Music Theory Fundamentals–Major, Minor, and Diminished Chords

A little bit of music theory goes a long way – in this video, I explain the difference between the major, minor, and diminished triads, and show you how to find them anywhere on the keyboard.

Ready to take your songwriting further?

How to Write Great Bridges

Three chord strategies for creating satisfying contrast and variation in the bridge section of your songs. We first start by defining what a bridge is – then look at 3 chord-based (or harmonic) approaches, in increasing levels of harmonic complexity, for creating a sense of contrast, variation, and movement in the bridge section of your songs. We look at songs by The Beatles and Bruno Major that put the concepts into context.

Ready to take your songwriting further? Join us on Patreon:

Upcoming live online workshops:

For once-a-month tips, tools and tidbits on songwriting from Keppie, subscribe to the newsletter here:

4 Reasons Why You Must Finish Your Songs

One of the biggest challenges for any songwriter is the mountain of half-finished songs on their desk – but we need to learn how to finish because when we do, we develop habits that will elevate our songwriting to the next level. In this video, we look at 4 reasons you MUST learn to finish and how to start doing it right away.

Ready to take your songwriting more seriously? Join us on Patreon.

Starting with loops is one of the most enjoyable and effective ways to spark new ideas and breathe life into your songwriting process. In this video, we write a whole song from scratch using loops as inspiration – featuring the sample-based instrument ‘Chromatic’ from LANDR.

Save 30% now with this coupon: GETLANDRWRITESONGS30OFF

LANDR Studio includes monthly LANDR Mastering and Samples credits, access to other plugins, unlimited music distribution and more.

Little note! When you use this coupon, it helps us sustain our channel and blog – we get a small percentage of the revenue from people who sign up with it. With that said, we only accept sponsorships like this from companies we believe serve our audience, and give you access to things that are in line with your interests. Thanks for your support 🙂 We hope you find Chromatic as delightful and inspiring as we did!

“Rules” in Songwriting

I recently had Australian songwriter Michael Paynter in to guest teach a class, and he was expertly giving some feedback to a student’s song project. He dropped a bit of a knowledge bomb—a shorthand ‘rule’: The Rule of 3’s.

The rule goes like this: in any production, the ear of a listener can really only pay attention to 3 separate elements. Any more than that, and it becomes distracting. The ear doesn’t know what to listen to, so it disengages.

How this translates in practice is to limit the amount of ‘special,’ or attention-pulling things going on at any one time to 3. The other elements should be consistent, and not ostentatious. For example, you might have a guitar riff, some important lyrics/vocal, and a cool bass line. If those 3 things are all happening at once, the drums should take a back seat. Keep an even, unornamented groove holding down the basic beat. Same for the keys, or any other elements you have going on.

The ear can travel around 3 interesting elements without losing its grasp on the gestalt of the song—the overall picture and sonic scape. But if everything sparkles, nothing shines.

It reminds me of another ‘rule’ in songwriting, which is actually the Rule of 2’s:

If you are going to repeat something exactly twice, the ear will generally need some variation next, in order to return to the repeating part. Twice is nice—three is too much.

You can listen to neuroscientist Daniel Levitan (author of ‘This is Your Brain on Music’) talk to songwriter Scarlet Keys about this on her wonderful podcast, ‘What’s In a Song’.

All of which raises an interesting question: are there rules in songwriting?

Here are my brief thoughts: Not really. There are, however, observable effects, and it is at our own peril to ignore them. Sometimes ignoring them is important. Each song is different—there might be a very compelling reason why repeating something over and over exactly, more than twice, is going to feel really good. There might be a particular arrangement of elements in a production where lots of parts are each special and quirky, and yet somehow the combination just works. But it’s useful to have a few guiding principles to then bounce against when needed.

The Best Songwriting Books, Websites, and Channels

I’m compiling here a list of my favourite books, websites, blogs, and other resources for those pursuing study, growth, upskilling, and knowledge in songwriting. This list might change over time, but represents a curated list of some of the most useful content that I have collected over the past 15 years, songwriting, and teaching songwriting. Enjoy! Let me know if there are others that you would recommend as well!

