Chord progressions need to have direction, or else they’re little more than chord successions: one chord following another with little or no sense of overall purpose. As you likely know, I have for a long time spoken about the important differences between so-called strong and fragile progressions, where strong ones point solidly to one note as being more tonally important than the others, and fragile ones being less obvious about their tonality. But what are the specific rules that govern their use?
In order for a chord progression to strongly indicate one note as being the tonic note, the chords need to move away from and toward that note in very obvious ways, and not be long about it. Often, progressions that are strong will use chords that incorporate common tones. Here’s a quintessential example:
C F G7 C (I IV V7 I)
It’s strong because the progression is making everything point to C as the tonic. The strongest progressions will focus on tonic chords (C, in this example), subdominant chords (F) and dominant chords (G7). Common tones are a feature of strong progressions, though there are fragile progressions that use common tones, so that feature, by itself, won’t necessarily indicate tonal strength. Here’s a sample of a fragile progression:
C Ab C Ab Fm7 Eb Fm7 G (I bVI I bVI iv7 bIII iv7 V)
It’s fragile because it’s not clear from these chords which one, if any, is operating as a tonic. In fact, the tonal centre moves from being possibly C, to being Eb, and then back to being C (implied by the final G chord.)
It’s quite reasonable to have a song that uses all strong progressions. It’s also possible to use only fragile progressions, and that sense of tonal ambiguity that would arise from fragile-only progressions might be considered charming. We know from experience that most songs will feature more fragile ones in the verse, and more strong ones in the chorus, and you should consider it a basic guideline to have strong progressions follow fragile ones. Beyond that, here are some other tips and suggestions:
- The root movement of 4ths and 5ths in a chord progression will strengthen a progression. So if you’re trying to create strong progressions, look to the bass notes. That earlier I IV V I example features this.
- The strength or fragility of a progression is is a judgement call. Most progressions are several chords in length, and parts of it may be strong with other parts more fragile. So it is quite possible, indeed desirable, to mix strong with fragile within a progression.
- In general, the longer your progression is (i.e., the more chords you use), the more fragile it will tend to be, because long progressions can blunt the tonal focus. So if you’re trying to create a strong progression for your chorus, limit your chord choices to 4 or 5.
- Think about your lyrics as you work out your song’s harmonies. If a lyric has a surprise for the listener, use that moment to have a surprise in your chord progression.
- One way to make a strong progression less obviously rooted in a key is to start on a chord other than the I-chord.
Here are some basic examples of each type of progression:
1) A D E7 A
2) A F#m C#m D E7 A
3) A Bm A/C# D E C#m F#m B7 E7 A
1) A F A F
2) A C#m E F#m
3) Bm A/C# B/D# E
• Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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