Make a Chord Progression Longer With Passing Chords

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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GuitarOn 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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  1. pls I want you to show how I can use dominant , augmented , major seventh , and minor seventh chords and diminish chords as passing chords. because I need all of them to add to what I play. pls I need your help help me in all these .

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  3. Is there any way of extending fragile progressions without indicating a tonal centre. I am writing a ballad with 1 chord per bar but i’m trying to insert passing chords so that there are 2 chords per bar. For example my first 2 chords are Bb & F/A. Is it possible to extend this without indicating the tonal centre ?

    • Hi Peter:

      Fragile progressions are often easier to extend than strong ones because they can go pretty much in any direction you like. If I’m understanding your question, you’d like a chord to insert between the Bb and F/A, one that doesn’t put it strongly in any particular key? If so, try inserting a Csus4, which then moves to F/A without resolving to C first. Another option might be to try a Gm7 between the two.


      • Well, it’s a good question, as most of the time passing chords get interjected in retrospect. In other words, it’s often the best way forward to create a good, strong, working progression, and then go back and look at it from the standpoint of what chord might fit in between the chords you have.

        For example, as a beginner you might work out a simple progression, something like C-F-Am-G-C. Then when you go back to look at it, you might insert an inverted C chord (C/E: a C chord with an E as the lowest-sounding note) after the C. That’s a passing chord which gets you from C to F easily.

        If you’re starting out, I’d recommend not worrying much about passing chords, and work out a good, strong progression. Then it could be, when you go back to listen to it, that you notice opportunities to toss in a chord that fits well between two of the chords you’ve already worked into the progression.

        I hope that helps!

    • The possibilities are numerous, really, and of course it would depend on what the original chord progression is, and what the harmonic rhythm is. In the not-too-distant future, Illl do another article that gives more examples.

      Thanks for writing,

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