BOOKS

The “Must-Haves”

Writing Better Lyrics, Pat Pattison

Songwriting Without Boundaries, Pat Pattison

Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure, Pat Pattison

Harmony, Jimmy Kachulis (the best place to start with chords and chord theory)

Great Songwriting Techniques, Jack Perricone (a totally comprehensive book encompassing lyric-writing, melody, chords, song form, and more. Really amazing).

The “Must-Have-Nexts”

The Craft of Songwriting, Scarlet Keys

Songwriters on Songwriting, Paul Zollo

Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film and TV, Robin Frederick

The Songwriter’s Idea Book, Sheila Davis

Books on Creativity and Creative Process (that have changed my life…)

Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon

Keep Going, Austin Kleon

Show Your Work, Austin Kleon

Art and Fear, Bayles and Orland

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

[Note: By buying any of these through the links here, you’ll be supporting my work and website, since I earn a small commission through these links. With that said, I never promote something I haven’t tried and loved myself!]

Websites

Top40Theory.com (top notch pop-music based music theory articles)

RobinFrederick.com (Robin does great analyses of contemporary songs, with prompts to engage the concepts in your own songwriting immediately).

YouTube Channels

How To Write Songs (of course…!)

Adam Neely (music theory and more)

Rick Beato (also very music theory and composition oriented)

Jack Lizzio (music theory with more of a songwriter/guitar-player angle)

Holistic Songwriting (geared towards commercial songwriting techniques)

Why do we bother making art?

It’s a question that haunts me. According Maslow, art should be something that we only bother with once we have secure housing, food supply, love, care, and support…and yet. And yet—there is something so patently untrue about this. Art is made despite a lack of these things; often because of that lack.

John Green, discussing the Lascaux Caves, says in his excellent book, ‘The Anthropocene Reviewed’:

The paintings were made a time in early human history, when every healthy and capable person would have needed to contribute to the basic survival of themselves and their clan. And yet, still made art. Almost as if art is essential…

In a book I talk a lot about, ‘Art and Fear,’ David Bayles and Ted Orland say:

Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium.

Motivations for making art are more complicated today than they ever were, because of money and media, which has turned art into a tradable commodity. Even 200 years ago, it was less complicated. Art was so tied up for the most part with the Church that the ‘purpose’ for it was clear: art was in the service of God, not in the service of oneself.

Bayles and Orland again:

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.

While that may be true, there is a paradox at the heart of this – we make art for our own “self-expression”, but it is still a political act. There is still a social value not just in a good product, but in the act of doing something that does not equate neatly to a limited notion of value that reduces people to dollar value.

By Scott Wrigg. Instagram: @scottwrigg

I make art (in my case, writing songs, writing articles, and making videos) for a curdle of reasons. Yes, it’s self-expression. It’s also a way to make money (at least part of it, but all the other ways I make money rely on the very fact that I’m an active songwriter, so in essence, entirely to make a living). But it’s also something more. It’s a contradiction. I would (and do) write songs regardless of whether I would make money from them. I do it as an almost aggressively spiritual act. The kind of ‘muscular’ spiritual act that I think Krista Tippett talks about on her podcast, On Being (one of my all-time favourite podcasts, by the way). It’s not spiritual in the sense of touching the ‘divine’. It’s spiritual in the sense of the painfully awkward act of doing something in the face of uncertainty; uncertain of the very reasons why I do it.

I have started to read ‘The Practice’ by Seth Godin, and was moved when I read:

Let’s call it art. The human act of doing something that might not work, something generous, something that will make a difference. The emotional act of doing personal, self-directed work to make a change that we can be proud of. We each have more leverage than ever before. We have access to tools, a myriad of ways forward, and a real chance to contribute. Your part matters. Your art matters.

Art matters. I’m not sure why it does. But it really, really does.

My 6 Favourite Books of 2021

Top 3 Fiction

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

I snuck this one in in the last week of 2021, and was overwhelmingly grateful to have the sequel, ‘The Last Graduate’ waiting next to my bed. I would have been devastated to have read something SO GOOD, and not be able to keep reading.

