Chord Progressions Can Come Alive – with PLANING

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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If you’re like most songwriters, you’re probably looking for ways to liven up your chord progressions. There’s a technique that’s been known to composers of the “Classical” genre (particularly during the “Impressionistic” era) for many years. It’s called planing, and it can take what would ordinarily be a very normal-sounding chord and give it new life. Here’s how it works:

Try playing this progression:

Dm7  Em7  F#m7  Dm7  Cm7  Bm7  Dm7  Am7  Bm7

The structure of each chord is identical. Normally when you see a Dm7 you might expect to see it followed by G7. But in this case, that chord structure is moved around, almost regardless of the key it’s in. This is called planing, when all the notes of a chord move in a parallel way, all tones moving up or down by exactly the same number of tones or semitones.

In my books, The Essential Secrets of Songwriting and Essential Chord Progressions I go out of my way to criticize what I call chord successions – one chord moving to another with no real thought to their function. What planing does, however, is precisely that: by moving the chord structure around, it strips the chord of its need to function in any specific sort of way. It can pretty much move around in any way you want.

Why does planing seem to work? It’s mainly because the musical brain latches on to the chord as a sound structure in whole, rather than the chord as a set of tones, each of which must resolve in their own way. Once you start planing a chord, the listener ignores its function, and focuses more on the overall sound of the chord stripped of its function, and the movement of the chord becomes more a melodic rather than harmonic function.

So what chords can you plane? Any chord, really. And in fact, you can take dissonant chords (chords that seem to have no basis in normal keys or tonality) and plane those, and it opens up a whole new world of sound possibilities. As an experiment, try sitting at a keyboard and place your fingers randomly on the keys. Then start to move all the notes up or down by the same amount, and you’ll find the result quite interesting. By presenting the chords with a strong backing rhythm, you’ll have something that will set you apart from other songwriters.

Try it with some standard chords. Here are some “progressions” using suspensions, as well as some other less common chords, to try out:

  1. Csus4  Dsus4  Csus4
  2. Caug+7  (CEG#B) Ebaug+7  Daug+7  Faug+7  Baug+7
  3. Am7/G  Gbm7/Gb  Am7/G  C#m7/B
-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , .


    • Most of the time, you’d work out a melody using the same principles as working out a melody for any other chord progression. As long as the notes you’re choosing for the tune fit the chord of the moment, you’ll find that the melody will work.

      If you voice your chords right, you’ll notice that the tops of chords can form a kind of melody, as the composer Debussy did on many occasions. Here’s an example of chord planing where the tops of the chords form a melody.

      Hope this helps,

  1. I think you’re at least partly right about that.. Take the chord C7 as an example. Once the listener hears that C7, they’re expecting F. But if the C7 moves to B7, then back to C7, then Db7, etc., their musical mind stops hearing that dominant 7th function, and start to hear it as a conglomeration of tones that have “a mind of their own.”

    You can read more about planing at McGraw-Hill Publishing’s website

    Where you make a good point is that composers that used planing (esp. Debussy) often used more complex chords that had less of an obvious tonal function. My point in my article was that this “stripping away of function” can happen even with simpler structures.

    PS- Great site, by the way. I enjoyed looking through the materials at

  2. Interesting post Gary, I’ve written about it on

    I’ve never heard this refered to as ‘planing’ before, but I know what you mean. I’m not sure I agree that doing this strips the chords of their ‘function’ though.

    I think it’s more accurate to say the listener still expects the chord to perform that function, and is entertained by having their expectations confounded.

  3. Pingback: The Essential Secrets of Songwriting « Songwright

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