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It may surprise some to know that no one goes around singing chord progressions to themselves. In the list of things that go together to make a song, a chord progression is one aspect that simply needs to work. It doesn’t need to move the earth, heal diseases or make flowers grow. It simply needs to work. In the songwriting world you frequently hear the term “killer chord progression,” but the best progressions do their work almost entirely from the background.
And yet you will still find songwriters who think that there is an elusive progression lurking around the corner. That if only they could identify it, they’d be writing the next number 1 hit with it.
Chord progressions don’t work that way, for several reasons:
- A good chord progression is a like a good parcel of land upon which we build a house. The best land should be pleasing to the eye, and appropriate to build a house (i.e., create a song) on it. So while Mount Everest is undeniably a killer piece of real estate, it’s hard to build anything on it.
- A good chord progression has the ability to easily support the melody. As I say, we don’t go around singing chord progressions to ourselves. But we do sing melodies. The search for a killer melody should be our pursuit, more so than a killer chord progression.
- A good chord progression represents a musical journey. Most progressions, particularly ones we find in song choruses, describe a musical voyage away from and toward the tonic chord. The faster the tempo, generally speaking, the less adventurous that journey should be. Save more complex progressions for slower tempos. This has been a guiding principle of musical composition for at least 300 years, and still applies today.
- A good chord progression partners with other song elements, and stays out of the way. The world’s best songs, the ones that sit atop most “Best of…” charts, usually use plain, almost mundane, progressions, with melody, lyrics, and performance taking a much more important role. (“Hey Jude”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Imagine”… If you’re looking for killer chord progressions, you’re going to be disappointed. Those progressions are so good because they managed to stay out of the way.
Far be it from me to say that a good progression is not important, and that’s certainly not what I mean by the futile search for a killer chord progression. I know that some songwriters get stuck at the chord progression stage of writing, and it’s why I’ve written two collections of them.
But don’t assume that progressions are anything more than a nice piece of contoured land: It’s got to be beautiful, but it’s got to be possible to build something on it.
If you want your songs to be memorable, it’s the melody and lyric that you need to be concentrating on. Get those working with your chord progression, and you got the makings of a song that will really grab attention.
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