What I loved about this: the protagonist, Galadriel, is a teenage wizard, constantly irritated to the point of wanting to murder everyone. She wants to do the right thing and be a good person, despite being the centre of a prophecy that foretells she will be the bringer of doom and destruction to all wizard-kind. She is constantly battling the urge to fulfill the prophecy, which would be so easy, since her school keeps feeding her spells for erupting supervolcanoes, and building dark towers to impale her enemies upon.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

I’m a bit late to the game with this one, but am so glad to have read it. It’s the kind of book I will get my kids to read when they are 13 or 14, by telling them there are “adult things in here that might not be appropriate for them…” Which there aren’t, but they will smell my enthusiasm for it too quickly unless I veil it…The book follows two teenagers who are in love, but also live with different experiences of cancer. Cancer, though, is not the point. The point is about how to be alive in the face of mortality. As Hannah Arendt says,

We will lose everything we love, including our lives — so we might as well love without fear, for to fear a certainty is wasted energy that syphons life of aliveness.

Charlotte’s Web, EB White

This book wasn’t a part of my childhood, so I had the joint pleasure of experiencing for the first time as I read it to my 6-year-old and watched his joy. I have Strunk and White’s classic ‘Elements of Style’ (an absolutely essential reference on the craft of writing) always within reach of my desk, and it was a joy to read this story, and to witness how craft can truly elevate art. Every sentence is so deliberately crafted, and also so full of heart and beauty. But it is the craft itself that clears the window of all unnecessary scratches, so that we can see clearly through it to the story.

Top 3 Non-fiction

Dark Archives, Megan Rosenbloom

Photo: Megan Rosenbloom on Twitter

Rosenbloom takes a niche, esoteric, and slightly morbid obsession of hers, ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’—the study of books bound in human skin—and follows it down dark alleys that lead to wide open plazas of history, sociology, and very human stories that embody some of the most fundamental aspects of our existence together: consent, power, autonomy. 

I learned how the French Revolution created our present-day system of medical education and hospitals, before which, surgeons were considered the same as barbers, and doctors had little, if any, formal training. How, until alarmingly recently, doctors acquired cadavers as a standard practice, from career graverobbers. How this led, inevitably, to desperate and enterprising people committing serial homicides in order to ply doctors with cadavers for training. I learned that the most frequent owners of human skin-bound books were not Nazis or malignant dungeon-dealers, but mostly doctors—which is its own gateway into the problematic history of the medical profession and its endemic exploitation of the poor, of women, of people of colour. 

As a songwriter, what I loved most about this book was how it took a simple object and used it as a magnifying glass into the human story. Megan didn’t just show me the object she was looking at in a new way; she reminded me to open my eyes and see; that there is story behind everything, if you pay attention and ask the right questions.

You can listen to Megan talk about it on one of my favourite podcasts of 2021, Ologies!

The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green

Yes, I’m officially a John Green fan. This is a book of non-fiction essays, in which Green rates seemingly unrelated phenomena of the human-centred era using a 5-star rating system, which is really just a way to talk about things that have moved him, in one way or another, from the Lascaux Caves, to scratch ‘n sniff stickers, to Canada geese.

There are amazing stories and disturbing facts (“The biomass of all living humans currently on earth is about 385 million tons. The biomass of all our livestock is about 800 million tons. The biomass of bacteria is about 35 times the biomass of all other living creatures on earth”), as well as startling and moment-stopping reflections on hope through the eyes of someone (Green himself) who suffers from intense periods of depression:

I sometimes stop hearing the tune. I still become enveloped by the abject pain of hopelessness. But hope is singing all the while. It’s just that again and again and again, I must relearn how to listen.

The Shape of Sound, Fiona Murphy

Fiona Murphy is a physiotherapist, who is completely deaf in one ear. She grew up being able to ‘pass’ as a fully hearing person, even though her experience of the world, and of herself, is profoundly shaped by the way she hears (and doesn’t hear) the world. The book is something like a memoir, but written in a moment of her young adult life when she is only now starting to grapple with her own experience of deafness, and Deaf culture.

