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A strong progression, to put it simply, is one that points to one chord as the tonic (home) chord, and one note as the tonic note. For example, if your song is in A major, strong progressions within your song are the ones that make it clear that A is the tonal focal point. But is it possible to have a song that has no strong progressions per se, with no clearly emphasized key?
The short answer is “yes”, but the real answer is a lot longer, and (hopefully) very interesting.
To use the analogy of a walk around the city of Toronto, the equivalent might be to say that the strong parts of that walk are the parts that make it crystal-clear that you are in Toronto. So a view of the CN Tower, and other unique buildings, make it clear that Toronto is the city.
It’s possible to show lesser-known sites, just as beautiful perhaps, but indicating Toronto to a lesser degree. For example, you might see a beautiful garden which could be almost anywhere. That garden isn’t “weak”, it just points to Toronto in a less specific way.
Chord progressions work similarly. A strong progression will point to one note as the tonal focus. But the real question is: can you create a song where the chords could actually point to several possible keys, or even no specific key?
The answer is yes, and I think a good example of this would be the opening of a fantastic old Genesis composition, “Supper’s Ready”, from their “Foxtrot” album. The opening progression is really lovely:
Am6 Bsus4 B Bm Bm/F# F#/A#
Am6 Bsus4 B D#m/A# F Bb
This progression has really gorgeous flavours, and Am6 is such a curious chord to start a progression on. The opening few chords start to point to certain key centers (perhaps Em, after that Bsus4-B), but moves away, pointing nowhere in any strong sort of way.
The end of the progression becomes stronger, pointing to a new centre: Eb major, though even in that tonality, they don’t give us a root position Eb chord, giving instead Eb/Bb.
The real question is, how long can you delay the strong emphasis on a key note and chord? Why not try some of these “fragile” progressions and see if they can work for you?
- A Am7 Bm7 A Gmaj7 Fmaj7
- A Cmaj7 Dsus4 D C Eb F6 Gadd9
- A G Bb C/G Gm7 Am7 D Em
- A Fmaj7 Em7 Bm7 Cmaj7 Ebmaj7 Fsus4 F
As you can see, parts of some of these progressions can be described as strongly pointing to one or another key centre (progression #3’s move, for example, from Am7 to D), but what makes these progressions primarily fragile is their avoidance of clearly centering on one specific key.
And that’s their charm. So yes, you can write songs that avoid a key centre. But my suggestion would be to use these kinds of progressions primarily in a verse, and consider stronger ones for your chorus. That balance between ambiguity and tonal clarity creates a great sense of tension/release that most songs will benefit from.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” suite of songwriting e-books are six texts that give you songwriting instruction, as well as hundreds of progressions with advice on how to harmonize melodies.
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