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If you’re the kind of songwriter that likes to experiment with innovation, you’re probably always looking for ways to integrate abstract elements into your songs. You are probably already playing with complex lyrical metaphors, nonstandard formal design, and melodic/harmonic combinations that stray outside what might be considered normal in your chosen genre. The trick is to use complexity in such a way that it still works, and doesn’t just come across as muddle: you can’t just throw garbage together and call it “complex.” Convoluted chord progressions will require special attention.
The problem with complex harmonies is that, by definition, the term “progression” implies predictability. Something that “progresses” usually moves to a subsequent stage that is predicted by what’s come before. And though songwriters usually dislike the word “predictable,” strength in chord progressions comes from that sense of predictability.
But it can be beneficial to try chords that don’t necessarily always move to the chord that the listener is expecting. You just have to be careful how you do it.
In the Romantic era of musical composition (c.1825-1910), composers created complex chords by having chord tones moved chromatically (i.e., by semitone) to the next chord. The fact that the chord tones moved to neighbouring tones to create new chords was the glue that made the progression work.
An example of this kind of “sliding around” to a new chord might be:
C7 B Gm Adim E/G#
The progression is certainly fragile, but it can be made to work by considering that each new chord uses at least one chord tone that’s a mere semitone away from the preceding chord.
So this kind of “chromatic resolution” of chord tones is one way to make a complex progression work. Here are some others you can try:
- Use pedal tones. A pedal tone is a note that remains constant throughout a chord progression, regardless of the chords used to create the chords. It’s most commonly found in the bass. A bass pedal tone will help glue a progression together and give the listener something to latch on to while the progression changes above it. Example: C F/C G/C D/C G/C Bb/C Gsus/C G/C C
- Use an inverted pedal. This is simply using a pedal tone as described above, but having the pedal tone be an upper note. As with the typical pedal tone progression, it doesn’t usually matter if the pedal tone exists in the chord. In the following example, play the progression, keeping the note ‘D’ as an upper tone that is constantly played. Example: Cadd9 F6 D G Asus Bb G Cadd9
- Use a chromatic line. This is similar to the Romantic composers’ technique of resolving chords to ones that are semitones away, except that you want to create a semitone line that moves constantly in one direction. The semitone line gives the listener a tonal anchor to help them make sense of the otherwise complex progression. Example: C Gb F6 Emaj7 Dadd9 Csus4 B G
- Use a melodic motif. This is a short, melodic shape that plays constantly throughout a complex progression. The idea is that the repeating shape will keep listeners focused on it, and less aware of the complexity of the accompanying progression. Example: try any of the progressions above, and create a short 2-, 3- or 4-note idea that “more or less” works with most of the progressions.
All of the ideas above require a fair bit of experimentation to make them work. But such is the world of abstract musical composition. Don’t be surprised that complex musical creations will take a lot longer to compose than more traditional music. When it works, the results can be fascinating.
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