Songwriting

The “Instant Melancholy” Chord Substitution

by Clay Mills
Jan 18, 2021

The Melancholy Chord Substitution.

I’ve been blessed to get away with some interesting chord changes over the course of my songwriting career. Those songs found their way onto pop and country mainstream radio—two formats that, right or wrong, have a rap for simple chords.  

Whether it was sneaking in a 2 Major Sus chord at the top of the pre-chorus for the #1 song “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” by Darius Rucker, or adding a 6 Major chord in the bridge of “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio, my best successes come when I stretch boundaries and tastefully incorporate chord substitutions.

In my last Melody Masterclass for SongTown.com, an aspiring writer asked if I would explain why some substitutions work. He was looking for the theory behind it all. Now, I am not opposed to learning as much as possible about music, but I had just enough formal training at Berklee College of Music to get in my own way for a while!  

In the pro songwriting world where I’ve created in for the last two decades, theory is rarely discussed.

Therefore, on the real-world streets of songwriting, practicality and effectiveness are where the rubber meets the road. 

Let me give you an example: Paul McCartney wrote some of the biggest songs in musical history, and he once stated that when he wrote those hits, he couldn’t name a Major 7th chord. McCartney said that he and John Lennon simply called a G Major 7th the “pretty chord.”

So in that spirit,  let’s discuss one of my favorite chords, one in particular I like to call the “Instant Melancholy” chord.

Chords play the role of “mood setter” in my songs. A melody can have a lot of different chord choices and progressions underneath it. So in choosing the right chords for a song, I listen for the the mood– or feeling—I’m getting from a chord. We all understand that major chords sound bright and happy while minor chords often feel sad; it’s in our musical DNA. 

One of my favorite song “moods” is melancholic.

You know that looking back, reminiscing feeling? Perhaps even a little bit of longing gets thrown in the mix. And, no chord progression captures this feeling better than the 4 major to 4 minor to 1. 

For example, in the Key of C, that would be:

F maj – F min – C maj

This chord progression is the perfect mood alternative to the classic 4 – 5 – 1 chord progression:

F maj – G maj – C major

Try it. Revisit any of your songs that end the chorus with 4 – 5 – 1 and substitute the 4 min chord for the 5 chord. 

Instant melancholy!!

Of course, we could get into a long discussion on how the 4 minor substitution is borrowed from the parallel minor or about the chromatic movements, etc. etc.; but essentially all we need to know as writers is that this combination of chords will pull on the listener’s heart strings! 

There are many more ways the instant melancholy chord can be used…but this one (4 maj – 4 min – 1) is an instant technique to try while developing or rewriting a melancholy song from your catalog. 

Good Enough for the Beatles:

In My Life”: (1 – 5 – 4 – 4min – 1)          

                 A        E    F#m     A        D -Dm    

There are places I remember all my life  

               A

though some have changed

Hello Goodbye”:  (4 – 4min – I)

                     F                           Fm/Ab          C

I don’t know why you say good-bye I say hello

Lady A Rocks the Instant Melancholy Chord Substitution…

Check out my song “One Day You Will,” sung by Lady A, for yet another use of the 4 minor chord. We wrote it into the last chord of the bridge as a transitional chord to a new key. Listen how it springboards the emotion into the last chorus! 

So, If you’re sitting down to write a sad song today, go all in and stir up some “Instant Melancholy.” 

For additional details on the 4 Minor Chord Substitution, watch the video below. See you around The Music Lab.

Write On! ~Clay

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

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