Harmonic Songwriting Tricks in 20th century Popular Music
By Assaf Gold
So far we’ve been taught that certain songs are popular for several perimeters. In this E-book we’ll focus on the Harmonic parameter and see how certain Harmonic “Tricks”, as we’ll call them, were used by countless musicians in popular songs throughout the 20th century.
If you ever wish to write a good song, be sure to use at least one of these tricks throughout your song, and see how the listeners’ ears and heart respond with a sign of recognition to the known trick and chord progression.
So let’s get to it:
This E-book relies on certain basic terms in Music Theory, including “Chords, ranks in a scale, Major, Minor (“m”) and other terms. Should you require further clarifications regarding these terms, please see a different book regarding the basics of music theory.
The first trick is the down stepping bass line in a minor scale, starting from the Tonic and descending in 4 semi tones total, a semi tone at a time, in the following manner:
Say for instance we are in the scale of A minor:
Am Am/G# Am/G Am/F#
Here’s a classic example from one of the best songs in history:
To simplify things, we can see this trick as the following ranks:
Im V/3 Im/7th IV/3
Interestingly enough, the trick goes through 3 different scales (the natural minor, the harmonic minor and the Dorian scale) with a simple inconspicuous chord progression.
Clapton is no stranger to this trick either:
Disney Liked it too:
Even Bowie, in this slightly chaotic song that shifts through lots of different scales gives us the satisfaction of hearing the familiar move in the end of the chorus:
even though Bowie and the others travel through different harmonic moves and their songs are compiled of all sorts of tricks, some of which can be pretty unique and special, the introduction of a familiar move such as this within the chord progression gives the listener a sort of sigh of relief.
Next we have the following move In a major scale:
I III VIm
Interestingly enough, the second chord (the third degree) is actually the 5th rank of the parallel minor scale (the VIm), and isn’t the normal IIIm we find in the original major scale. It forms a quick and powerful transition from the major to the parallel minor. here are some examples of this trick that we had no idea we knew:
And here’s me, implementing this trick in my song “For Most of my Days” (Go check me out on all social media platforms now!)
Our next trick is a pretty simple one in a major scale, that gives an echoing effect with little effort:
Even Queen used it among the other changes in this immortal masterpiece:
And once again, if it’s good, Disney uses it too:
The last Trick we want to discuss is a very simple one performed in a minor scale:
Why is this a trick you ask?
it’s because the normal fourth subdominant rank in a minor scale is supposed to be a minor one, and this trick uses a major fourth chord. the change gives us the feeling of a more stable move, with a bit of twist to it.
Let’s see a few examples:
From a research perspective, or for the purposes of improvisation, one can look at this combo and view it as a “II VI I” to the seventh rank of the chord (if we are in the Am scale we can see it as a II VI to the scale of G major and improvise on that scale)
These tricks are all around us, and add magic and a sense of familiarity and a unifying factor to a lot of the great songs we all know and love, but in this E-book we have only touched the surface of a few of them.