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On a music forum recently I noticed a comment that went something like, “I don’t like the word ‘progression’ to describe the way chords move in a song.'” For me, I actually like the word, because it implies that chords must progress in a particular direction, not haphazardly. Problems arise when songwriters need to write longer progressions. That’s when passing chords really help.
The problem with longer progressions is that the sense of one chord progressing to the next one can start to get a bit muddled. If your song’s form is long, with verses, pre-chorus, choruses, bridge, perhaps a solo or two, and maybe some other section, the chords can sound like they’re going “off course.” It might be a good idea to consider passing chords as a way of elongating a chord progression.
Passing chords are chords that are inserted in between the main chords of your progression. You might consider the standard I-IV-V-I progression to be too short, or too repetitive, if your song is long. But you can use that basic progression and then add passing chords to make it longer. Here are some examples:
Starting with this progression: C F G C
Possibility No. 1 (Uses an ascending diatonic scale in the bass, elongating the progression, with the aded bonus of creating line in the bass):
C [Dm C/E] F G [Am G/B] C
Possibility No. 2 (Uses an ascending chromatic line in the bass):
C [A/C# Dm D#dim Em] F G C
C F D/F# G E/G# Am G/B C
Possibility No. 3 (Uses inverted chords from the basic progression to double its length)
C C/E F F/A G G/B C
There are many possibilities here. The concept I’m trying to convey in this post is that there is safety in using an existing short progression, then simply extending it by fitting chords in between. Think of it this way: if you’re taking a friend on a little trip around town and want to make the trip a bit longer, you can take him further afield (i.e., create a longer, more meandering progression), or you can simply fit more areas of interest in between the events you’ve already planned. That’s all we’re doing when we use passing chords.
Be sure that the chords you add as passing chords actually make sense. When in doubt, stick with a circle-of-fifths type of progression, and it should all work for you.
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