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I often think that songwriters obsess about chord progressions to an unhealthy degree. Let’s set one thing aside: there is no killer chord progression to discover, because progressions only work if the lyric and melody which are attached to it make it great. Short strong progressions (I-IV-V-I, for example) always work well, but how do you elongate a progression that’s too short?
The problem with short progressions is that they quickly become predictable and boring. But in the process of trying to make short progressions longer, you can wind up with a series of chords that are, quite simply, meandering messes. We know that chords take us on a sonic voyage, but like a literal voyage, you don’t necessarily make a trip longer by walking further. Longer trips require more planning: more rest stops, more moments of beauty, and often a different overall design.
Apart from simply adding chords to the end of a short progression as a way of making it longer, there are several other interesting ways you can elongate a progression:
- Use passing chords. A passing chord, quite simply, inserts itself between two major chords in your progression. Consider this standard progression: I-IV-V-I. In C major, those chords are: C F G C. If you want to elongate that, you need to think about the roots of those chords, and find ways to get the bass line moving by step in between each chord. Often, passing chords will be inverted chords (or “slash chords.”) Inversions will smooth out a jumpy bass line and will insert nicely between the main chords of a progression. So our C F G C progression might become: C Dm7 C/E F D/F# G C.
- Repeat a small section of a small progression before moving on to complete it. So C F G C might become C F C F C F C F F G F G F G F G C. You might consider this instead of simply trying to find new chords to add to your progression. The advantage to repeating a two-chord segment in this way is that moving on finally to F actually feels fresh. You can gauge how much to repeat a two-chord segment because you’ll know when it’s becoming tiresome, and needing to move on.
- Insert a deceptive cadence, then repeat the progression with a standard cadence. A deceptive cadence happens when the listener hears a progression end with a chord they weren’t necessarily expecting. So instead of C F G C, you might try C F G Am. The good thing about this is that a deceptive cadence feels incomplete because we usually want to hear the tonic (I) chord. So use that deceptive cadence as a way of repeating the whole progression once more, this time with a proper close: C F G Am C F G C.
The benefit of elongating your progressions in this way is that it solves the main problem of the too-long progression: they often sound like long, meandering journeys that feel like aimless wandering. By using one of these methods, you haven’t really extended your progression as much as you’ve lingered longer on crucial chords of your existing progression. You’ll find that the end result is a progression that feels stronger, more concise, and more in control.