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A chord progression can make or break your song. Chords are the kind of thing that sit in the background when done properly, but can rear their ugly heads when they don’t work. And worse, identifying the reason a progression is bad can be elusive. All you know, sometimes, is that it’s just not working. If you’re the kind of songwriter that noodles around until something sounds right, you can get the feeling that finding a good chord progression is a random process. In fact, that’s far from the truth. There’s a reason why some chords work together well, and others don’t. To help, here are seven things you really need to know about chord progressions.
- Strong progressions make ample use of root movements of 4ths and 5ths. This means that when you compare the letter names of adjacent chords, you should see the interval of a 4th or a 5th. For example, C to F is strong, as is C to G. These are the kind of progressions that choruses often use. Here are some examples of these kinds of strong progressions: C F G C; C Am Dm G C; or C G Am Em F G C. As you can see, the roots don’t all need to be a 4th or 5th apart, but it should feature somewhat prominently.
- “Fragile” progressions offer lots of harmonic “surprises”. A harmonic surprise is simply a chord that goes in a direction that wasn’t necessarily predicted by what came before. For example, C C/E Cm/Eb Bb… A fragile progression often has the interesting characteristic of being tonally ambiguous. In other words, for a moment, it may not be clear what key the music’s in. These are the kind of progressions that work well in verses, as the verse recounts a story. Building a verse by moving back and forth between Cm and Dm is a great example. What key is being demonstrated? It’s not really clear. Note that fragile progressions need to be balanced with strong ones.
- Chord progressions need a harmonic goal. A progression is the succession of several chords, all moving to a logical harmonic conclusion. So to work out a chord progression, it can help to start with the goal and work backwards.
- Your melody notes don’t all need to exist in the chord you’ve chosen. Most of the time, notes that happen on strong beats (beats 1 and 3) should be found in your chord choice. But chords on the weak beats (2 and 4) don’t necessarily need to be in your chord. And certainly any notes that happen between the beats (i.e., the 2nd 8th-note of a beat) will usually be a type of non-chord-tone called a “passing tone”, and won’t need to be in the chord.
- In most pop music genres, simplicity will give you what you need. I’m a fan of complexity in music, but complex progressions need careful construction to avoid sounding muddled. It often surprises people to learn that it’s possible to create complex music by using rather predictable progressions. Most of the time, simplicity wins out over complexity.
- Progressions work well if you balance your use of major and minor chords. Try doing a verse that focuses on the minor chord choices from a major key, and then switch to major chords for the chorus. Example: VERSE: Am G Dm Am… CHORUS: C F Dm G C…
- Chord inversions (i.e., slash chords) need a reason for being there. The main reason to use chord inversions in pop music genres is to smooth out a jumpy base line. Throwing inversions in without having a particular reason can make your chord choices sound random and muddled.
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