Creating Good Chord Progressions: See the Big Picture

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Music and keyboardWhen you’ve got a melody that you’re wanting to harmonize, the usual way to proceed is to first establish a pulse (i.e., get your foot tapping). For most hit songs (more than 90%), that pulse you’re feeling is in 4/4 time, one of the characteristics of which means the first foot tap will be a strong beat, and the second tap will be a weaker beat. This strong-weak pattern alternates throughout the song. The melody notes that happen on a strong beat (and sometimes the following weak beat) are usually indicating the chord possibilities.

So most people don’t have a problem with that part of figuring out chords. But all that gives you are chord possibilities. It doesn’t really do much to help create a sensible progression that works for, let’s say, your entire verse, or entire chorus. All it does is makes sure that the melody notes work with the chords. So you can wind up with a song where the chords work, but don’t make a heck of a lot of sense when you consider them as part of a progression.

Let me give a clearer description of the problem. Let’s say you’re melody is an ascending C major scale, where you’d like to place a chord on every second note. That means, according to my first paragraph above, that you want to be sure that the notes C, E, G and B have a chord that harmonizes it properly. If that’s your only concern, you might wind up with a chord progression like this:

C  Em  G  Bdim

That progression doesn’t really cut it for me, and I doubt it does for you. But go ahead and play it, and sing a C-major scale to it, with each chord lasting for two notes of the scale. You’ll notice that the progression properly harmonizes the scale, but makes little sense, plus leaving the end of your scale feeling incomplete.

So as you can see, simply finding chords that fit your melody is only one part of the solution you’re looking for. The second part is trying to find chords that, when considered all together, make a sensible harmonic journey.

Chord progressions usually reside in a key. Progressions that we call strong are the ones that clearly make the key obvious. (The progression C F G C makes the key of C major obvious, and so it’s strong.) Progressions that we call fragile are ones that point to a key, but in a less obvious way. (The progression Em D Am D is in G major, but would be considered somewhat fragile, because G is never heard, so you don’t know if G major is the key, or if it will eventually be the key of E minor).

So the second part of the chord progression task is this: create a harmonic journey that, to some degree, establishes a chord as being tonic – the home key. Whether strong or fragile, your progression needs to point (clearly or perhaps even ambiguously) to one chord as being harmonically supreme.

So it requires you to see the big picture. I usually recommend to my students that when you harmonize a melody, if you’re not getting anywhere, start with the simplest progression you can that will work. From there, you can use chord substitutions to make your progression more interesting. Another way of saying that is: when in doubt, go for a strong progression first, and then maybe modify it to be fragile if you like.

Here are some better ways of harmonizing a C major scale. What I’ve done in most cases is started somewhere other than the I-chord in C major, determining to end up in C major. I’ve repeated the final C in the melody to help. As you can hopefully hear, each progression represents an interesting harmonic journey where I’ve tried to get back to C major as a vital responsibility. This requires me to treat some of the notes of the scale as non-chord-tones: notes that doesn’t normally apply to that chord:

Chord Progressions

Do you have a way that you’d harmonize that scale? Why not make a comment below.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. I am quite new to harmony, so I do understand Chord progressions a little bit
    and make melody on a Chord progression but domt know the other way arround.

    I put your 4 examples in my daw (Cubase) and see (hear) the point but how do you do it.
    how do you choiche. by ear I choiche but is there a theory?

    regard Dick

    • Hi Dick:

      There is theory involved in creating chord progressions, in the sense that there are reasons why some progressions sound good while others don’t. The final choice of what works for your own song is a mixture of theory and personal taste, and hard to describe in this comments section. I wonder if this article might help answer some questions: “How to Create Chord Progressions That Grab an Audience’s Attention.” It’s an article I wrote last summer that addresses some of those issues.


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