A chord progression is the one element that doesn’t overly hurt a song if it’s predictable. Creative songs are still being written using the tried-and-true I-IV-V-I progression. It’s the uniqueness of the melody and lyrics (and all the related bits such as phrasing, rhythm. etc.) that really matter.
Having said that, there’s something nice about coming up with a progression that strays a bit from I-IV-V-I. The question is, how do you come up with a progression that sounds creative, while at the same time still sounds like it has some direction and focus?
The answer to this lies in looking a bit closer at I-IV-V-I, discovering why it works so well, and then trying to incorporate those discoveries into something a bit more distinctive.
Why I-IV-V-I Works So Well
That simple progression, which in C major gives us C-F-G-C, works in any genre. Here’s what makes it so generically powerful:
- It solidly points to a certain chord — C in this case — as the tonic, the chord representing the key.
- It represents a short journey away from the tonic chord, and then back toward it.
- The progression becomes more predictable the further into the sequence you go.
Let’s look at each point more closely:
- It makes the C the tonic in two main ways:
- By both starting and ending on C, we give that chord some special significance. That fact alone does not make it a tonic, but there can be no doubt that we hear that it’s been given a “place of honour,” if you will.
- The final tonic chord is approached by a 4th. In other words, the final C is approached by a G. That movement of a 4th up (or a 5th down – same thing) is something all listeners in our musical culture understand. That movement of a 4th is a powerful tool for strengthening a chord progression.
- The brevity of a chord progression is often one of its most endearing features. Audiences feel comfortable with progressions that are short enough to easily understand.
- The predictability of the end of the progression is more obvious than at the beginning. When the progression starts, you’ve got many choices regarding where to go after that initial C; you could try Dm, F, Am… But certainly by the end of the progression, once you’ve reached the G (the dominant chord), the tonic chord sounds obvious, to the point where it’s a surprise if C doesn’t happen.
Creating More Imaginative Progressions
You can use the simple observations we’ve just made and come up with progressions that are more creative, more individual, and more distinctive, as long as you:
- Allow the end of the progression to return to the tonic.
- Use lots of root movement of 4ths and 5ths.
- Keep the progression from getting overly long.
- Let the last several chords move solidly toward the key of your song.
When we talk about progressions that are more distinctive, we usually mean something a bit longer, so we’re like talking about progressions longer than the 4 chords that make up our sample I-IV-V-I progression.
So to create longer progressions that don’t just sound like chord muddle, keep the following tips in mind:
- Whenever a progression “loses focus”, move the root by a 4th or a 5th. Let’s take as an example this more creative progression: C Eb Em Am Ab Bb C. The end of it is fine: that Ab-Bb-C is actually quite nice. But the Eb to Em really sounds confusing and odd. The part that goes Em-Am-Ab-Bb-C sounds good — it’s the Eb that sticks out. So try approaching the Em by a 5th below: Am. That gives us this stronger progression: C Am Em Am Ab Bb C.
- Try moving the middle of a progression into the “opposite mode”. If your progression is primarily major, look for ways to move into the relative minor for the middle before moving back to the major. Let’s say your progression is this 2-section example: C Am Bb F |C Am Bb F C. The C chord happens at the start, right at the middle, and again at the end. So try reversing the C and Am (the 5th and 6th chords) so that the Am happens right at the start of the second section. That gives you this: C Am Bb F |Am C Bb F. The Am placement right in the middle gives a minor sound to the middle of the progression that wasn’t so noticeable before.
- Be sure the end of the progression moves solidly into your chosen key. If you happen to be using the progression to change key, let it move solidly into some key. The point is, ambiguity is nice in the middle, but keep the end from being too ambiguous. This might be too confusing for most pop songs: C Bm Em F F#m C. The end sounds like it’s been wrenched from C major and tossed around before being thrown back suddenly into C. You might try replacing F# with Dm, a chord that’s much friendlier to C major, giving you: C Bm Em F Dm C.
A little bit of creativity goes a long way in progressions. Most of the time, when you listen to songwriters who like to write creative music (Imogen Heap, Peter Gabriel, Justin Vernon, etc.), you’ll find, as I mentioned earlier, that it’s the melodic shapes and phrasing, and poignant lyrics, that take centre stage. (Listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” as a great example of a surprisingly predictable progression that partners extremely well with a creative instrumentation, melodic design and lyrics.)
Of all the tips listed above, never underestimate the power of the 4th or 5th root movement for tightening up a confusing chord progression and making it work.
Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is where you’ll discover the secrets of writing a melody that partners well with a lyric. Get the full 10-eBook Bundle, and a FREE COPY of “Creative Chord Progressions.”