortions? All or Nothing, Fortune Telling, Mind Reading, Hidden Shoulds: I should be a good writer, I shouldn’t work at something that I may not succeed at well, I shouldn’t enjoy a project or have fun doing something if others might judge me for it and think I’m foolish, I shouldn’t write bad songs, I should only write fully formed songs filled with the beauty, pain and catharsis of the human experience. 

Pick some edges:  

Open
Easy, (i.e. low bar for success)
Responsibility (i.e. I’m responsible to finish a song each day)
Give
Real
Fast (i.e. let’s write some upbeat songs!)
Cheap (Money-wise it costs nothing, time-wise I’m investing 2 – 3 hours a day).
Proven (Writing for seven days straight works)
Safe (The emotional risk is a distortion, and I’m learning to handle those).
Disposable (In line with keeping the bar low)
Mesh (We work in a cohort, we’re here to support each other).
Sold
Honest
New
You

Who is your Customer

For the songs, me
For the Challenge, the cohort, i.e. other participants

Who are the key influencers, gatekeepers, and authorities? 

In a sense, Soph, John, the folks I care about that I currently (sometimes) share my songs with. 

Does anyone else matter?

My censor, the imagined throng of critics that inhabits my head. 

Can I ignore them?  I can let them know I’m doing my work and that they need to give me space as I’m doing it. 

Questions and ideas for the devil’s advocate: 

It’s not enough time
I can’t write a good song in an hour
No one important will like a song written this quickly
People will laugh at me

–These are Fodder for Daily Mood Log/IDing the Distortion/Daily Mood Log

Who can stop this project:

Mostly me, I could get embarrassed and let my projections of what others thinks guide my decision to quit.  Mind Reading/Fortune Telling combined with emotional reasoning are important distortions to watch for.  

Who else can stop this project? 

I mean Facebook could blow up, or go down, that would be inconvenient.   

Who is essential to our success? 

Internally, In this case, I think it’s getting the Censor on board, maybe my taskmaster as well.  The thing to remember with the censor is we both have great taste. I’m going to write some mediocre songs during this project, that’s ok, they’re all first drafts and the only people who will see them are other people who care enough about songwriting to write bad songs themselves in the service of writing songs they love and care about. 

Externally, who are my supporters?  John Linn–can I find an accountability partner from the cohort as well?  

What does perfect look like?  

Dear god, perfect for this project is terrifying and overwhelming–laboring over each line, hand crafting and transcribing every melody, I’m not sure I can even consider it. 

What does good enough look like? 

Seven sets of lyrics with chords dangling off them precariously, and a one take video of each one so I can reconstruct each of them at some point further down the road. 

List every Task–

Well, I’ve listed my writing times,
Posting the prompt
Sitting down to write
Brain storming: usually a word map or word tree
Drafting lyrics
Playing guitar and singing/mumbling through a melody while recording to find the song
Typing up lyrics
Doing a one take recording
Posting to Youtube
Posting to Facebook 

Who becomes my competition? 

The people who post songs which I like better than my own.  

What does failure look like? 

Not writing the song–officially even not posting isn’t failure. 

Things that can feel like failure:

No likes or comments
Being unhappy with my finished song
Feeling like my song is shitty
Other people writing better songs than I do
I think that’s most of it. 

The Bradman Test:

That guy’s a jerk.  He’d write effortlessly good songs and sing them in his effortless tenor with a disarming nonchalance that makes the whole thing seem way too easy.  Also, he’d look good doing it without even having to try. 

But I’m not Bradman, what will I bring to this project that someone who is truly gifted might not? 

I’ll bring striving and effort and care.  I’ll bring my cranky baritone that I tend to feel insecure about but does the job just fine, even well sometimes.  I’ll bring my skewed, wry sense of humor and my sense of the human condition, and the vulnerability and hope that I think might make it just a bit easier for everyone.  I’ll bring my grit and determination to work through and finish the project.  

Plus it!  List ten things you could add that would radically or subtly improve your project.

  1. Move some of my chord changes off the 1 beat
  2. Add a note, or melodic embellishment I’m not quite comfortable with 
  3. Do the same lyrically, add something I feel just a bit insecure about. 
  4. Keep the BPM at 110+ 
  5. Write a double verse or two 
  6. Write six verses for every song
  7. Add an extra beat to a measure or two 
  8. Record the whole thing in a professional sound studio 
  9. Invite a piano player to cowrite everything with me
  10.  Start with drum tracks 
  11.  Write killer bass lines

Minus It! 

  1. Write all my songs on just one string 
  2. Write songs using just a drum track
  3. Make all the verses a single line, or a single word even 
  4. Defenestrate rhyming from my songs
  5. Give up on writing lyrics out, just pick up the guitar and start singing
  6. Forget the guitar–just hit record on my phone and sing
  7. Don’t bother with chords
  8. Write a blues every day 
  9. Use only two chords all week. 
  10.  Only write over a simple bass line
  11.  One note song 

When was the last time you did something for the first: 

This morning actually, I reached out to a stranger to ask permission to use her images.  She was happy to share and it felt great. And yes, I forget sometimes about the rush of doing things for the first time.  (Also, working through this journal is a first). 

Turn Pro 

Emotional labor is doing the work you don’t feel like doing, because that’s the work. As Steve Pressfield points out, the act of turning pro is a conscious decision to do emotional labor. If you were a pro at this, how would you do it differently?

I think I’d just aim to lose the drama, i.e. I’d do the work, and forget about the belly aching–though I’ve been a pro a serving tables for ages and belly aching comes with the territory. So, I’d do the work despite the belly-aching.  

Shame? 

“You’re not as good as you think you are…” Are you waiting to hear this? Afraid of it? What would it feel like if you did? Make a list of what you might hear instead of that if you actually shipped, shipped something artistic and generous and world-changing:

Great work, Tim!
That really helped me.
I’ve never written seven songs in seven days before
I wrote one of my best songs ever this past week.  

Take a bow 

You earned it. 

Reserve this page for describing what happened when you shipped. If you want to write down the truth in advance, if you want to describe the end before you begin, go ahead.