Why Some Chord Progressions Sound Aimless

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GuitaristWriters of music have known, quite literally for centuries, that some chord progressions will unambiguously point to one note as being the tonic note. Such progressions are the kind that we refer to as strong. Strong progressions leave little doubt regarding key. They are also the ones that sometimes get labelled as boring or mundane, because they tend to be rather predictable. But despite their predictable nature (and indeed, perhaps because of it), most songs will need strong progressions, particularly in the chorus. A bit of ambiguity, however, can be a good thing, especially in verses. But if your song uses no strong progressions, and you opt always for so-called fragile ones, it can sound aimless and a bit confusing. Here’s more about strong and fragile progressions.

Every chord has at least three pitches: a root, represented by the letter name of the chord, a 3rd and a 5th. Chords will often have more than these three tones; for example, C7 has a root, a 3rd and a 5th, with the addition of a minor 7th above the root.

The strength of a chord progression is often determined by root movement. When roots move by 4ths or 5ths, chord progressions are often thought of as strong. That’s why the so-called circle-of-fifths progression, where each chord moves on to the next one by a succession of 4ths or 5ths, is perhaps the strongest progression we have:

C  F  Bdim  Em  Am  Dm  G  C

I like using the word “fragile” to describe progressions that are the opposite of strong, ones that largely avoid root movements of 4ths and 5ths. Such progressions will often feel, tonally speaking, a bit vague. A fragile progression could be seen to be pointing in different directions, not clearly indicating one note as being the tonic.

For example, check out this progression:

Dm  Eb  Dm  Eb  F  C  Eb  Dsus  D

The root movement of a semitone at the beginning (from D to Eb) doesn’t strongly indicate any one key. It could be the iii-chord and IV-chord of Bb major, but a iii to IV progression is rare in tonal music. The progression strengthens when it moves from F to C (though we’re still not clear what key is being indicated… perhaps C major, perhaps F). Finishing with Dsus to D more clearly points to G major.

The ambiguity of the progression is its beauty. But it’s also its “Achilles’ heel”. This kind of progression would work well in a verse, because verses are typically used to describe events, people, and scenarios. As a storyline develops throughout a verse, fragile progressions can be powerful tools for accurately describing the emotions of moment-to-moment events.

But too many fragile progression can make a song’s harmonic structure seem aimless. As you move into a chorus, chord progressions can be more useful if they switch from fragile to strong. Since chorus lyrics tend to be more conclusive and declamatory, and less narrative in nature, a strong progression is often more suitable.

If, as you compose your song, you find that your chord progressions feel a bit scattered, aimless, or otherwise meandering, you can easily strengthen the structure of your chord changes by using mainly strong progressions.

I’ve done a short video to describe this concept which you can view here.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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