Chord Patterns: Phrases and Repetition

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by Conrad Albrecht

So, you've played with ChordSong and created some short chord sequences, as in our article Create a Chord Progression: First Steps. Now, how do you expand a short chord sequence into a whole song?

One thing most songs' chords have is phrase structure. That's the way a few chords are strung together to make a short phrase, and then short phrases are combined into longer phrases.

Chord phrases also repeat a lot, in interesting ways.

Let's walk through one way (out of millions) to build up a song from small phrases. You'll practice using several phrase structure ideas. Then you can use these ideas again later when you compose on your own. (The ideas I'll show are from an actual hit song; I'll reveal its name at the end.)

A song is typically divided into sections (each section is about 8-24 measures long), such as:

We'll create just the chords for one verse and chorus:

When you compose on your own, you might want to start adding melody along the way; but for now, so we can concentrate on just one thing, we'll just work on the chords.

We'll create our verse and chorus in 7 steps. You might want to take more than one session to work through them all:

  1. The Basic Chorus
  2. Embellish the End of the Chorus
  3. Start the Verse (Measures 1-4)
  4. Verse Measures 5-8
  5. Verse Measures 9-12
  6. Verse Measures 13-16
  7. Verse Measures 17-20

Step 1: The Basic Chorus

We'll start with the chorus. Often the chorus is the first part of a song to be created.

First, create a 2-measure chord phrase. For example, I'll use this phrase from the "mystery hit song":

You can create your own 2-measure phrase (or just copy this one).

Next: Repeat your 2-measure phrase over and over, like this:

How many times should you repeat the phrase? Well, you can play the phrase 8 times, to make a "typical" 16-measure chorus. But in this case, our "mystery writer" seems to have just played the phrase over and over while he sang and made up words, until he decided the chorus was "done". So he ended up playing the phrase 7 times, most of the time. But sometimes he changes some of the words and ends up playing the phrase fewer times! So don't worry too much about it.

If you don't want to make up your chorus's melody and lyrics yet, you can just play the phrase 4 times or 8 times for now. You can always change it later.

Step 2: Embellish the End of the Chorus

The chorus you have so far is fine, but now let's use another idea from the mystery song. For the last repeat of the 2-measure phrase, as it leads into the next verse, embellish it to give it extra interest. This is an example of variation: repeating something, but changing it.

The mystery song does two things to embellish this last phrase:

  1. It adds a "7th" to the last chord;
  2. It stretches the last chord from 1 measure to 2 measures.

So, the last phrase of the chorus is changed from:


You can make either of these same changes to the last phrase of your chorus; but if you can think of your own different way to embellish the phrase, great!

Here's the whole chorus from the mystery song, with repeats and the final variation:

Step 3: Start the Verse (Measures 1-4)

Now let's create the verse. The verse comes before the chorus, so in ChordSong, move the blinking cursor to the beginning of the song and create a blank line by hitting Enter.

Let's start the verse with a 4-measure phrase. You could create a brand new, unrelated verse phrase; but instead, let's create the 4-measure phrase by expanding your 2-measure chorus phrase (another example of variation).

Here are two ideas (from the mystery song, of course!) which you can use to expand the phrase:

  1. Insert new chords between existing chords;
  2. Stretch chords to make them last longer.

The mystery song inserts 2 new chords between the C and F; and it stretches the G chord to 2 measures. So, the 2-measure chorus phrase:

becomes this 4-measure verse phrase:

Now create your own 4-measure verse phrase by expanding your chorus phrase. You can insert new chords, stretch chords longer, or invent your own ways to expand the phrase to 4 measures.

Step 4: Verse Measures 5-8

So, you just created verse measures 1-4. Now, for measures 5-8, just repeat that 4-measure phrase. So, for the mystery song, verse measures 1-8 look like this:

Step 5: Verse Measures 9-12

Now, at verse measure 9, let's do something new. You'll create a new 2-measure phrase. But, create this new phrase from a fragment of your 2-measure chorus phrase.

For example: the mystery song's chorus phrase goes "C F G". And the mystery song creates a 2-measure phrase here at verse measure 9 from just the "F G" part of that "C F G" phrase, like this:

So, you do the same thing; create a 2-measure phrase from a fragment of your chorus phrase.

Then, repeat your new 2-measure phrase. This gives you your verse measures 9-12. In the mystery song, this is:

Step 6: Verse Measures 13-16

At measure 13 we'll do something similar; create a new 2-measure phrase. But this time, create it by selecting some chords from your verse measures 1-4, and change the chord order. For example, this was the mystery song's verse measures 1-4:

The mystery song takes the 1st 4 chords (C Dm7 C/E F) and plays them backwards, creating this new 2-measure phrase:

Now it's your turn; at your verse measure 13, create a 2-measure phrase by selecting some chords from your verse measures 1-4 and changing the order.

Then, repeat your new 2-measure phrase. This gives you your verse measures 13-16. In the mystery song, this is:

Step 7: Verse Measures 17-20

Finally, we're at the last 4 measures of the verse! For these 4 measures, create a variation of your verse measures 1-4. For example, the mystery song takes its 4-measure verse phrase:

and replaces the 1st 3 chords with just Dm, which becomes:

Now it's your turn; create your verse measures 17-20 by copying your verse measures 1-4 and then changing some of the chords.

Putting it all together, here's the whole verse from the mystery song:

And, the mystery song is... "Like A Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan! I wanted to use a "real hit song" for our example, and this song is #1 in Rolling Stone Magazine's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".

What Next?

Here are the phrase structure and repetition ideas we used in this article:

Find more songs and study them. Look for how phrases and repetition are used. You'll learn more ideas, which will help you not feel like you're copying "Like A Rolling Stone" when you write your own music.

When you're writing your own music, and you get stuck wondering what to do next, look over the ideas you've collected. You may want to use one of them "as is", or one of them may give you a creative spark to do something different and new!

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