Looking for that Elusive "Killer Chord Progression?"

by Gary Ewer, From “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

Songwriters often go looking for the elusive “killer chord progression”. It doesn’t really exist. Not because there aren’t great chord progressions out there, but more because chords don’t just work on their own. How good a set of changes is depends on what else is going on in the song. An otherwise great progression can be killed by lyrics that are distractingly bad, or by a flawed melody.

There are things you need to know, however, about chord progressions. I like to think of them as being in two basic categories: strong and fragile.And in my opinion, the best songs out there use both types.

You can look at progressions on the “micro” level, which is to say how one chord moves to the next one. And you can look at them on the “macro” level – the overall strength of an entire set of chords. A strong progression is the kind where the key is being quite strongly suggested. For example, progressions where the bass note moves up four notes or down five are often strong. So, at least on the micro level, the following chords go together to form strong progressions:

C7  F
G7  C
Em  Am

When two chords share a same note, this also can strengthen a progression. So C moving to F is strong, because both chords contain the note C.

But don’t forget about fragile progressions. They give music a sense of creativity. A fragile progression does not strongly suggest any one particular key. For example, the following could be categorized as somewhat fragile, because it’s not clear what key is being emphasized:

Dm  Em  Dm  Bdim

And some progressions are in the middle… with characteristics of both strong and fragile. In general, you’ll find that fragile progressions work well in verses, while strong progressions work well in choruses. Also, coupled with this is the observation that chorus melodies should use more of the tonic (key) note than verses.

You may not have thought about chord progressions much in this way before, but it’s really worth the time to analyze your songs’ progressions. Once you’ve categorized them according to strength in this way, you’ll discover that it’s not so much the killer chord progression you should be looking for, but the “killer approach” to chord progressions.

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-Gary Ewer

Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , , .

5 Comments

  1. regarding older people writing songs to a younger generation .Remember a band called milli vanilli ,they were all older people who recorded and produced that song.

  2. While it’s true that they share 3 notes, I’d still describe it as somewhat fragile, for this reason: A strong progression strongly implies a key, and the strongest ones are the chords that imply *one* key. For example, G7 to C is about as strong as it gets, because C major is really the only key that it points to. For the progression F#m to Dmaj7, the roots are a 3rd away from each other, which pulls it away from being very strong. And those two chords could exist in D major, but also A major. For that reason, I would say that it has more fragile than strong qualities.

  3. Hello Gary, how would you describe a chord change like F#m to Dmaj7. Strong or fragile or somewhere in between, because they share 3 common notes (F#, C# and A) and a D in the Dmaj7.

  4. You make a GREAT point here… “Not because there aren’t great chord progressions out there, but more because chords don’t just work on their own.”

    Simple fact is, in western music, there are only 12 notes. There are only so many combinations of these notes, and you simply will never come up with something that hasn’t already been used at least once.

    I like to think of it like writing a book. Every author has the same alphabet, and in very basic terms, the same vocabulary from which to draw… but the ability to tell a story is not contingent on finding NEW words, or even combinations of words. I believe writing music is no different. We are story tellers… and the listener (in most cases) can tell if we have put any emotion into the piece, or if we simply endeavored to create the “killer hook”, as they say.

    Once again, good information.

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