Strong and Fragile: Using Chord Progressions to Their Greatest Effect

So what’s the deal with strong and fragile chord progressions? What are they, and how do you use them? Answers here!

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Guitar and Music with Chord ProgressionsIf you’ve been writing songs for a while, you’ll notice something about chord progressions: they all tend to point to one particular chord as being the harmonic goal. That harmonic goal is the key of your song. So if your song is in G major, the chord progressions are going to move away from and toward G. It’s not unlike all the little walks you take during a normal day: they take you away from and toward your house. Just as your house will be the ultimate goal of most of your walks, the G chord is the harmonic goal of most of your progressions.

If that progression is relatively simple, and clearly revolves around G major, it’s considered a strong progression. If it wanders a bit, maybe strays off the beaten track a little, we call that a “fragile” progression. And it’s important to know when to use each type of progression.

[Watch this video for a quick lesson on the differences between strong and fragile progressions]:

Strong progressions are the most common type you’ll find in pop music. That’s because it’s in keeping with the style to not venture too far afield with your chord choices. Pop music usually has a noticeable groove, and chords that move in predictable ways are an important part of that groove.

Fragile progressions, when we do find them, are more likely to show up in the verse and in the bridge – the short section that optionally appears after the second chorus.

As mentioned, a fragile progression is one that tends to wander a bit, and makes the harmonic goal a little bit ambiguous. They can be very charming, but at the same time a little harmonically vague, in the sense that the key of the song is not being strongly indicated.

Here’s an example of a strong progression in the key of G major, a progression that makes it very clear that G is the harmonic goal:

STRONG: G  Em  C  D7  G [CLICK to listen in a new browser window]

Here’s an example of a fragile progression, where the harmonic goal is a little less obvious:

FRAGILE: G  D  F  C  Am  Bb  C  D  G [CLICK to listen]

As you can see, the fragile progression does one thing that the strong progression does: it starts and ends on G. But the fragile one takes a little side-journey that makes C sound like the tonic for a short while, before making G the clear objective.

Fragile progressions are arguably more interesting, because of the harmonic side-journey. But be careful how you use them. You can leave listeners feeling a little lost if your music is overrun with fragile progressions.

Not all songs need fragile progressions, and in fact many hit pop songs use primarily strong progressions. “We Found Love“, by Calvin Harris (performed by Rihanna) uses the same progression (and melody) for the verse and the chorus: Ebm  Cb  Gb  Db/Ab.

Adele’s hit, “Set Fire to the Rain,” uses this as a verse progression: Dm  F  C  Gm, and a similar one as a chorus: Dm  C  Gm  Dm  C. Both progressions are relatively strong progression. The only aspect of the verse progression that is vague is the purposeful ambiguity between major and minor: is the key D minor or F major? But the chords stay within that relative major/minor relationship.

A couple of reminders regarding the use of strong/fragile chord progressions:

  1. One way a progression is fragile is if it strays away from the original key a bit (as in the fragile example I used above). So in those cases remember that you need time to get the progression back to the original key.
  2. In songs that use fragile progressions, it feels right to follow fragile with strong, and not the other way around. So verses can use fragile progressions, but should then be followed up by strong progressions in the chorus.

One way to introduce a sense of “fragility” in a progression is to use chord inversions (slash chords). So you can take a strong progression like G  Am  C  D7  G, and put one or two of the chords in an inversion: G  Am/C  C  D7/C  G/B

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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2 Comments

    • Correct, fragile progressions shouldn’t follow strong ones. But once a complete cycle of progressions has occurred (verse, opt. pre-chorus, chorus), you then need to return to the verse progression. Listeners instinctively hear the return of the verse progression as a “new start”, so to speak.

      -Gary

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