Making Chord Changes Work

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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A good chord progression is like a piece of land that you’re planning to build your house on. If the land is too bumpy, placing your house is going to be a problem. If it’s too flat, there won’t be enough there to grab a person’s interest.

More importantly, good land is all about the house that eventually will sit on it. A great piece of land can make your house look even better than it is. And eventually, when you try to sell your house, you’re going to have problems if the land is unmowed, untidy, or otherwise messy. So land has a very important responsibility to make your house a sellable item.

In a similar way, chord changes have an important responsibility to make your songs sellable. If your changes sound confusing, like one or more of your chords don’t really fit, you’re encountering what I like to call chord muddle, and it can take your song from being sellable to being amateurish and uninteresting.

If you learn only one thing about chords, you need to know this: All progressions fit into one of two categories: strong or fragile. (You can read all about this in Chapter 4 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting“) The first and most important principle of harmony is: Two chords that have a note in common will form a strong progression. And if that second chord is four notes higher (or five notes lower) than the first chord, the progression is even stronger. So G7 – C is a very strong progression.

Dm7 – Em7 fits into the fragile category. Fragile does not mean undesirable or weak in the aesthetic sense. Your song needs fragile progressions if you really want your song to be interesting. Where do we use fragile progressions?  The verse of your song  will usually tolerate more fragile progressions than the chorus. The chorus of your song will usually require more strong progressions.

Learning how to get chords to help and not hurt your songs is crucial to being a good songwriter. Click here to find out how to make your songs really work.

-Gary Ewer

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