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Every songwriter has their favourite way of starting the songwriting process. For many, it involves sitting at a keyboard, or with a guitar, and working out a chord progression that then leads to melodic fragments that come together to form a fully-fledged melody. Sometimes, it starts with bits of melodic ideas that come together to form the final product. In either case, even with the melody-first writers, the underlying chord progression is a crucial part of the success of a song. Rather than seeking the elusive (and I believe non-existent) “killer chord progression”, it’s time well spent to experiment with chord substitutions to take your song to the next level.
Substituting one chord for another requires you to know a little bit about chord function. For every major or minor key, there are seven chords that naturally exist. Simply build a triad (a 3-note chord) on top of the notes of the major or minor scale to find each one.
Each chord has a particular function, or, quite literally, a particular use. Some of those functions are very strong. For example, a chord built on the fifth degree of the scale is called a dominant chord. That chord strongly wants to move to the chord built on the tonic (or key) note. That desire of the dominant chord to move to the tonic chord is called the dominant function of the chord.
Other chords will move easily to the dominant chord. Those chords are termed predominant chords.
Many songs feature chord progressions that are comprised of tonic, predominant and dominant functions. Here’s a typical example:
C F G7 C
That’s a very common progression. The first and final C are tonic chords, the F is a predominant chord, and the G7 is a dominant chord.
What we want to look at are ways to breathe life into it by using chord substitutions. In general, what we hope to do is to change chords, but keep the functions fairly intact.
To substitute a chord, you need to be mindful of the melody note that’s being harmonized at any particular moment. That’s because if you want to replace the final tonic chord with something different, the melody note might not be in the replacement chord, and so it won’t work well.
For each chord, there is a short list of other chords that will function in a similar way, and that short list will be the chords you can consider as potentially good substitutes.
Here are the chords that can serve as good substitutes (All examples in the key of C major):
TONIC CHORD SUBSTITUTES:
Am (vi); F (IV); (Ab) bVI; Dm7 (ii7)
PREDOMINANT CHORD SUBSTITUTES:
Dm (ii); Am (vi)
DOMINANT CHORD SUBSTITUTES:
Em (iii); Dm/G (V9); F/G (V11); Dm (ii); F (IV)
You’ll notice something odd right away: some chords show up in all lists. For example, you can use Dm as a tonic substitute, a predominant chord, and as a type of dominant chord. It really does depend on where you find it. Context is everything.
If you use the Am as a tonic substitute at the end of a progression, you’ll see that its tonic function is not particularly strong. You’ll need to circle around, continue the progression, before finally ending on a I chord.
Here’s an example of that. The progression C F G7 C can be nicely extended if you replace that final C with Am, then repeat it, finally ending on C:
C F G7 Am C F G7 C
And as I mentioned earlier, that Am substitution only works well if your melody note at the moment of substitution exists in the Am chord. If your melody is sitting on a G, that will work well with a C chord (because C uses C-E-G), but Am won’t work well, because there isn’t a G in an A minor chord.
Chord substitutions are a really great way to add freshness to a stale progression. They can easily turn your song into something exciting and fresh.
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