Turning Basic Chords Into Something That Grabs Attention

Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle, and kick-start your songwriting career right now!

Piano Keyboard - Chord SubstitutionsChord progressions are usually the most predictable element we use in the creation of songs. It’s not easy to know what the next line of lyric will be, or even what direction the melody will take from one note to the next. But chord progressions… there’s a predictability there, what you might call a necessary evil, that’s part of what makes them work well. As listeners, we like being surprised by lyrics, instrumentation, even song form. But with chords, if they are too surprising, they make songs sound muddled and confusing.

As you might imagine, however, the notion of predictability is not something that songwriters care for. Who wants to be predictable? And is it all that important for chord progressions to move in predictable ways?

The short answer to that last question is “Yes”. At least in the world of pop, rock, country, and other common “genres of the people”, it is important for chord progressions to move in fairly predictable ways at least 75% of the time.

But there’s good news here. There are things you can do to a standard, basic chord progression that can turn it into something that grabs attention, and does it in ways that stay true to the style you write in. Here are 5 ideas:

  1. Use pedal tones. (For example, C  F/C  G/C  C). A pedal tone usually happens in the bass, and it means that regardless of the chords you’re using, you’ll keep one note in the bass. In the example I’ve given, the bass continues to play a C even though the chords change above it. Try different pedal tones; you’d be surprised how interesting this experiment can be. For example, try C F G C while holding a D in the bass.
  2. Use inversions. (For example, C  F/A  G/B  C). Inverting a chord means putting a note other than the root in the bass. Taking a standard progression and inverting some of the chords gives it that “same but different” sound that can breathe new life into something old.
  3. Substitute some modal mixture chords. (For example, C Fm G C) A modal mixture is simply a chord that exists in the “opposite mode.” In the example I’ve given, I’ve substituted the F chord with Fm. It keeps the progression basically the same, but the minor sound of Fm adds a new aura to the progression.
  4. Add rhythmic variety. You’d be surprised what changing chords at rhythmically odd times can do to liven up a basic progression. For example, if your song features a chord change every four beats, see what happens to the energy if you change the chord one beat early each time, or an eighth-note early. Syncopation like this can draw attention away from the fact that the progression is simply a standard one; the rhythmic interest makes up for the predictability of the chords.
  5. Use chord substitutions. (For example, C F G Am instead of C F G C) In this example, I’ve changed the last chord from the predicted C to another chord that uses two of the same notes as a C chord: Am. Substituting chords in this way keeps the progression basically the same, and ensures that the progression will still work. Be sure that the chord you’re using still works with the melody note.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
Follow Gary on Twitter for notification of website updates and daily songwriting tips

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle will show you how to write great songs, harmonize your melodies, and give you hundreds of chord progressions in the process.

PURCHASE and DOWNLOAD the e-books for  your laptop/desktop


NEW: Advanced Chord Progressions in HD, with sound samples, for your iPAD!

Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.