by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting“. If you’re frustrated because you just can’t get your songs working, and can’t seem to finish any of the songs you start, you need to take a fresh look at the structure of the word’s most successful songs. Gary’s e-books were written to get you writing! Read about those e-books here.
There is a certain amount of predictability in chord progressions that work well. It shouldn’t surprise us, however, that “predictability” is a word that won’t sit well with most songwriters. For most, that word conjurs up other words, such as “boring”, “humdrum” and “uninteresting.” But the truth is that chords need a certain amount of predictability. Without at least some predictability, songs don’t click with the listener. And that makes strong progressions a crucial part of good songs.
There are several factors that make a chord progression strong. One is the existence of common tones between adjacent chords. The progression C F G C is very strong. There is a common tone “C” between the chords C and F, and a common tone “G” between the chords G and C. But common tones alone will not make a progression strong. For example, oscillating back and forth between the chords C and Eb will not produce a strong progression, even though the note “G” is common between both chords. I like to call these kinds of progressions fragile, because, like glass, you have to be careful how you use them. And also like glass, they can be the source of something beautiful, and good songs can make good use of fragile progressions.
A second factor involves root movement. When the root of the second chord in a progression is a fifth higher (or a fourth lower) than the first one, this strengthens a progression all the more.
And there is a third characteristic of strong chords: exclusivity of key. When a chord progression can only be found in one particular key, that progression is considered to be strong. The progression C F G C can only reasonably be found in the key of C major; it points to that key, and that key alone. By comparison, the progression Dm Em Am, while having strong elements, could be found in various keys, including D minor (natural form, actually aeolian mode), A minor, and C major.
Songs usually need strong progressions, and they work particularly well in the chorus, though they can be used anywhere. The reason for their good use in choruses comes from the solid, predictable effect they produce, which goes hand in hand with the “conclusive” kind of lyric one usually uses in that part of the song.
But if you find that the predictability that comes hand-in-hand with strong progressions is a bit too… predictable, here are some suggestions for adding a touch of uniqueness:
- Use pedal tones. (For example, C F/C G/C C). Keeping one note in the bass while all the chords above it change will give you the best of both worlds. The progression retains the strength of the original progression, while the common tone gives you a bit of the unexpected.
- Use inversions. (For example, C F/A G/B C). A couple of bits of advice here: avoid using an inversion if the note after the slash is also in your melody. And avoid using too many inversions in a row; you may find that the progression weakens too much.
- Add rhythmic variety. If you are changing chords every two beats, experiment with anticipating the next bar by jumping in an 8th note early, or leaving beat 1 silent and having everything hit on beat 2.
If you want to learn more about chord progressions, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” suite of e-books includes hundreds of progressions you can use right now, as is, or modify if necessary for your use in your own songs. Download them here.