Chord Stories, Music Theory, Songwriting

Mozart’s Alarm Clock

The Wheel of Chord Story, (the circle of fifths), maps out what chords “like” to do, but it doesn’t really explain why.  

The jump of a fifth between two notes is actually pretty stable. The only jump between notes which feels more stable is the interval between two notes with the same name, G to another G for instance. What is the jump between notes with the tension to really move you? 

There’s a story that Mozart’s father had a secret to getting young Wolfie to the piano to practice. He’d tinkle out the notes of a major scale on the harpsichord: do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti and . . . wait. Supposedly Wolfgang would come running from any room in the house to complete the scale and kill the tension.   

The modest jump from ti back to do is what really moves things in music.  It’s the jump of one fret on the guitar. It’s called a half-step. The first few notes of the Jaws theme move a half-step.

The first notes strummed in Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song” descend a half-step from do to ti.   


Now, look at the notes of a G and C chords spelled out below, (G to C is an antagonist/hero pairing on The Wheel of Chord Story). Do you see Mozart’s Alarm Clock going off?  

G major: sol ti re
C major: do mi sol 

The “ti” of the G chord desperately “wants” to resolve to the “do” that is the foundation of the C chord.  (“Do” by the way is just the just another name for a C note).

Mozart’s alarm clock, (the “longing” of the final note of a scale to resolve to the root of that scale is named after), is built right into every Hero/Antagonist chord story.  If you love music, it’s probably what gets you out of bed in the morning.  


Chord Stories, Music Theory, Songwriting

Music Shapes

Here’s experiment you can try for yourself.  Draw a circle with 12 points on it. It’ll look like a clock without numbers:

Now what is the most interesting pattern you could create to get around the circle, moving the same number of spaces each time. You could move one space at a time, which gets you all the way around the circle, but it’s kind of a boring way to do it. 

If you move by twos you create a hexagon, and you miss half the notes.  Moving by three creates a square. Fours creates a Triangle.  Both are closed loops and with a bunch of points which get missed. 

Moving by five dots at a time however, is pretty cool, you a star and you touch all the dots.  


Six is a line.  


After that it’s all repeats in reverse.  Moving by seven spaces is a again star, eight triangle, nine square, etc. 

Now name the points on the “clock” with the twelve notes from frets one to twelve frets on the guitar. Use any string you like.  I chose the low E string.  Follow the path of the star around the circle and you end up with the same pattern as the Wheel of chord Story (the circle of fifths. 


Kinda cool right?  All the other patterns of 2, 3, and 4 spaces create closed loops, (geometric shapes really), but jumps of frets five or seven allow you to touch all the points on the circle.  Of course all these jumps have names in the jargon of music theory:

Jumping of 1 dot (or fret) is a 1/2 step (or semitone)
Jumping of 2 dots (or frets) is a whole step (or whole tone)
Jumping of 3 dots (or frets) is a minor thirds
Jumping of 4 dots (or frets) is a major thirds
Jumping of 5 dots (or frets): is a perfect fourth
Jumping of 6 dots (or frets): is a tritone, augmented fourth, flat five, or diminished fifth (a lot names for a simple line, eh?)
Jumping of 7 dots (or frets): is a perfect fifth

That’s enough for now.  All of that jargon can be a little confusing and abstract to keep straight.  Looking at the shapes they create however give a nice visual reference to think about how these jumps might help you move in a scale, or piece of music.


Chord Stories, Music Theory, Songwriting, Writing

Chord Stories (or B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow)

Pat Pattison has a brilliant reduction for the elements of story: 


Unstable . . . 

Pivoting between these two states is the engine of story, (excepting exceptionally dull stories).  You could frame this idea as tension and release as well. A pithy saying which expresses a similar idea is; “If it can’t happen (stability), it must (instability).”

This is known to obsessive watchers of Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, or any other bingeworthy TV. Is there a greater harbinger of disaster, (instability), than a character saying, “Great plan. It’ll work perfectly.” (Stability). 

Music is story told with sound.  Without stability and instability, tension and release, pattern and “surprise!” music is exceptionally dull.  Just like a story. Chords tell story. Are you familiar with the rules? Do you know how to create stability and instability? 

