Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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If you really want a chord progression that works, you’ve got to consider the entire song, not simply look for a “killer progression.” Some of the biggest hits in songwriting history use simple melodies that were created over very simple progressions (“Hound Dog”, for example). A song becomes a hit when all the song elements complement each other. The fact that a song’s various elements act as companions also works on a smaller level. For example, chord progressions throughout a song are better if they relate to each other in some way, where the verse, chorus and bridge progressions all act as partners.
So how do you ensure that chord progressions throughout your song partner well with each other?
For any given key, there are 7 chords that occur naturally, and we create them by building triads (3-note chords) on top of each note of a scale. For example, in the key of A major, the seven chords that occur when we build chords above the major scale are: A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m and G#dim.
You’ll notice that with the exception of the 7th chord (G#dim), all the chords are either major or minor. This presents us with a great way to create partnered progressions: create some progressions that concentrate on the minor side of the key, and then fashion others that dwell on major.
A great example is La Roux’s latest hit, “Bulletproof.” All the chords come from the key of F# major. But the verse dwells on the minor side of the key, essentially in the relative minor key of D# minor, with the inclusion of a “secondary dominant chord” (G#):
D#m G# B D#m
F# G#m B F#
These two progressions partner so well because they use many of the same chords, but with the verse exhibiting a very strong minor feel and the chorus switching to major.
The minor-major partnership is one that really works well, and many songwriters use it. Here are a 2 examples for you to try:
EXAMPLE 1: (Try 2 beats per chord, 4 beats for chords with spaces after)
Am G/B C G | Am G/B C F | Em Am Em Am | Dm | E ||
F G C | F G C | F G Em Am |F |G ||
EXAMPLE 2: (Includes a pre-chorus, and an altered chord ‘D’ in C major/Am)
Try 4 beats per chord
Am C |D F |Am C |D F|
Dm G |Am F| Dm G |Am G ||
C Dm |F G |C Dm |F G |Am F |G C |C Dm |F C||
The beauty of these kind of progressions is that it means you’re pulling the mood toward the more contemplative minor side of the key for your verse, which usually makes sense when you’re telling a story or describing an emotionally tense situation.
Then switching to major gives a feeling of strength and resolve, which will work especially well if your lyrics go in that direction.
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