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What To Do When “I’ve Used These Same Chords Too Many Times!”

I think most songwriters (who write music) feel at times that they go to the same chord patterns too frequently. I know I feel that way sometimes.

It’s inevitable, really. Not only that I’ll hear, for the ‘next chord’, one I’ve used there before, but also that my fingers will go to one of their next familiar formations on the guitar or keyboard. It’s going to happen.

As a songwriter, I’d say I have a fairly broad harmonic palette. For better or worse I don’t write using the same handful of chords (which can be the complaint of many writers). Although I don’t hesitate to use only a few chords when it feels right, I’m comfortable ranging through less common chords and varying keys when I feel they’re needed by the song.

Even given that, like everyone else I still have my familiar patterns. I have two suggestions, both pretty straightforward, even obvious, for breaking out of the rut.

The first is to turn the problem into a potential asset by concentrating on making the melody more interesting. If I have a strong melody, one that’s different from my previous ones, no one cares if I’ve used the chord pattern before.

(This can also apply to some extent to the lyric, but today we’re dealing with the music side.)

The other approach is to force myself to try chords, sounds, and formations that are new – to me, anyway. This is attacking the problem at its root; forcing my ears (and my fingers) to try, and occasionally even accept, new patterns.

It’s not necessary to know musical theory to do this – you can ‘let your fingers do the walking’ (be bold!) – but some harmonic knowledge can help:

Let’s say the melody note is a sustained ‘E’ and the overused chord underneath it is a C chord. Instead I can try an Aminor chord (‘E’ is the fifth of the chord). Or an Amajor (ditto). Or an F#minor or major (‘E’ is the 7th). Or even an Abminor7flat5 (‘E’ is the flatted 5th). Etc., etc., etc.

This can also apply in the ‘work on the melody’ approach. If your chord is a C, try some melody beyond the C triad. Try the 7th or the 9th… or beyond.

This may seem like an academic approach. That’s because it is – at first. But when my ear hears an exciting sound, especially one that’s new to me, it stops being academic – fast.

Remember, we’re not just searching for novelty here. It’s not enough that the chord sound be new. It has to be right for the song.

An underlying reason why our familiar chords now seem tiresome to us is probably not just that they’re familiar but that, like in any language, our ideas may have outgrown our (harmonic, in this case) vocabulary… and we need to learn some new ‘words’.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

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