How to Use Chromatics to Write Killer Chord Progressions

Break out of predictable patterns and inject some colour into your craft with this chromatic approach to writing killer riffs and memorable melodies!

In Part 1 of the CHROMATIC MAGIC mini-series – we look at a simple yet effective way of breaking old patterns and introducing new sounds to your repertoire. Starting with some warm-up exercise that will challenge guitarists of all levels, we then look at some exciting ways to create improvised lines and memorable solos, before examining two iconic riffs and looking at the role that chromaticism can play in grabbing the listener’s ear and empowering you with many more songwriting options.

In Part 2, we continue the discussion on taking a chromatic approach to your songwriting, starting with some basic principles before moving on to advanced music theory. Our main focus throughout this video is to examine the movement between chords, how to connect chord sequences and utilise all 12 notes. We also explore chromatic chord options, break down tritone substitutions and play around with walking bass lines. Putting this all together will give you powerful and creative ways to construct your songs, allowing you to break free of predictable patterns and gain control over your stylistic choices.

And before you go! We have a LIVE (online) interactive Chord Workshop coming up in April 2022! You can find more info and tickets here:

Picking the Perfect Chords

As songwriters we often start with a chord progression, using it as a framework to add lyrics, melodies, textures and embellishments. But one question that continually pops up is ‘what chord do I choose next?’

In this video, my musical compadre Ben Romalis looks at the functions and relationships of chords in a diatonic system, to give you more control over the choices you make and more variety as the song develops. He breaks down a simple yet effective process for writing chord progressions that doesn’t feel random, doesn’t feel repetitive and gives you total control over the direction you’d like to take your composition. Finally, he looks at some great substitutions to spice up your song and support your lyrical message.

There is an upcoming 90-minute interactive workshop that explores this topic in more depth. CLICK HERE FOR INFO AND TICKETS.

Get a free PDF download that analyses the relationships and functions of chords within a diatonic system here:

6 Songs That Taught Us How to Write Songs

One of the best ways to learn how to write great songs is to learn from great songs and songwriters. In this video, songwriter Ben Romalis and I take 6 songs that each taught us a crucial principle or technique about writing great songs.

Drawing from a range of inspirations from Radiohead, Tom Waits, to Gillian Welch and John Mayer, Benny and I talk about the specific musical or lyrical technique that we learned from these 6 great songs.

Of course, these 6 songs are just a beginning! We picked these for this video because they showcase a range of different principles and techniques: we talk here about chromaticism in chord progressions, about borrowing chords outside the key, about balancing types of language in your verses, about narrative and non-conventional song forms, about verse development and great chorus writing, and how a great intro can set your song apart.

More will come out of this series, as we explore how to listen to music so that you can extract ideas, and put them to practice in your own songwriting.

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

Getting to Great Chorus Lyrics

A great chorus is more than just the bit where the lyrics repeat. This video dives deep into the craft of finding and writing great chorus lyrics. We look at what a great choruses really do (beyond merely repeating), and look deeply at one of the most important concepts in great chorus writing: RECOLOURING. We reveal our favourite writing prompts for getting to a great chorus idea, and play a song that shows these ideas beautifully.

Here is a downloadable PDF of the prompts that you can use…forever!

George Saunders, Janis Ian, and Paul Simon—Where Meaning Comes From in Story

In a recent newsletter by one of my favourite writers, George Saunders, he writes of one of his characters in a short story, The Falls:

“A story has a surface dimension (let’s call it the overstory) and another, deeper, dimension (the understory). The overstory, in this case, is whether Morse will save the girls. That’s what we think we’re supposed to care about and what we (very naturally) do care about. The understory is somehow related to the Joycean idea of the epiphany – it’s what the story has really been about all along. The writer might not realize it until that moment when the understory breaks through the overstory and the story tells us, finally, what it’s been about all along.”

Photo: Zachary Krahmer

I believe (and experience) songwriting to be similar. As Janis Ian has said, often we write not because we have Something To Say; we write to find out what we are writing about.

Photo: Peter Cunningham

We often need to go spelunking through the dark and lumpy caves of the mind and imagination to arrive at some smooth pond that reflects a meaning back to us (that’s me, not Janis Ian, although I suspect that she, like me, has never been spelunking).

