To many songwriters, a chord progression is the kind of thing that causes them to say, “I don’t know what makes a good one, but I’ll recognize it when I hear it.” Well, that should not be good enough for anyone who takes songwriting seriously. The good news is that there is a way to know why bad progressions are bad, and how to ensure that you’ll practically always write good ones.
I like to use the analogy of going for a walk to describe how chord progressions work. There’s much about that analogy that really applies.
First of all, the tonic chord (the I-chord of the key you’ve chosen) is like your house, your base, the place you keep returning to. Think of the tonic chord as the place you begin each walk, and the place at which you usually aspire to end up.
From your house, your walk can take you in many possible directions. But once you start heading home, there’s a limited number of predictable paths that walks usually take. And predictable is the key word. This kind of predictability is not a bad thing. It’s what people on a walk expect.
So in a way, it’s the destination that provides us with much of the interesting, “unpredictable” aspects of the journey. Once you start heading home, your walk often becomes necessarily more predictable.
So think of a walk as having four fundamental areas: 1: home; 2: your front doorstep; 3: the sidewalk; and 4) a more distant destination.
So how do we apply this to chord progressions?
In musical terms, those four fundamental areas are:
- The tonic chord (I) area (home);
- The dominant (V) area (the front doorstep);
- The pre-dominant (ii, IV, etc) area (the sidewalk);
- The ultimate harmonic (iii, vi, etc) destination (a more distant destination)
So just as a walk needs to make sense, a chord progression needs to have a measure of predictability. The neat thing is that there is one way in which chord progressions differ from the typical walk: in the world of harmony, you can start on a I-chord, and then jump to your ultimate destination instantly. And as long as you make your way home in a sensible way, you’re fine.
We can describe all this with a chord progression formula. Just take the Circle of Fifths progression as an example. I’ll write the progression out in a horizontal line:
I – V – ii – vi – iii – vii
It’s a progression that’s been used for centuries in all genres of music. How do you use this? Simply start at your house (I), and leap to a destination (let’s say, the iii-chord), then start a journey back home (use every chord in order toward the left until you reach the I-chord again.)
It’s a never-fail method to produce working chord progressions.
It’s not something you’ll want to use every single time, however. That kind of predictability can become dangerously predictable. But certainly, for many chorus progressions you’ll use, this progression is fantastic, because it produces strong progressions.
For your verses, you may want to try something a little less predictable, maybe try some altered chords (chords that don’t necessarily exist within a chosen key.) And for those kinds of progressions, once you’ve used an altered chord, you’ll want to get back on a track “back home”. Here’s a few examples of adventurous chord progressions that incorporate a dose of predictability “on the journey home”:
C F Ab Eb Dm7 G C
C Bb F Gsus G C
C F Eb/G F/A Bb F G C
In each of those examples, the altered chords (the ones in italics) represent the most “distant” location from the tonic. After that, the progression gets back on track for a move back to the tonic.
You can create hundreds of your own progressions using the e-book “Chord Progression Formulas”, which shows you several formulas for major and minor keys. It’s available as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-ebook bundle.