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Kevin Daoust

Spark Musical Creativity: Chord Substitutions, Modes, and More

September 12, 2023

Bustin’ Those Songwriting Ruts

As musicians, ruts happen. There are times when we struggle to find that creative spark or we find ourselves simply playing in circles. The advent of AI tools can help break musicians out of those ruts by drumming up some new ideas and inspiration when we need them most (we’re partial to the ones here at Staccato).

But what happens when you want to try something different? Where do you turn for inspiration when your internet connection is down? (Suddenly, that songwriting retreat in some remote cabin in the wilds of the Yukon just lost its appeal!) What then?!

Fret not! Here are some non-AI (and mostly non-internet) ways of breaking through the walls of a rut for some ideas that’ll be sure to get your creative juices flowing once again. For this particular blog, we’ll be looking at the musical and compositional side of things.

Listen to Music Outside “Your” Genre

This may seem almost too simple but it’s very effective. Sometimes you need to look outside your immediate listening habits for something fresh. There is plenty to be found in other genres of music, from melodic ideas to chord progressions to arrangement ideas. 

Don’t be afraid to take it to extremes. Dig hip-hop? Throw on some power metal. Rocker? Listen to the latest pop hits. Electronic artist? Listen to some Steely Dan or other 1970s AM pop rock. When was the last time you listened to Jazz? What about Bach? How about melismatic Gregorian?

If you hear something interesting, make note of it, analyze it, spin it around, and see if you can make use of it in your music.

Now after that simple trick, buckle up. We’re about to get nerdy.

Chord Substitutions Based on the Harmonic Function to Change Up Stock Progressions

Let’s start with what harmonic function is in simple terms. For those who didn’t pay attention in music theory class, every note of the major scale has a chord associated with it when you stack the notes in thirds (capital letters for major chords, lower case ones for minor chords): I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi – viiº. When grouped as three notes together, these are called “triads.”

So, in the C major scale, the triads would be C major (I), D minor (ii), E minor (iii), F major (IV), G major), A minor (vi) and B diminished (viiº).

Here it is on the staff:

Triads in C Major Scale

Just for good measure, let’s add an extra note and expand that to 7th chords for some extra zing:

Triads C Major Scale Expanded

Harmonic function is about what role each chord plays in a progression. You have your tonic function chords, which imply a sense of “home” in the key. These are the I, the iii and the vi (C, Em, Am).

You have your dominant function chords, which can imply tension that wants to resolve to the tonic. This would be the V7 and viiø (G7, B half-diminished).

Finally, you have the pre-dominant function chords which often are a precursor to the dominant (as the name suggests). These are the ii and IV (Dm and F) chords.

Part of why these chords are grouped into these categories is because they share common notes with other members of that group. You can see these shared notes here:

Harmonic Function

Now that we’ve grouped chords according to their function in a progression, let’s talk about substitutions. Say that you’re working with a standard progression such as I - IV - V - I (C - F- G - C) but you want to try something different. How about swapping out one of the chords with another found in one of those same harmonic function groups? Let’s swap out the last “I” chord for a “vi” chord. Now your progression would look like this: I - IV - V - vi (C - F - G - Am). Grab a guitar and see what it sounds like now!

The overall “feeling” of the progression still exists, but the harmonic movement towards the last chord slightly changed enough to give it a new sound overall. Sometimes this is all you need to get you going on a new idea.

Using Modes to Switch Up the Usual Major and Minor Tonalities

Once you feel comfortable with analyzing chords from the major and minor scales, you can try applying those same principles to modes!

Modes can be a great way to drum up some harmonic and melodic ideas because we change the quality of one or more pitches from the usual major and minor scales. While it may seem insignificant to change only one pitch, the effect can be great (just like when we changed one chord from our progression above).

For example, let’s take a C Lydian mode (C, D, E, F#, G, A, B), which is similar to the standard C major scale but with a twist: 

C Lydian Mode

Again, we can also see what chords come out of it by simply stacking notes in thirds to create 7th chords (or four notes per chord): Cmaj7, D7, Em7, F#ø7, Gmaj7, Am7, and Bm7: 

Chords of the C Lydian Mode

Take a note of what changed from the chords we built earlier. Now listen to the differences – inspired yet?

Now play through some modes and their associated chords and see what happens!

When the Internet Connection is Restored, Try Staccato!

Sometimes people just need the right tool for the job. While there are various AI solutions that exist, we felt that musicians didn’t need ones that would just write music and lyrics from thin air. Our tools help you create and build on what you’ve started, whether it be a musical idea or a few lyrics that you’ve written. Staccato is that set of tools, tailor-made for musicians.

So give Staccato a try! Visit our site for more information on our products and pricing and put your AI-based musical rut buster in the palm of your hand and the tips of your fingers! Anything that helps break those creative ruts can’t be a bad thing.

Kevin Daoust Author Image

Kevin Daoust - Guitarist, Guitar Educator, Writer

Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator, and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada.

When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, the funky Sh-Boom, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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