Almost no one will tell you this, but one of the classic stories is embedded in the standard tuning of the guitar’s bottom three strings.  It’s there to see, plain as dry toast.  Take a look: 

EAD Fret O

Standard tuning on the guitar can seem like it was designed by a cruel madman.  It’s full of sound and fury signifying and B string is in tune. But standard tuning evolved to help tell chord stories. The story on the E, A, & D strings is basic but flexible and full of possibilities.  It’s could be a lot like the story boy meets girl who already has a boy. In it E, A, & D all represent the major chords their named after.  

Here’s a plot summary: A major is the hero of the story, named Amanda. Amanda lives in a house across the  street from her best friend Derek (the D Major chord).   They have a lot of fun together. Derek’s place is great to hang out at but since Amanda is the hero of the story, going back to Amanda’s house always feel like home.  Edgar (the E chord) is an older neighbor who lives next door to Derek. He’s mostly nice but he’s not happy when they’re in his yard.  Obviously, it’s great fun to find excuses to be in Edgar’s yard, it feels slightly risky and daring. After Going into Edgar’s yard Amanda feels safest returning home to the A chord.

That is close the most basic chord story there is.  (There two chords songs out there though). A is the hero and feels stable. D is the best friend and if feels fun to go to his place. E feels a little tense and makes you want to return home, to the A chord.  Following these guidelines, how might you make a calming chord story? How might you make chord story that feels more tense or exciting? There are 1000’s of three chord songs in the world that all create stability and instability following and breaking the rules of that story.  

This story is as movable as your capo.  Clamp a capo on the third fret and the principles are the same but the chord names will change. (The chord shapes will remain the same). 


C becomes the main character, the hero
F becomes the best friend
G becomes the antagonist

Do the same thing at Fret 7 and you’ll end up with the chords to a classic E major blues.  


E is the hero
A is the friend
B is the antagonist

I can hear you complaining.  Do I really have to know the notes on the guitar at the 7th fret?  –Nah. 

I mean, it’s not the worst idea, but if you don’t feel like it, I’ve got you covered. Though the answer could be unsettling. You must go to the of the fifth circle of hell.  Just kidding. It’s worse than that.  You have to use the circle of fifths.   

I know. I hate the circle of fifths too. But it’s exceptionally useful as a guide to chords stories. (Has anyone told you that?  They never mentioned it to me. I’m a little bitter).  

You now know that A, D, & E major are the hero, best friend, and antagonist of a classic chord story. Take a look at the circle of fifths, can you see those letter together on it?   

Circle of fifths

Do you see it?  Here’s what I’m talking about:

Circle of fifths(EAD)

The principle is this, assume all the letters on the circle of fifths are major chords. Take any three in a row and you’ve got yourself an antagonist, a hero, and a best friend.  The main characters in a chord story. Translated into theory jargon that’s the I (the hero), IV (the best friend of I) and V (the antagonist) of a key.  It works for any key.  The I chord, the hero will be in the middle.  The antagonist (or V chord) with be clockwise from the hero.  The best (or IV chord) friend will sit counterclockwise from the hero.

Circle of fifths(Hero)


I hear you again. Do I really have to learn the circle of fifths?  –Nah. 

Learn this instead: B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow

That’s a mnemonic for the Circle of Fifths in reverse, or B, E, A, D, G, C, F.  Oddly, this is the better way for guitarists, (and perhaps everyone), to understand it.  That’s because chords “like” to resolve down a fifth. B, E, A, D, G, C, F is only 7 peices of the circle of fifths though.  The other part is B, E, A, D, G*, again, but all flatted.  Then you’ve come full circle.   That’s it.  

*Gb can also be named F#, depending on the context.  If that’s confusing, ignore it for now. 






David Burns/CBT, Practice, Songwriting, Writing

A Better Relationship with Your Critic (Or We Both Have Great Taste!).

It’s easy to feel frustrated, lonely and overwhelmed writing. It’s a fuzzy, poorly defined project. Washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen, (both good substitutes for writing), are projects with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The details of dishwashing’s plot aren’t riveting, but are a comfort in relief to the writing’s unknown topography.

Writing is often a machete through the jungle, trailblazing-type scenario. Vines can seem like boa constrictors and vice-versa. A toothy, slinking predator like a critic could drop onto a tender young idea just finding its legs and swallow it whole. Many times we’re the critic. 

