The Secret Is The Sequence


Recently I had a chance to work with one of those mysterious pop writers that craft mega hits but stays hidden behind the scenes. Their specialty is crafting those infectious hooks that lock onto your brain and never let go. A lot of it is experience and the shared DNA of working with other seasoned songwriters. They’ve seen what works, what doesn’t, and understand the machine behind the industry. But more than anything, they understand their own work process and what works for the them. The secret is the sequence.

The sequence is everything. It applies to all areas of music. Do you start with words or music? Do you begin with simple sounds or complex timbres? The order of your approach determines everything, providing the creative momentum that is critical for unlocking the muse. Change the order and the results will vary drastically. What I’ve seen with hit songwriters is they’ve found a sequence that works and they stick with it. They usually start with a list of lyric themes or seeds compiled ahead of time, listen to some chords, mumble some lines, land some words on the mumbled rhythmic phrases, milk the metaphor, and instantly a song is born.

Change the order, and you might lose steam. If you start from a blank canvas with no seeds, it can be much more difficult. Or how about trying to write the lead melody first without hearing the chords? I’ve seen amazing EDM producers layer one melody at a time to create compelling chord progressions, whereas others like myself are much faster starting with full chord voicings and then choosing a melody to weave throughout the notes, using a mix of stable and unstable note degrees to add tension and release. Simply change one step in the order, and the result can be wildly different, as each step informs the next. A good work process provides direction so you reach that “clicking point” faster but doesn’t box you in.

Choosing the “right” order of composition that works for you creates a catalyst for action, inspiring the muse to react and suggest melodies and other sonic ideas. If I start with a bass line before a chord progression, I’ve already painted myself into a corner – I can’t hear the muse as clearly. But for someone else, this might be the preferred method. Start thinking about the order you compose and optimize it for better results.

Another method a lot of people use is A/B/C arrangement. A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is the bridge. For this purpose the B section is not the bridge. But where do you start? Many people find it helpful to start with the B section which often contains the full chord progression and main hook, tending to “fold” the chords in the A sections/verses, and change the chord order of the C section or bridge. It doesn’t really make sense to work on the intros, outros, verses, builds, or turnarounds – until you know the payoff you’re building towards.

Sequences to consider:

  • Songwriting: Words or music first? Try starting with key phrases compiled ahead of time in a physical or digital notebook. Let your subconscious milk the metaphor.
  • Composition: Try using simple sounds like basic sine or square waves to compose, and then fill out the sounds later with more complex timbres. The opposite is starting with very specific rich-timbre sounds. Both techniques work well.
  • Arrangement: Try developing the main chorus first and leave the other sections for later
  • Melodies: a melody is simply an order of notes at specific time and durations. Can you make a stronger melody by changing the order? Ultimately, you’re only changing the sequence of seven distinct notes
  • Acapellas and samples: Try building around bootleg acapellas or samples, constructing chord voicings that support the lead line. Then remove the acapella or sample.
  • Drums: Try starting with a simple hi-hat to keep time, or see how an elaborate syncopated beat changes the way you play the melody. Consider the order of tuned drums or one-shots. Are they pitched into thirds and fifths? What order of notes will be most effective for the song?
  • Timbre: The ear prefers to hear highs, then mids, then lows. Make sure the spectral content is in the right order when layering and phase-aligning drums and other track elements.
  • Instrument: Drums, chords, bass, then lead? or a different order, like drums, bass, lead, chord? Find what works most naturally for you, but experiment with the order when you want to switch it up.
  • Chords: Use the roman numeral system of chord cadences to change the order of your chords for maximum emotional impact. Change the order by just one chord to create variation and different emotions. (ex: in the bridge, start the progression with the second chord first but keep everything else in order). Watch the Axis of Awesome for more on this:

    – Try adding an arpeggiator on to a chord progression to change the sequence and duration of notes
  • Song Sequence: When arranging songs in a DJ set or even the tracklisting sequence for an album, consider the music key – and use the Circle of Fifths to make the progression more natural from song to song. You can automate this with Mixed In Key

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