What I loved about the book: I loved that it isn’t written from a place or pretence of having ‘figured it out’. It’s someone still grappling, and expressing value in the grappling, not in having achieved a sense of ‘what it all means’. It’s a book that feels like a sequence of great questions, rather than pretending to have answers.

Examples of Sense Writing

The first exercise I run in any lyric writing class is called ‘Sense Writing,’ which is essentially the same as Pat Pattison’s Object Writing (which you can find out more about here). I’ve written before about Sense Writing, and recently put out a YouTube video that explains it, which you can watch here:

It’s one of my top ‘go to’ methods for getting a song idea going, for finding out what I have to write about (even when I’m not starting out with any specific ideas), and also one of my go-to ways of fleshing out ideas for lyrics when I DO have an idea on the go.

I thought it would be a useful reference to also post some examples of what my Sense Writes look like (though there is no stylistic requirement here—the only parameter is to stay sense-bound, and push yourself to turn the dial up on the level of detail), and then to show you how one of the Sense Writes might then translate into lyrics. Here we go!

Sense Writing Examples

Prompt: ESTATE

"Destitute funeral", the woman's voice over the phone had a quiver in it as she said the words. I could suddenly feel the sweat of my ear moistening the plastic screen protector of my phone. I didn't realise that ears sweat. A small baby fist of tension opened and shut at my larynx, a trigger of righteous outrage flared somewhere in my stomach. That word, 'destitute'. t conjured images of grey dread locks with rat shit in them, and urine-soaked cardboard boxes. Or perhaps of wailing orphans, or dustbowl leather-skinned cowboys and grey-wood furniture piled onto the front of yellow grassed lawn, rusty nails sticking out. Of nameless locals driving by in their pickups, narrowing their eyes to a slit, glaring at you with sharp shadows, one hand on the wheel, the other hand on the car door, window rolled down, a lop-sided cigarette precariously leaning of the cliff of their lip. Destitute was curled lips, snarling facial gestures, stuck in an ice-wall of silence."Oh ok, that's what they call it then. A 'destitute funeral," I murmured back to the social work woman on the other end of my iPhone. "Yes, sorry. I don't know why they call it that..." Well, I do. They call it that so that you feel this barrage of guilt and shame, and social knuckle to the solar plexus, because they don't want just everybody to know that it's not actually necessary to pay a company the extortion of $5000 to simply burn a body.


One thing I like to do shortly after a Sense Write is to mine it for interesting lines and ideas, and put them in a separate document. Here’s what I extracted from this:

LINES:

sharp shadows

leather-skinned cowboys

a lop-sided cigarettes

snarling

Prompt: POWERFUL

The sand beneath her toes makes a squeak like a mouse, like rubber, hot wheels on tarmac. It is warm but only on the surface. As her toes displace the upper crust, beneath is moist, darker sand, cooler, more secretive; earth's clay, more maleable, shapable, building castles and caves and channels for water to run, for worlds to emerge, for princes and princesses and dragons to suddenly burst into life, for the all powerful narrator to dictate outcomes, controlling tiny imaginary lives. Small, frail, hapless characters wrapped up in a fiction they don't even know exists; one swipe and the castle explodes, shards of sand hurling through the air, walls collapsing, the moat imploding, the water channel driven to chaos, spreading back into the dark sand beneath, joining with the waves that lick the shoreline and then sigh back into the vast glittering sapphire of sea. Salt and seaweed and hot chip fry. She abandons the narrative, and looks out into the blue, where the blue gradient gets almost black as it reaches for the horizon. Out at the edge of the water world, the line is not straight, but it's hard to even get a hold on. The horizon line quivers out there, a nervous distance, the arc of the earth actually visible if your imagination comes to stand next to you. The line out there shimmers, a magic portal, another world at the drop off, where gravity might make a mistake and flick you into space, or drag you down.The water imitates the sand. The top inch is warm, but as the sand slimes upward of the ankle, the water becomes cold, bracing, sticking to the surface of the skin, gripping goose flesh. The body responds with a frantic reciprocity, shifting its temperature to meet the embrace, trying to match the strength of the handshake.Her chest contracts, heart a little mouse in a cage suddenly submerged, quick gasp for air as the cold vice surrounds the shoulders, but the body somehow knows the water, and within mere seconds the borderline between skin and sea is gone.

