How to Keep Chord Progressions From Sounding Random

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Blake Shelton - Honey BeeTypically, chord progressions will be constructed in such a way as to make one particular chord sound like a target. That target chord is the so-called tonic chord. If you’re writing a song in G major, the tonic chord is G. If your chord progression doesn’t focus in, at some point, on that G chord as the target, it can end up sounding random and unsatisfying. So how do you write progressions that sound focused?

There are two categories of chord progressions that should be of interest to the songwriter: strong progressions and fragile progressions.

A strong progression is the kind that does what you’re often looking for in a progression: they strongly point to one chord as being the harmonic focal point. When you hear a strong progression, you’ll find that there’s a sense that the progression is targeting one chord as the tonic chord.

There are many examples of strong progressions. The following progression is the one used in “Heart and Soul“. In the video I’ve linked to, you can hear that even when the music changes key, the new tonic chord is obvious and unambiguous:

F  Dm  Gm  C7  F…

You’ll notice that one of the important features of a strong chord progression is that the chord roots often move by 4ths or 5ths.

For example, the roots of the chords Dm and Gm are a 4th apart. This same relationship exists between Gm and C7, and between C7 and F.

Strong progression also feature a lot of common tones between adjacent chords.

So the benefit of a progression whose chord roots move in this way is that it makes the tonic chord (F, in this case) feel very obvious, and that strengthens a progression.

But sometimes a benefit can also be a problem: you may find that strong progressions make music sound rather predictable. That’s why songwriters tend to use a mixture of strong progressions and fragile ones. And they tend to use fragile progressions in verses, switching to strong ones in choruses.

That’s not a rule, of course. There are many songs that use mainly strong progressions in both the verse and the chorus. “Honey Bee” by Blake Shelton is a good example, which uses a verse progression of E  E/B  A, and a chorus progression of E  C#m  A  B11…

The intro and verse of “Rope” by Foo Fighters is a good example of a fragile progression, moving between Bm and Dm. As you listen to it, it’s not easy to pick out a tonic chord. This is quite deliberate, of course, and it’s the beauty of fragile progressions. Fragile progressions can make your song sound like it’s on a more intricate musical journey.

If you find that your progressions sound too random, it usually means that you’ve used lots of fragile progressions, and not enough strong ones. The standard advice here is to switch to stronger progressions for a chorus, and the randomness goes away.

Here are a few examples of fragile progressions, followed by strong ones that create a pleasant sense of harmonic focus:

  1. Dm  Em  Dm  Cmaj7  Eb  F  Gm  A  || D  G  D  Em  G  D/F#  G  A
  2. Bb  C  D  Eb  Bb  C  D  Eb  ||  Bb  F  Gm  Eb  Bb  F  Gm  F
  3. A7  Bm  G  C#m7 (rpt)|| D  G  D/F#  G  A  Bm  G  A7


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