Chord Progressions: Changing the Starting Point

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There are lots of ways to breathe new life into an old chord progression. We know, for example, that inverting a chord (i.e., putting a chord tone other than the letter name of the chord in the bass) can give an otherwise mundane progression an entirely new feel. I’ve talked before about “implied chords”, when only one or two notes from a complete chord are given, thinning the texture. Another idea for taking a basic chord progression and giving it a bit of a makeover is quite a simple but effective one: simply change the starting point.

If your song is in A major, and you’re writing in a fairly user-friendly genre such as pop, folk or country, the bulk of your chord choices will come from one of the chords that naturally exist in that key. In A major, those chords are: A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m, and G#dim.

Of those chords, the I-chord (A), IV (D) and V (E) are used the most, followed by the vi (F#m) and ii (Bm) with the iii-chord and vii-chord used the least.

Because many song melodies begin on either the tonic note or a note from the tonic chord, the tendency is to create a chord progression that begins on the tonic chord.

By inventing progressions that always start on the I-chord, two problems can arise:

  1. You limit the number of progressions that make tonal sense; and
  2. You create progressions that have a similar sound, because they all have the same “major” starting sound.

The solution is a simple one: devise progressions that start somewhere other than the I-chord. The beauty of this, especially if you choose a minor chord to start, is that you can give the progression a different tonal feel while still staying within the original A major key.

Also, a non-tonic chord start gives you the option of “fooling” the listener into temporarily believing that your starting point is a tonic chord.

Here are a few examples, with descriptions of how and why they work:

  1. F#m  D  E  F#m  A  D  E  A. This progression starts on the vi-chord, and uses that vi-chord (F#m) as a tonic chord replacement. The vi-chord start gives the progression a melancholy feel that brightens once the tonic (A) occurs.
  2. D  G/D  E  F#m  D  Bm  Esus  E. By starting on the IV-chord (D) and moving to flat-VII (G), you give the impression that the key is D major. But especially once we hear the E-F#m-D combination, our minds are pulled unambiguously into the key of A major, and it’s a really nice effect.
  3. Bm  D  E  A  Bm  D  Esus  E. This progression starts off with a dorian mode feel, because the listener hears Bm as a “tonic”, of sorts, and the E chord sounds like a major IV chord, a hallmark of dorian mode songs. Again, it’s the D moving to Esus-E that gives it away as being A major.
  4. G#dim  A  Bm  C#  F#m  D  E  A. Starting on a diminished chord is rare enough that if you can get it to work, you’ve got a progression that’s rather unique. This progression uses a secondary dominant C# chord to pull the listener toward the key of F#m before quickly moving back to A major.
  5. E  D  F#m  Bm  E  D  F#m  E. This is simply a standard A major progression that starts on the dominant chord. There’s considerable momentum created by starting on the dominant chord, especially in this case where the key is not being masked; it’s simply that the tonic chord is being avoided.

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