Here I’ve just bolded the lines and ideas I was immediately drawn to afterwards.

Prompt: BIRTHPLACE

You just don't know how good what you have is as a kid.2 storey art deco house. Caramel coloured carpet, but for two kids, it was a place to roll around in, to lie down laughing, grasping at our bellies, wheezing laughter through tears. It was a place for me to put on my parents' records: Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters, Donovan, Chuck Berry, turn on the gas heater in the winter - tick tick floooommmff! - and thrash my limbs around, spin my body til my mind entered the music and the music fused with my blood and we were one swirling whirl, one smoke curl burning,one small house on fire, dancing like there was nothing else.My room painted sky blue, then layered over in lilac. My room ha da door leading out to the top deck vernadah. On summer night, I would straddle my dad, and he would tell me stories. I could feel his voice in my legs, I could feel the bass rumbling in his guts. The Corkscrew Ballerina! His belly button was the animation of her legs leaping, until her own pirouhette overtook her, She spun and spun until she burned a hole in the ground and fell straight through the floor!I would squeal in anticipation and delight, somehow still ravaged by the tension, even though I'd heard the story 10 times before.Until one telling - some fuse in my brain rewired itself away from childhood delight, and simply short-circuited. The tension blinked out in an instant, and the story no longer had the same power over me. I knew it was a story, could not suspend the disbelief any more. AS if cynicism just blooms one day like an algae that takes over the whole river in a day. As if knowledge (becomes understanding) somehow means defeat. The defeat of delight.Our backyard was big enough to build speed on a bike. We would pick lilipillies in late winter, and catch stink bugs in summer. I would watch the bees praying at each purple jacaranda bell, their religiosity habitual and efficient, each prayer finished with thanks.

Turning a Sense Write into Lyrics

Here is a Sense Write, followed by a lyric idea I have drawn out of it. Notice how I am pulling together words and sounds that have a sense of sonic connection, and obviously adding in structural elements that help something sound like a lyric: rhythm, rhyme, a consistent number of lines per section, etc.

Prompt: RADIO

wicker baskets, bric a brac, nick knacks, garage sale. old paperbacks, dog-eared, year yellowed, brown framed pages blending to cream. old bits of metal, nails, screws, rust sprinkled, once useful, now objects without a purpose. old toys wrapped up in plastic bags. a once-pink teddy, now sun bleached and frayed. an old woman sitting under a hawaiian umbrella, smoking a cigarette like it's the 80s, with cigarette smoke curling around her fingers, snaking through her hair, and shrouding the air just above her in tufts of white. the crackle of the nicotine between her lips. lip stick seeping into the small cracks and canyons of her old lips. the radio on next to her, an old black and tan wireless, the antenna cocked at an uncanny angle, leaning hard to the left like an old man leaning on a wall. the fire crackle of an AM station. edith piaf warbling, beach boys crooning. i can't find what i'm looking for, as if you come to a garage sale with a purpose...and a small but laden grey cloud suddenly sprouts above us. it starts to rain lightly, but the old smoking lady is still sun-bathed, her smoke now overlaid by a romantic sparkle of silver rain, glittering in the sunshine. i can now see that she was once a total babe. the sinews of her arms were once smooth surfaces curving gracefully at angles - clean elbow, the precipitous shelf of a collar bone. those lips once drew attention to themselves, when the smoke would cascade out like a slow-exposure waterfall. and i see her dancing, by herself, holding a glass of wine, standing at a window, the reflection of herself superimposed onto a night dotted by the candles of light from the town below. her reflection adding beauty to the scene, as music filled the room, traced over her shoulders, brushed her hair, and laid its fingers on her collarbones. now she is selling everything. 

Lyric idea:

Wicker baskets and old paperbacks

Nick knacks and bric a brac

She’s selling off her memories

She doesn’t need them anymore

Her cigarette smoke is curling through her hair

She leans back in an old wicker chair

On request she slides off her wedding ring

She’s selling everything