SUSPENDED Substitutions: Make Your CHORD PROGRESSIONS Sound Special

Tommaso Zillio

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sections songs hessfest

So, let’s say you’ve written a bunch of musical fragments that may or may not be in the same key, and you are wondering how to turn them into a song, huh?

Well, if that’s the case then you are in good company because this is probably the most common problem for new songwriters.

(Oh, who am I kidding? It’s a problem for ALL songwriters, not just the rookies)

So how do you make a song out of assorted parts?

Unfortunately, this is like asking, ‘how do I bake a cake out of a bunch of random $#1t I just bought from the grocery store?’

Well, did you buy flour? Eggs, milk, sugar? But maybe you also bought mayonnaise, pork chops, and dill pickles…

Unless you know what you need to buy (i.e. you are following a recipe), you won’t be able to make a cohesive final product.

It’s kinda the same with songwriting. You need a recipe, that is: you need a structure for your song.

You need to know what purpose each section you write is supposed to serve before you write it. Otherwise, you might end up with 5 choruses, and guess what?

You can’t write a song with nothing but 5 choruses.

(Or, if you manage, let me know! In the same vein, if you manage to make a cake with dill pickles and mayo, we should talk. Or you may prefer to talk to your therapist…)

If you start by writing the FORM of the song (intro, verse, chorus, etc.), then you will know what ingredients you need, and you will know what purpose each section you write is meant to serve.

‘…But what if I already have a bunch of random ingredients? I still like these parts, are they just wasted? How can I turn them into a song anyway?’

Great question!

Yes, your musical ideas can still be saved… but for that, you should check out my recent video, where I share a few tips on what to do in this case:

Maybe the section you have written for your song is just a melody, and you are wondering how to write a chord progression that goes with it? Well, by golly, what a coincidence! I just so happen to have a FREE eBook on how to do precisely that! Click here to learn how to harmonize a melody.

Video Transctiption

Hello internet; so nice to see you! So, let’s say you wrote some nice piece of music, but just fragments, let’s say you have a nice fragment for your chorus, or a part of a guitar solo, and you want to expand this into a complete song or a complete instrumental piece. How do you go about that? How can you arrange the pieces you have around so that you can create a complete meaningful piece of music? Well, recently, a student of mine asked me exactly that. And we went in-depth into it. So, in a moment, I’m going to show you my answer.

‘All right, my question is, let’s say I have a bunch of different parts that I wrote for a song along the same theme, or they fit together? Is there a structured way, or an approach that I can use to sort of join these parts together? Or any effective way of doing so rather than just randomly saying, okay, I just want to stick this here and then there. And then sometimes it’s more effective to perhaps like, repeat some parts, and so on. So, I would just want to know if there’s any procedure?’

‘There are several guidelines. But the first one will be that you’re having things backward right now. Okay, because you’ve got all those parts. And now you’re trying to build the structure, I will build the structure first, and then write the part to fit the structure. Make sense? So, I mean, that’s what I will do. And I think you’re encountering problems in fitting those things together, because you did it this way. Because every part you wrote could be a great piece of music or a great fragment of music. But it’s not been designed to go with the other parts. You haven’t planned to write this part and join a specific transition after that.

Right now, you have a number of generic parts, and by generic, I don’t mean that the music is bad, I mean, that, that they’re not specifically tailored for a specific structure in the song. It doesn’t mean your job is impossible. It just makes it a bit harder. Because now you have to change some other stuff, you will have to, because you can, there’s no way to take a generally composed piece of music, fragments of music and just ordered them and everything goes well, you’ll have to create some joint or change the ending or the beginning of something. And sometimes it’s possible. And sometimes it’s a pain because it doesn’t go the way you want.

So, what I will do, and again, there are many ways to skin a cat, they say okay, there are many ways to compose a song, but what I will do is to write the structure first, the most important guideline is you can do literally whatever you want. Okay? Okay. You could potentially take your phone number and say the first digit is the number of bars of my first thing. The second digit is the number of bars for my second section, okay, whatever it is, and you can resize some of those actual things, some of the connections between the themes.

So, for instance, let’s say you, let’s say and again, I have no idea about the phone numbers in Malaysia. Let’s say that the phone number is 4-6-5-3. So, you have four bars, okay? 4653. Okay, four bars, it’s an introduction. Okay, six is your first theme. Five is a modulation to the next thing, which is only three bars. Make sense? I mean, phrases mean making a theme of six bar, it’s possible. But it’s not the usual thing, most of them will have four bars or eight bars. So now you have to start thinking in a creative way to make these themes. So, it is this thing like two small subsections of three bars, or three subsections of two bars, or maybe the first four bars and then you repeat the first two, but then you go somewhere else. Makes sense?

I said, I’m thinking creatively these when you break it down, and you’d like to fit in the music.’

‘Right, and so you’re just fitting into that structure, then.’

‘Exactly. If you already have parts written, that’s what I will do, I will just take down those numbers. And again, it could be literally anything as long as you have a structure in mind, you’re going to see why it works in a moment. Okay. And then I will take what you have already and do some creative thinking in inserting those parts of music ever ready into these completely or by threading structure.

