Using Chord Substitutions to Pull Song Sections Together

Piano Keyboard - Chord SubstitutionsA couple of posts ago I wrote about using palindromic chord progressions (ones that read the same in both directions) as a possible way of making a connection between verse and chorus. Here’s another thought: if you find that your verse and chorus are using the same, or almost the same, progressions, try taking the verse progression, then rewrite it using chord substitutions. One chord substitutes successfully for another if the function stays the same. Here’s what that’s all about.

When writing, let’s say, in the key of G major, the I-chord (G) is the tonic chord. And while it’s the only tonic chord in the key, there are other chords that will substitute for it.

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For example, consider this standard I-IV-V-I progression: G  C  D  G. Now take the final I-chord (G) and replace it with a vi-chord (Em): G  C  D  Em. The final Em can freshen an otherwise stale progression. It makes the progression more interesting, and can help you pull your song in an unexpected direction.

So which chords substitute for the standard diatonic chords of a give key? Here’s a list:

  • A I-chord (C) can often be replaced with vi, iii, or IV
  • A ii-chord (Dm) can often be replaced with IV
  • A iii-chord (Em) can often be replaced with a V or I
  • A IV-chord (F) can often be replaced with a ii, iv or I
  • A V-chord (G) can often be replaced with a iii or I
  • A vi-chord (Am) can often be replaced with a I, iii, or IV
  • A vii-chord (Bdim) can often be replaced with a V7

Whether one chord actually substitutes for another will depend on the melody note at that moment of substitution, so not all substitutions will work at any given instant. You’ll need to experiment to know.

Chord substitutions in this context work best especially if the verse and chorus use the same progression. Your bridge progression, as you hopefully know, will usually not use the same progression as any other section of your song, since you’ll want a bridge to offer a bit of variety from came before.

So here is a list of standard progressions, with some possible substitutions. Naturally, it’s not an exhaustive list. In reality, the possibilities of substitution are almost endless. Keep in mind that you don’t need to replace all the chords with substitutions. Just a few will be enough to make the progression sound different.

VERSE: G  C  Am  D  Em  C  D  G || CHORUS: G  Am  C  D  Em  Am  D  Em

VERSE: G  D  Bb  C  G  D  Bb  C  || CHORUS: G  Bm  Bb  Am  G  Bm  Bb  Am

VERSE: G  D/F#  Em  D  C  G/B  Am  D  || CHORUS: G  D  C  Bm  Am  G/B  C  D

Those progressions used many substitutions,  but you’ll find that even just one substitution gives the necessary dose of variety. So it’s not necessary to fill your verse progressions with chord substitutions. A little bit of variety will go a long way to making your new song sound interesting and fresh.

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2 Comments

  1. Pls am new to all this chord and scale.I wil say i do not understand anything you wrote can u pls help out with some tips to work on my knowing the chord sale and progresion. Pls my email douglasyakubu@ymail.com . Pls u can email me most of ur tutorials thanks am greatful

    • For tutorials, I suggest that you simply read my blog. It’s the nearest thing I have to “tutorials.” I’m sorry that I don’t know what else to suggest, particularly if you aren’t understanding anything I’ve written. But you may want to try reading this blog entry: “How to Make a Chord Progression Work Every Time”: http://wp.me/paiUc-vP

      Hope that helps,
      -Gary

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