Dr. David Burns has a tool he calls the relationship journal. It’s meant to work through difficult interactions we have with others.  The idea is to take a difficult interaction with someone and journal through a five questions to determine if you used to good or bad communication techniques with them.

 **spoiler alert** If it was a difficult interaction your communication probably fell short of “good.”  

Good communication here means what you say leads to greater openness and trust with the other. Bad communication means what you say forces them to close down, and makes them feel defensive, unheard, disrespected. (Probably all three).

You might see some qualities of good communication already on display through their negatives. Good communication lets the other person know they’ve been heard, let’s them know you respect them and admire them. What if you don’t particularly respect or admire the other person?  Did I mention this is a technique to be used with people hope to develop a closer relationship with?  

What is good communication? 

  1. It acknowledges what the other person has said, and what they are likely feeling.   
  2. It lets the other person know our own feelings. 
  3. It shows our genuine respect for the other person, even in the heat of battle. 

My curiosity with regards to writing is: Could I use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic while writing or editing?  

Do I have sometimes have difficult interactions with myself?  Yup. Am I someone I want to be closer to and have a better relationship with?  Um, yes.  

Maybe it sounds vaguely looney tunes to converse with myself and acknowledge my feelings to myself. I don’t know about you but I dialogue with myself constantly, and quite often, adversarially.  Why did god make me this way: an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other, and slavedriver cracking a whip behind, all of us bickering? (Maybe I could use the techniques of good communication with god too. But I digress).  

What might it look like to use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic?  

As an example, let’s say I’m John Prine writing a song to be called “Billy the Bum.” I’ve just written the line; “He was just a gentle boy, a real florescent light.” 

My inner critic screams; “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever;” 

I respond; “You do better.”

Step 1 of the relationship journal is to write down what the other person said.

We’ve got that. 

Step 2 is to write my response.  

We’ve got that too. 

Step 3 is to determine if my response demonstrates good or bad communication, i.e. 

  1. Does it acknowledge what they other person is thinking and feeling. 
  2. Does my response let the other person know what I’m feeling in a direct way? 
  3. Does it show respect for the other person? 

What do you think? I agree; nope, nope and nope. I didn’t acknowledge what my critic said. I’m pretty obviously feeling resentful, angry, and worthless, I didn’t acknowledge that either.  Finally, my response shows disdain and a suspicion the critic-gremlin-monster is worse at writing than I am.  

Step 4 is consequences, did my response made the situation better or worse. 

I think my response cause my critic to solidify its belief the line is crappy and I’m a bad writer and made it even more adversarial.  

Step 5 Revise my response using good communicaiton.  So how could I do better? 

Dr. Burns says there are Five Secrets to aid good communication, I have to use all of them if I want a better relationship with my critic.   

  1. Disarming technique: Agree with the other person; find some sliver of truth in what they are saying no matter how mean-spirited, unfair and wildly off-base they seem to be. (He claims there is always some sliver of truth in what they say which you can agree with).

  2. Thought and feeling Empathy: Thought empathy is paraphrasing what they’ve said to you so they know you heard them.  Feeling empathy is acknowledging what emotions they are likely feeling.

  3. Inquiry Ask if there’s more they’d like to tell you about what’s going on for them. This shows you are interested in what they have to say and care.
  1. Assertiveness. Acknowledge and directly state your emotions to the other person using feeling words.  Dr. Burns’ advice here is the phrase “I feel like you . . . “ sounds like it might be conveying your feelings but is usually attacking and blaming the other person.
  1. Affirmation. Find things you genuinely like and admire about the other person and tell them those things, even in the heat of battle.  (This isn’t about bullshitting the other person and blowing smoke up their ass, especially if the other person is you. You deserve better).

Here’s my revised response I just wrote up:

Critic: “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever.”

Me: You’re right (Disarming), that line is pretty out there and weird (Thought Empathy). It sounds like you really dislike it.  (Feeling Empathy). I haven’t heard anything like it before. I feel kind of insecure about it to be honest, even a little embarrassed I wrote it down. (Assertiveness). You have great taste. We both like all the same music. (Affirmation)  Could you tell me more about what you don’t like about that line?   