You can reuse the same thing more than once. So, let’s say you have a theme of eight bars, but it needs to fit in a section of six bars. Cut the last two bars, or cut the first two bars, okay? And just stick it in. The choice you make will make a difference of course in the song like with a little bit of experience, you know what you want. If you really, really don’t like the six bars, you should change it.

The strategy is just to get started, okay? But it just gives you an idea on how the whole thing lays out. And it avoids the problems everybody has that they can create only loops of four chords, for instance, and then they go on and then down and then a certain point, they’re like, how do I get out of this loop? Of course, you shouldn’t have gotten in the loop to begin with. Okay? Makes sense, right? That’s, that’s an idea.

Now, let’s say that, let’s say this, actually, we have the form which was 5-6-5-3. Okay, let’s say three bars, you put a theme in there, maybe it’s the first three bars, so your eight-bar theme. Okay? Let’s say okay, but the bar is too short for you. Well, you can repeat those three bars. There is this thing in music. As we say repetitions are free, you just take the previous, and bars, okay, 3231, whatever. And you just repeat it. And you get a bit of any one of those sections in its entirety. Or you can repeat even just one bar in this section, can be the last bar, can be the first part, can be a bar in between, and anything can be repeated.

There are a number of procedures like that. And once you start hearing them what happens if you repeat these? What happens if I repeat that, that means if I take this theme and I cut it and later, I play it in full, what if I play it in full and later I cut it, or if I cut it and play the first, if I have an eight-bar theme and I play the first five bars, and then I play the last five bars later, so there is a little bit of overlap. But there’s something else in between, okay?

But by trying those things, you get a feeling of what all this means musically. Okay. There is no way to transmit these without experience. That’s why there are so few books that explain how to do that. Right, because they will be a book of exercises. Okay, it will be a book entirely made of exercises, and nobody will ever buy something like that. I mean, at least it’s as a textbook, nobody will ever use it. Okay, right. But that’s, that’s how it works. Okay.

Literally any structure can work. And then you can modify any structure if you don’t like it, and maybe discover if you like, symmetric structures, or you like repeated structures. So, the same thing again. Makes sense?’

‘Makes sense.’

‘I cannot tell you what you like, or what you like, you don’t know what you like right now. Okay, you have to try. Okay, okay. Now, there are some general guidelines when a when a song starts, you don’t want to throw in everything you have. So, for instance, the first time you play a specific theme is in a simple version. And maybe the second or third time is in a more complex version. So different harmonization, or more phrasing, or ornamentation, or things like that.

Okay, you can even compose the whole song on a single theme. So, you have your theme of eight bars, but the big four bars for the first section, you pick six bars of these for the next section, you pick five bars of it for the next session, and you just keep moving the windows. So, it’s the theme, but it’s repeated in a strange way. Right? And maybe it’s in a different key, and maybe some sections are modulations from one key to another. Okay, I’m giving you these answers, specifically because you have something when you wrote in this question, yes, it’s something that is not pop music.’


‘In pop music, I will go and I say go straight for verse chorus, verse chorus, chorus, don’t think twice it works, it fits. But do I want to do instrumental music? And when we are there, literally anything work.’

‘Yes, that’s the reason for my question.’

‘Exactly. So one thing, I guess at this point is that I had a computer give me a random number generator, sections over sections, and then maybe I was symmetrizing it, so I was putting some repetition in it. So, there was some regularity in it. And then I was composing on top of it. Okay? And sometimes I had something like, I had an idea on the cycle of keys. So, the first thing would be in a specific key, then I’ll have a transition and another key, then this key for two or three sections, and a transition, and another key, and so on and so forth. Or you can have this for dynamics, you can say, which ones are loud and which ones are not? Or you can decide prior what kind of instruments you put in them.

And by the way, you can always change. That’s a general plan and this speeds up the composition a lot. Because you can put down this plan in a few minutes and then you start working and you didn’t have to ask your questions. Those questions later. You know it, you just go and write. Then you listen and whatever you don’t like you fix it. At this point you ignore this structure you ignore all the notes you had before you just fix it, that it works. Boom, done.

Right, but you start from this kind of abstract structure, whatever it is. And what happens is that if you do this for enough time, and you know, that has to be many times to compose three, four songs like this, you will get an idea really fast on what you like and what you don’t like and even need a random number generator anymore. You just know what to do. You just feel what goes next in the song. Make sense?’


Okay. So your homework, Your mission, should you accept it. It’s okay, if to do this thing, write a few numbers, give us a phone number or somebody else or something like that. Maybe put more than one phone number you want, and you want to add those enough sections or less to get a good composition. Okay? And start assigning function to the section, theme, transition, okay, solo, or whatever, and just put the music in, and whatever you don’t like, change. Okay. All right. You see it? I mean, it will change everything. And by the way, once you do that, write me an email, I want to know it’s going okay?’



‘Thank you very much.’

‘Thank you very much.’

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