5 Ideas for Perking Up a Boring Chord Progression

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Blue GuitarI hardly ever worry about a chord progression that sounds boring or repetitive. First of all, most chord progressions use repetition as a standard feature, because repetition works. Listen to any successful song, and you’ll hear not just repeating chords, but repeating lyrics, melodies, rhythms and more. Repetition is a vital part of any good song. That being true, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking for ways to inject an extra bit of interest into your harmonic choices. Here are five ways to take a standard progression and make it more interesting.

First of all, let’s take a typical progression in the key of C major that might show up in many different genres:

C  F  Dm  G  C  (I  IV ii  V  I)

So what can we do to give that progression a makeover?

  1. Add 7ths to chords. Adding a 7th is easy to do: you simply count up 7 from the root (or letter name) of a chord, and that’s your 7th. You’ll find that 7ths sound most satisfying when they resolve downward by one note. So you don’t want to add 7ths randomly. Add them to chords if the 7th can resolve to a chord tone that exists in next chord. For example, adding a 7th to the G chord from the sample above is a good idea, because the 7th (which is the note ‘F’) would move down to the note ‘E’, which exists in the chord that follows it – the C chord. Adding 7ths to V-chords is typical, so look for other less typical opportunities. In the sample progression above, I’d consider adding a 7th to the F or the Dm chord. Try also adding 9ths. They’re a wonderful way of making a progression sound unique and warm.
  2. Use Modal Mixtures. A modal mixture means using the version of a chord that would exist in the parallel minor key. For example, you might consider changing the F to Fm, because Fm exists in the key of C minor. Another choice? Change Dm to D dim. If you want to learn more about modal mixtures, read this article.
  3. Use Deceptive Cadences. A cadence is the ending of a chord progression, coinciding with the end of a musical phrase. The G-C at the end of our sample progression is the cadence. A deceptive cadence is one that goes in a direction that wasn’t expected. When you hear the end of the sample progression, you hear that C is the logical end. But try substituting the C with a different chord that still uses the note C. An Am chord, for example. (C  F  Dm  G  Am). Be sure that whatever chord you put as your “deception” includes your melody note.
  4. Use Pedal Tones. A pedal tone is a note that is played, usually in the bass, regardless of the chords above it. It’s common to use the tonic note as your bass pedal (C  F/C  Dm/C  G/C  C), but try other ones for an even more interesting effect. Just let your ears be your guide.
  5. Use Suspensions. A suspension requires a resolution chord afterward, so using suspensions may elongate your progression. The so-called “4-3 suspension” is the most common. Every chord you’ll use is a triad that consists of a root, a 3rd and a 5th. For example, the notes C-E-G form the C chord in our sample. To create the 4-3 suspension on the C chord, move the 3rd one note higher, giving you C-F-G. Then in the next chord allow the F to fall to the E. This can be done on any chord, as long as you follow the suspension with a resolution. Try C  F  Dm  Gsus  G  C.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. I know it’s conventional wisdom that a suspension requires a resolution, but does it really? I hear a lot of music nowadays that uses suspended chords as just a basic chord color. It’s analogous, I think, to the idea that the only place a dominant 7th is appropriate is on the V chord, or as a secondary dominant, immediately before it resolves to some kind of tonic. Thinking purely diatonically, that’s true–but I7 and IV7 chords make sense in a blues context and give even a non-blues song that characteristically bluesy sound. Similarly, using unresolved sus chords gives a song a characteristically [something] sound. I’m not sure what the [something] is–emo maybe. What do you think?

    • Hi Rod:

      You are right that suspensions, as well as almost every other chord construct, can be used as a basic colour quite separate from its usual need to resolve. I actually wrote about this a while back, talking about chord “planing”, in which one would take an assemblage of tones, some which might actually form recognizable structures such as suspensions, and move the tones around. When we do that, the chord loses its need to resolve.

      And your examples of the adding of a minor 7th to I and IV chords, particularly in blues, are great ones. We hear those chords, and we don’t hear a need to have the 7th resolve.

      In this article, however, I was only mentioning that suspensions and 7ths would need to resolve, because I was referring specifically to the substituting of chords within the given sample.

      Thanks very much for your comments… I appreciate it!

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