Critic: “How is Billy like a florescent light?   What does it even mean?   

Me: Well, I guess Billy is weirdly dim, and being near him evokes a kind of angst and depression which soaks into the bones: soft, gentle, insidious. 

Critic: Oh, That’s kinda cool actually. It works better than I thought.  

Me: Thanks, I didn’t really realize how well it worked either.  It just kind of popped out. It’s cool you helped me think about it more.  

(Did I mention this takes some practice? David explains often how The Five Secrets can sound simple, even simplistic, yet seasoned therapists have difficulty adopting this technique and using them with grace).  

I’m kinda of shocked by the result here. I’ve been hearing line from Billy the Bum for 10 or 15 years and by going through the relationship journal with my inner critic got some new insight. I chose the line because it’s always stuck out to me as brilliant, but a little weird. I often contend John Prine’s genius is actually something just short of being daft; he kept that line in despite it being weird and it works. (Maybe the line working was obvious for you from the beginning)  

There is a time tested method of setting the critic aside while you write, and it can work well. But by conversing with the critic and showing it respect, (showing myself respect really), I can feel it giving me more leeway to do the work.  “You have great taste, we both like the same music,” is stupidly true. (My critic could go on and on for hours about why Oasis sucks. Sometimes we do). I’ll try this out soon on a real song, see how it goes, and get back to you.  

David speaks about relationships and the relationship journal on his podcast here.

He talks about these techniques at length in his book “Feeling Good Together


I want my attention back.

Yesterday I found a blog linked by Tim Ferriss, which talked about how to set up an iPhone to encourage focus, to reorganize it as a tool for my use instead of as a tool various businesses use to leech my time and attention.

I’ve read all the literature on good habits and time management and I still get distracted.  I’d prefer to write songs with my attention, and do other deep work. My phone is currently the enemy of deep work.

So I dove down the rabbit hole, you can dive down it as well.

My big takeaways were:

1. I ditched my phone’s browser, for now at least.
2. I turned off all the badges, (annoying red numbers), and most of my phones alerts.
3. I set up “Do not disturb” time from midnight to noon on my phone daily.

If you read the article and try it out, let me know. I’ll report on how it’s working soon.

Practice, Songwriting, Writing

Sending Myself to My Room Without Dinner

I’m aiming to make fewer resolutions. 

My resolutions are all about making myself better: I’m going to play scales on guitar for an hour everyday, or I’m going to stop looking at my phone the moment I wake up.  They’re little ultimatums I lay on myself. They’re the equivalent of grounding myself or sending myself to my room without dinner. What’s the chance some sneaky part of myself isn’t going to sneak out the window and go out drinking with my friends?

I’m trying out a few things that offer me more dignity and agency. Things that sound less like a childish tyrant levying decrees.  Here’s one from Daniel Coyle’s “Little Book of Talent.”

After you’ve finished a practice session write down three things:

  1. What worked
  2. What didn’t
  3. Ideas for the next session

This practice says I have the intelligence to discern what works for me, and what doesn’t. It invites me to pay attention rather than instead mindlessly practicing guitar scales until I die. It says that tomorrow I can engage my curiosity and see what works again. 

Maybe what doesn’t work is the ordeal of forcing ourselves to doing things.    


David Burns/CBT, Shame, Songwriting, Writing

Messing up the song and changing it is the goal.

Editing is hard for me. I kinda hate it. It’s on my mental to do list daily, but I spend my time on other things. I learn David Rawlings licks. Re-binge “Breaking Bad.”

I’m learning I can melt my resistance to tasks I avoid, (tasks which scare me), if I give them some attention with a Daily Mood Log. I pulled one out and wrote “editing a song” as the specific event causing me strife.

I circled the emotions on the page which come along with editing a song for me: Anxious, frightened, inadequate, incompetent, alone, foolish, stuck.   

I wrote down all the negative blurts and thoughts as well, the first of which is; “I’ll mess up the song,” as well as things like, “it won’t be any good,” and “it will end up obvious I stiff and obvious that I workshopped it.”  

Soon I was looking for thoughts to crush the negative thoughts that have been holding me back this came to me:

“Messing the song up and changing it is the goal.”

Soon I was at work screwing up the song I wrote to improve it.

The Mood Log: