Chord Progression Dilemma: When Roots Move By Step

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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GuitaristIf you’re looking for chord progressions that really work well, you’ll discover that the strongest ones feature a majority of chords whose roots leap a 4th or 5th away from each other. So the standard I-vi-ii-V-I progression (C Am Dm G C) is never going to let you down. Unless, of course, you’re tired of the predictability of that old chestnut. The logical alternative to chords that leap are chords that step. But that can cause a host of other problems.

First, let’s clear this up: when we talk about chords leaping, we’re usually talking about the root of the chord, not necessarily the bass note. Bass notes that move by step are fine; for example, the walking bass. A walking bass means that rather than leaping to its next note, the bass gets there most often by step.

In this way, it’s easy for the bassist to turn C Am Dm G C into a walking bass line by simply filling in the leaps between each chord primarily with steps. The bass line will still include some leaps, but will find as many opportunities as possible to fill in leaps.

But problems can occur if the roots of the chords move by step. Let me give you an example of two progressions that use identical bass lines. The first is a good chord progression where the bass moves mainly by step, and then a bad one where the chord roots move mainly by step:

GOOD: C  Dm  C/E  F  Gsus  G 7  C

BAD: C  Dm  Em  F  Gsus G7  C

The bad progression has a problem: the root of each successive chord moves upward by step. The end of the progression is fine, because it has a standard V7-I cadence, which breaks the stepwise pattern.

But the problem with chord progressions that continue up or down in an unbroken chain of stepwise roots is a well-known dilemma called “parallel motion.” In this kind of progression, it gives the sensation that everything is moving upward together.

And while most listeners won’t be musically trained to the extent that they can hear and identify the constant parallel motion, it tends to have a negative impact on the listening experience.

The good progression is good because the constant upward movement of the chord chords is broken in the 3rd chord. Even though the bass continues upward, the root of the 3rd chord moves downward, back to C. This so-called “contrary motion” of the bass moving up while the root moves down creates a musically pleasing sensation of music being flexible, pulled in different directions at the same time.

There’s a harsh, amateurish quality that comes from chords where the roots move by step in one direction for too long. There’s no specific rule here, except to say that more than three chords moving by step in the same direction becomes problematic. Bass lines that move continuously in one direction are not a problem, and can be quite desirable.

Here are some examples of progressions that use chords that leap around, but still manage to use stepping bass lines:

C  G/B  Am  C/G  F  C/E  Dm7  G  F/A  G  C

C  G/D  C/E  F  C/G  G  C

C  C/Bb  F/A  Fm/Ab  G  G/F  C/E  F  G  C

As you can see, they include a mixture of chords whose roots are steps away from each other, and 4ths or 5ths away. But in each case, the bass manages to move primarily by step by using chord inversions.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book BundleFor hundreds more chord progressions, you’ll want to download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle. Those e-books can show you how to turn your songs into hits.

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