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How to write a hit song - A focus on chord progressions

Writing a hit song takes a certain amount of skill and requires the ability to write lyrics, melodies and chord progressions. Many hit songs follow certain patterns, whether by accident or intentionally. In this article we are focusing on three hit songs by LP, First Aid Kit and John Mayer. We will identify how they have made each chord progression and why it works so well to deliver a hit song.

First things first we are going to harmonise a major scale to find some of the possible chords within it, starting with three-note chords (otherwise known as triads). The chords we find will go together nicely as they are from the same scale.

 

We can do the same thing with the natural minor scale, again here are the triads we get:

We can also add an extra note on to the top of the chords, which is called a 7th (seven notes up from the root of the chord).

Here is the C natural minor scale harmonised in 7ths:

 

By harmonising the scales we can see what chords are available to us when songwriting. Next let’s analyse some hit songs and see what is going on…

LP - Lost On You

 
 

First up is LP (Laura Pergolizzi), a very successful songwriter from New York. This song is one of her breakthrough hits and it went Gold and Platinum in many countries. Check out THIS video where she talks about the song’s success.

It is comprised of 3 chords… Yes!!! Only three chords make up the whole song. They are Bb minor, Eb major and F minor. Play through the chords below (or take a listen).

 
 

If we look at our F natural minor scale we find the above three chords within the harmonised version. This chord sequence can be called a iv-VII-i.

 

JOHN MAYER - GRAVITY

 
 
 

Next up we take a look at John Mayer’s hit song ‘Gravity’, a song that is #84 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs Of All Time. John Mayer has lots of hit songs and this one in particular has a clever chord progression.

 

The initial chord progression is in the key of G major, all the way up to when he plays Gm/Bb to the Ebmaj7 chord. These chords are not found in the G major scale, but are taken from the Bb major scale. So during these two chords there is a key change happening. Then in order to return to the G major key, he uses the D7 chord because it is a dominant chord and contains the leading note (F#) that wants to resolve back to G major. Clever!

Take a look at both of these harmonised scales and try to find the chords used above.

First Aid Kit - My Silver Lining

Finally let’s look at First Aid Kit’s song ‘My Silver Lining’; the first single from their very successful album ‘Stay Gold’, which charted all over the world.

This song is a classic pop song, which has a very simple verse (F#minor, A major and E major), and a chorus that uses the same chords but with the addition of D major.

All of these chords are within the harmonised F# minor scale. The verse chord progression can be called i - III - VII - i and the chorus is VI - III - VII - i.

Take a look at the harmonised F# minor scale below:

So now you see how important getting the right chord progression is when writing a hit song. Set yourself the task of writing a verse and chorus, using a maximum of 4 chords from one of the scales above. We can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

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