Why Chord Progression Formulas are a Good Idea

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If you’re a songwriter with experience, the word “formula” will probably conjure up a negative reaction. After all, how can you be creating a truly unique song if any part of the creation process involves a formula? And while for the most part I would agree with your reticence, I truly believe that using chord progression formulas can be an important part of songwriting. It is very possible to create unique-sounding music based on chord progressions that have been used by others.

The fact that most working chord progressions are not unique to one song is the reason why chord progressions are not protected by copyright. Any chord progression can be used by anyone.

And if you’re one of the songwriters still looking for that unique killer chord progression, you’re wasting a lot of time looking. It’s far better to spend your time writing great melodies and lyrics, and get them working with a tried-and-true progression that’s the product of a formuala.

So what is a chord progression formula? Simply put, it’s a sequence of chords that focus on one particular chord as a harmonic goal. While there may not seem to be much of a difference between that definition of a formula, and a standard definition of a chord progression, you might think of a formula as being longer than a progression.

In my e-book, “Chord Progression Formulas,” the formulas I list actually give you a lot of freedom. In a formula that lists 6 or 7 chords presented in a vertical column, you start on the bottom chord (usually the I-chord), and you leap to any chord in the column. Once you’ve lept, you step back down through the list. So one formula can actually give you many possible progressions.

And they work.

No one listens to a song and says, “Hey, wait a minute, didn’t I hear that chord progression before?” Of course you did. If no one used the same chord progression over and over, we’d never have anything called the 12-bar blues, which generally uses the same progression song after song after song.

For songs that sound mundane or uninteresting, the chord progression is not the problem. Chord progressions are funny beasts. If you start to inject uniqueness into your progressions, you can negatively affect the way they work. Songs benefit from the healthy predictability that comes from repeating chord progressions.

Unless your songs constantly feature the same three or four chords, chord progression formulas will help your songs, not hurt them.

That e-book “Chord Progression Formulas”, is currently part of a free offer on my purchase page, and if you find chord progressions hard to wrap your musical brain around, I suggest you get that e-book and start writing better songs.

Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. You wrote:

    “If you start to inject uniqueness into your progressions, you can negatively affect the way they work.”

    I would challenge this. To me, magic happens when the chord progression is altered in some cool little way or combined with another in an unexpected way. Songs are best when they are both familiar and unexpected. For example, RayLamontagne has a song out called Beg, Steal or Borrow. The opening progression is a total snore fest but then the chorus hits and your spine just goes bananas. At least mine does. And the drug is a wicked cool modulation, something wholly weird, really. Then he hits you again back into the verse. Just brilliant. Of course, to your point, he also has a song called New York City’s Killing Me and there ain’t a damn thing new about it but, wow, what a song.

    • Hi Jeff:

      Good points. I would say that my comment was that it *can* negatively affect the way the progression works. Often, people try to inject something unique into a progression, but it falls flat, or doesn’t work. The failure usually comes from replacing one chord with another of a different function.

      I totally agree that unique progressions can be wonderful. However, for many, the kind of progression that comes from a formula will ensure that the song harmonies work properly.

      Thanks, as always, for your great comments, Jeff.

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