Paul Simon has framed a similar idea in a different way. Simon says that in his songwriting, he feels that his songs don’t need to have “meaning,” and probably benefit from avoiding it as the instigator of an idea. Instead, Simon says (in his wonderful interview with Paul Zollo, in Songwriters of Songwriting), songs simply need direction. Connect one idea to a second, and an idea has movement; connect it to a third, and the song has direction. Meaning will attach itself to direction, without needing to force it, plan it, or even mean it.

Photo: Frank Ockenfels

I like the idea that meaning is emergent; it takes the pressure off having to have ‘something to say’—or instead, it trusts the intelligence of a listener to bring their own experience and meaning to a story. It also encourages a trust in oneself as a writer—where there is story, there is meaning, and sometimes that meaning might be more complex, subtle, and personal, if we don’t set out from the starting point of ‘meaning’, but from the starting point of story.

The 3 Things I Did This Year to Write Over 20 Songs

In this video, I share the three pillars of my creative practice that ensure I write even when not inspired, and have given me the structure to write over 20 songs this year.

Producing lots of creative work is more often about the habits, practices, and environments that we build, rather than about inspiration alone. These three practices give me the structures to stay connected to my ideas and projects, to know EXACTLY what I need to do if I am stuck on an idea or need to generate new ideas, and to ensure I have some accountability to get the work done.

More videos on my YouTube Channel, here.

Understanding Musical Genre for Songwriters

Professional songwriters often need or want to write in specific genres. This video explains 5 different ways to understand and emulate musical genre.

This video was made for a Songwriting class I teach at Collarts in Melbourne, Australia. A major project during the semester is to write a song to a specific brief provided by a music publisher, which asks for songs in a specific genre.

In order to write for this aspect of the commercial industry, it’s important to know how to listen to songs, and define the necessary characteristics of the genre so that you can emulate those characteristics, while still bringing in your own creativity to the project.

Genre is notoriously difficult to nail down, but in this video, I go through five concepts that are often at the heart of defining a genre.

How do you actually get better at songwriting?

A student emailed me this question today, and I thought it was beautifully simple, direct, and honest. Here is the answer I gave her (unedited):

The basic ingredients to getting better at anything are all the same: deliberate practice. The ‘deliberate’ part of that is key, though! Simple repetition of something is not enough to improve, or at least to improve past a certain plateau. You have to focus in on areas that you know need work, and then strengthen that muscle. You also need to get good feedback (which is where I, and other teachers, come in, of course), but good feedback can also come from your own practice. There is absolutely a way to be able to tune in to the things that are and aren’t working in your own songs, and the best way I know is to simply write A LOT OF SONGS. Get less attached to any one particular song, and more interested in the process of writing.


Here are my other hot tips for improving your songwriting:

  • Learn a lot of covers! Learn classic songs, but also anything that you just love. Seek to understand the chord progressions, the song forms, and the relationship of the melody to the chords and song forms. The Beatles played covers for a year in Hamburg for 8 hours a day before anyone had ever heard of the Beatles. Bruno Mars played covers in cafes in LA for 5 years before anyone knew who he was. 
  • Keep getting better on your instrument. The more you can do on your instrument, the broader your palette of choices will be.
  • Integrate music theory concepts immediately into songwriting (do not wait; do not think, ‘I will store this away, and use this concept next month/year…do it in the same few days that you learn something). For example, when you learn a particular inversion, or chord pattern, or bit of non-diatonic theory…write a song that uses it. 
  • And most importantly, WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Did I say that already? WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Aim for 1 a week. You can also set yourself a timer, and make it ‘one song in one hour’ so that you are not laboring over it all week to the exclusion of all else. For 2 weeks of every year, you should have a period of ‘write a song a day’. You could pick a month each year, and do it at the same time; that way you can claim that it is your job. Draw a boundary around it. Someone asks you to do something else, and you simply say to them (and yourself), “I’m currently doing a Song-A-Day Retreat, can we do that in 2 weeks?”

Hope that helps 🙂

The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”

You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.

This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.

This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:

“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”

(My emphasis added)

You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:

Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).

For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.