Chord Substitutions: Finding a Great Chord

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Blue guitarEvery songwriter has their favourite way of starting the songwriting process. For many, it involves sitting at a keyboard, or with a guitar, and working out a chord progression that then leads to melodic fragments that come together to form a fully-fledged melody. Sometimes, it starts with bits of melodic ideas that come together to form the final product. In either case, even with the melody-first writers, the underlying chord progression is a crucial part of the success of a song. Rather than seeking the elusive (and I believe non-existent) “killer chord progression”, it’s time well spent to experiment with chord substitutions to take your song to the next level.

Substituting one chord for another requires you to know a little bit about chord function. For every major or minor key, there are seven chords that naturally exist. Simply build a triad (a 3-note chord) on top of the notes of the major or minor scale to find each one.

Each chord has a particular function, or, quite literally, a particular use. Some of those functions are very strong. For example, a chord built on the fifth degree of the scale is called a dominant chord. That chord strongly wants to move to the chord built on the tonic (or key) note. That desire of the dominant chord to move to the tonic chord is called the dominant function of the chord.

Other chords will move easily to the dominant chord. Those chords are termed predominant chords.

Many songs feature chord progressions that are comprised of tonic, predominant and dominant functions. Here’s a typical example:

C  F  G7  C 

That’s a very common progression. The first and final C are tonic chords, the F is a predominant chord, and the G7 is a dominant chord.

What we want to look at are ways to breathe life into it by using chord substitutions. In general, what we hope to do is to change chords, but keep the functions fairly intact.

To substitute a chord, you need to be mindful of the melody note that’s being harmonized at any particular moment. That’s because if you want to replace the final tonic chord with something different, the melody note might not be in the replacement chord, and so it won’t work well.

For each chord, there is a short list of other chords that will function in a similar way, and that short list will be the chords you can consider as potentially good substitutes.

Here are the chords that can serve as good substitutes (All examples in the key of C major):

TONIC CHORD SUBSTITUTES:
Am (vi); F (IV); (Ab) bVI; Dm7 (ii7)

PREDOMINANT CHORD SUBSTITUTES:
Dm (ii); Am (vi)

DOMINANT CHORD SUBSTITUTES:
Em (iii); Dm/G (V9); F/G (V11);  Dm (ii); F (IV)

You’ll notice something odd right away: some chords show up in all lists. For example, you can use Dm as a tonic substitute, a predominant chord, and as a type of dominant chord. It really does depend on where you find it. Context is everything.

If you use the Am as a tonic substitute at the end of a progression, you’ll see that its tonic function is not particularly strong. You’ll need to circle around, continue the progression, before finally ending on a I chord.

Here’s an example of that. The progression C F G7 C can be nicely extended if you replace that final C with Am, then repeat it, finally ending on C:

C F G7 Am  C  F  G7  C

And as I mentioned earlier, that Am substitution only works well if your melody note at the moment of substitution exists in the Am chord. If your melody is sitting on a G, that will work well with a C chord (because C uses C-E-G), but Am won’t work well, because there isn’t a G in an A minor chord.

Chord substitutions are a really great way to add freshness to a stale progression. They can easily turn your song into something exciting and fresh.

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Written by Gary Ewer. Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter 

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11 Comments

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  6. Hi Gary! I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your articles, especially this one. Whenever I find something new about music theory, I feel like a kid with a brand new toy! This will keep me entertained for ages. I love playing with chord progressions.

    I know a fair bit about diatonic and non diatonic chords, voice leading, neapolitan chords, secondary dominants, key modulation, etc., but I find myself wishing I knew even more ways to manipulate chord progressions. I’m aware that whats on your blog is for writing hit songs, and if you stray too much from it you wont have much success marketing your music – Im just a music theory geek!

    My question is: Do you know of any good resources for “non standard” chord progressions? I hope my question is not too vague.

    -Bryan

    • Hi Bryan:

      Thanks for writing, and I’m glad you find the blog to be useful. Regarding non-standard chord progressions, I’ll take a look around and see if I can find more info about “non-standard” progressions. But just to give you a few thoughts of my own…

      If you look at the larger history of music, composers began to devise chord progressions that were more complex and a bit less predictable in the mid-1800s. As one example of this, you might give a listen to the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, a typical example often cited in grad school music theory courses. In the pop song idioms, many progressive rock tunes use a similar kind of complexity. But in all of these examples, chord progressions are rarely considered apart from the melodic line(s) that occur at the same time. In other words, these composers didn’t just think up complex chord progressions. Melodies themselves became more complex, and composers started writing not just one line, but several that interacted. And in fact it was the complexity of melody that was the “engine,” as it were, for the complexity of chord progressions. While songwriters tend to think of one melody being accompanied by a set of chord changes, the thing that led to non-standard chord progressions was the coinciding of several “melodies” creating chords by implication.

      That probably needs more explanation, but for now, if you’re looking for more ways to manipulate chord progressions, it may require you to look more at your song melody, and think of it as only one possible melody. Your going to be able to develop more complex progressions if you think of your entire instrumentation (guitars, keyboards, bass, etc.) not simply as instruments that contribute to the harmonic background, but as also contributing melodic information that plays in and around the main melody. In doing so, you’ll find, as the Romantic-era composers like Wagner did, that more complex harmonies are implied, and it opens the door to more non-standard progressions.

      Cheers!
      -Gary

      • Thanks Gary,

        I’ve come across this idea before and am somewhat familiar with it, but I simply overlooked it as a source for interesting chord progressions!

        Perhaps this could be the subject of an opcoming article? I’d definitely be interested to know:

        A good place to begin.

        Pentatonic scale for starters?

        Use same note values for all melodies?

        Start with 3-part harmonies?

        How long to make your first section? Will short be easier to work with, or do you need at least X amount of bars to begin?

        Of course there are no black and white answers here, but some general guidelines for someone who is unfamiliar with this process would definitely be helpful (assuming an article of this sort would even have a place in your blog) 🙂

        Thank you again for your time,

        -Bryan

  7. I was taught about three diatonic chord families–

    tonic I iii vi
    sub-dominant IV ii
    dominant V viidim

    I’m a bit confused– you don’t include iii as a tonic substitute yet it shares two notes with the I …

    I can see the logic in your substitution lists, but can you elaborate a little more on why you aren’t grouping in the groups presented above as well?

    • You are right that a iii-chord can substitute for the tonic. I didn’t list it only because in practice you rarely find it, but you are right, it could work. There are 2 main reasons for the rarity of the iii-chord substitute, mainly coming from traditional harmony. The first reason is that cadences on a tonic often have the melody note also moving to the tonic, which doesn’t exist in a iii-chord. Secondly, for iii-chord possibilities that do have a melody note on the 3rd or 5th degree, the iii-chord is seen to be rather “far away” from the tonic, harmonically speaking. A circle of 5ths progression from iii takes a few chords before getting back to the tonic. You more often will see the iii-chord (in inversion, with the dominant note in the bass) serving as a substitute dominant chord (in John Lennon’s “Woman”, for example.)

      But you are right, it can serve as a substitute if the situation allows for it. In actuality, any chord that accommodates the melody note could serve as a tonic substitute.

      Many thanks for writing.
      -Gary

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