How Many Chords Make a Good Progression?

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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For many of you, what you really feel you need is a set of good chord changes that work. It’s why I’ve written several e-books on the topic. But once you’ve got a list of changes that you like, what’s the best way to use them? How do you make longer progressions out of shorter ones? And how do you apply rhythm to the progressions?

I’ve received several emails from songwriters who’ve been using my chord progression e-books, asking why the lists of progressions don’t include hints for rhythms to accompany the chords. And the reason is simple: Every genre has its own basic rhythmic language. The kinds of rhythms you find in country music are not quite the same as the ones you’d find in jazz, or pop, techno, trance, etc. But interestingly, most of those genres will use very similar chords and chord progressions. In other words, the chord charts I’ve written will actually work in almost every genre you can think of. So apply the basic rhythm of your choice, and presto! – usable chord progressions for your next song.

But I’d like to deal with the second-most common question I get asked: How many chords should I use in my chord progression? There are two major points to consider:

  1. In general, the faster the tempo of your song, the fewer chords you should probably use. Fast songs tend to sound frantic if there are lots of chords. So for fast songs, your song should probably have three or four chords, maybe five.
  2. The harmonic rhythm (i.e., the frequency of your chord changes) of your song should be slower if the tempo is faster. If you choose a fast tempo, change chords every two to four bars. If it’s a slow ballad, your song will be able to tolerate more frequent chord changes, and a longer list of chords. So a slow song can probably use anywhere from five to eight chords, with some songs using even more quite successfully.

Keep in mind that contrast is an important element in songwriting, so your verse will likely use a different set of chords than the chorus, and so you’ll be dealing with two or three different sets of chord changes throughout a song.

Another piece of advice for using my chord charts: Try repeating the first two or three chords before moving on to the rest of the progression. That means that a standard progression of the following chords:

C Dm Am G Am

… should be tried in a variety of different ways, including something like this:

C Dm C Dm C Dm Am G Am… etc

Try playing each chord for two beats each, then try four beats each. Then try the first chord for six beats, the second chord for two, etc. Try anything. You’d be surprised what you’ll come up with by simply experimenting. That’s the fun of songwriting!
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Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

2 Comments

  1. Although I’ve discovered this by experiment, this is very useful advice. a heavy revelation for those whom are stuck in their songwriting techniques.

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