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The best thing a chord progression can do is to simply stay out of the way, and support the melody and mood of a song. As you likely know, I am not much of a believer in the “killer chord progression.” The best chord changes are the ones that don’t draw enormous attention to themselves. However, there’s something to be said for a progression that draws a bit of attention from time to time. If you’ve got a standard verse-chorus-bridge design, you’ll often find that the bridge is a place you can use a more complex set of chords.
Here’s a list of five progressions to try. They’ve all got something a bit quirky about them, but they nonetheless sit solidly in the key (in this case, C major). I’ve put a short theoretical description of how each progression works, but understanding the theory is not vital; go ahead and try them.
- C C/E F G Ab Bb C. This one uses an ascending bass line that passes through two altered chords before finally arriving back where it started.
- C F Dm G Ab Db Gb B C. This progression starts firmly in C major, then slides chromatically into Ab major, doing a typical “circle of fifths” before sliding chromatically back to C major. This progression will startle the listener because the three chords, Ab, Db and Gb are quite distant from the starting key. But if you’re looking for something that ventures harmonically a bit, this one will work.
- C Am Ab7 G D/F# C/G G C. This progression makes use of two different types of altered chords. The first one, Ab7, is what traditional theorists call an “Augmented 6th” chord. It’s normal to see Ab7 resolve to Db, but in this case, the Ab from the chord moves down a semitone to G, and the note Gb (the 7th) in that chord moves up chromatically to G. The second altered chord in this progression, D/F#, is a secondary dominant chord. We’d normally see Dm in the key of C. The D/F# briefly “pretends” to be a dominant chord of G major.
- C Am Bb/D E Am G C. In this progression, the strange chord is the Bb/D. In a sense, the progression actually changes key to Am before quickly returning to C major. The Bb/D is called a “Neapolitan 6”. If you imagine that the progression is in A minor, a Neapolitan 6 is a major chord built on the flat-2nd degree of the scale (Bb), with the 3rd (C) in the bass.
- C Am F Fm C/E Ddim G C. This one makes use of 2 “modal mixture” chords. A modal mixture is a chord that normally comes from the opposite mode. For example, in the key of C major, you’d normally expect to see an F chord. This progression uses Fm, which comes from the key of C minor. Same thing for the Ddim chord. We’d normally see Dm in the key of C major. These modal mixtures, also called “borrowed chords”, make a really nice subtle change to the mood of a progression as long as they aren’t used too often.
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