Is That Progression Complex? (Or Does It Just Suck?)

Gary Ewer•Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Chord ProgressionsWeeks ago I wrote an article examining the problem with chord progressions that seem to wander aimlessly; progressions that confuse listeners and never reach any sort of harmonic goal. In my collegial politeness I called such progressions “complex”, masking the actual point I was trying to make: progressions that wander, never reaching a harmonic goal, suck. Sorry for the confusion.

If I could rewrite that article, I probably would have avoided using the word “complex” entirely, because I made it sound as if complex progressions are a problem, when in fact they aren’t. There are many songwriters out there who are writing fantastic music using progressions that avoid standard I-IV-V-I harmonies.

And my aim in the next few weeks is to start giving some of those progressions to you in this blog, so that you can see that complex progressions are actually quite fine, exciting and enticing, as long as they have a harmonic goal.

In that regard, I regret using the word “complex” as if it were a criticism. My use of the word was meant to actually convey my polite criticism of songwriters who create progressions that leave listeners feeling mystified.

So let me state the point of that article a little more clearly: Harmonic progressions require a harmonic goal. The progressions I was criticizing were the ones that don’t.

I think a great example of a complex progression (one that strays from typically-found diatonic chords within a given key) is Sea Legs, written by James Russell Mercer of The Shins. It’s short, but avoids giving the standard I-IV-V-I we might expect:

G  Dm  Bb  F

Throughout the song, these chords undergo slight modifications, at various times giving us: G  Dm  Bb  Gm/F.

This progression is only mildly complex in the sense that G major is the chord we return to for the start of each musical phrase, but none of the chords actually support the key of G major. In standard Roman numerals, the progression is:

I  v  bIII  bVII (or i)

The progression works brilliantly because G is established as a clear harmonic goal. The progression is short enough that simple repetition of these four chords strengthens it.

Moreover, chord relationships within the progression are quite strong as well. For example, G to Dm (a root relationship of a 5th) has clear harmonic strength, and that pattern is repeated between bIII and bVII.

If you’re looking to make your progressions more complex, think about the beginning and ending of your progression, and look for opportunities to create little pockets of predictability within your progression.

Here are some samples of short but complex progressions for you to try:

  1. G  Fm7  Bb  Eb  F (In this one, hold each chord for two beats each, with the final two chords for one beat each.)
  2. G  Bb  F  A/E  D/F# (instructions as above. Try to ensure that the melody you create moves in contrary motion with the bass line.)
  3. G  E  Dm  Bb | G  Bb/F  Eb  F (Try two beats per chord.)
  4. G  Am  F  C
  5. G  Dm6  Esus  E  Em  Am  Abmaj7 (hold the final chord for four beats).

What all of these progressions have in common is that within the complexity there are moments of harmonic strength (bass movement of a 4th or 5th), as well as a strong harmonic goal: the final chord moves somewhat easily back to the first chord again.

So I hope that clarifies the point I was trying to make in my earlier postings regarding complex chord progressions. Complexity does not mean “randomness.” And it’s probably fair to say that even the most complex progressions, within a tonal system, do actually need some sort of harmonic goal.

For lists of hundreds of chord progressions you can use right now in your own songs, try “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” bundle of 6 songwriting e-books.

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One Comment

  1. Gary ,
    You are really on a roll lately! I wish that there were more appreciation for how intricate all the various parts of a composition can be , and , how symphathetic there relationship to one another must be .

    Thanks for all of these great articles !!! ( and of course the books !!)


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