Here are some interesting alternatives to turn a basic I-IV-V-I progression into something that sounds a bit fresher.
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In the balance between innovation and predictability, your songs should only offer a taste of innovation if you want to build an audience base. There are genres (prog rock comes to mind) that can tolerate, perhaps even require, more of a creative approach. But most of the time, if you want your songs to grab the attention of the greatest number of listeners, you’ll want to keep overly-inventive ideas to a minimum, particularly with regard to chord progressions. Having said that, you may be looking for something more interesting than a basic I-IV-V-I. Why not consider some of the following interesting chord modifications.
- Using a minor V-chord to get to a IV chord. If your progression involves V moving to IV – for example: I V IV I (C G F C), try using a minor V (Gm). It’s a really warm alternative to the basic V-chord. Check, of course, that your melody note will still fit the chord. In the key of C major, if your melody note is B, then Gm won’t work. But anything else should do just fine. Example: C Gm F C
- Using a minor IV-chord instead of the standard major IV. Switching a major chord for a minor one is called a modal mixture, or borrowed chord, and it can add a nice melancholy feel. It works best if the IV-chord moves to a I. And it’s also nice to first play the expected major IV-chord, then insert the minor version. Example: C F Fm C.
- Replace the V7-chord with bVII. As with all substitutions, make sure that your melody note will still work. In the key of C major, the flat-7 chord is Bb-D-F. So two of the notes of a V7 (the D and F) exist in bVII. This chord substitute can offer a bit of an edge to your progression. Example: C F Bb C.
- Replace the V-chord with a iii-chord. Just as in example 3 above, two of the notes of a V-chord are present in the iii-chord. This substitution is actually not seen as much, but its main appeal is that the iii-chord is minor, so it offers a slightly darker alternative than a standard I-IV-V-I progression. It works really well if the final I-chord is substituted with a vi-chord – the so-called “deceptive cadence.” Example: C F Em Am
- Replace the IV-chord with a diminished-ii7 chord. This is another type of modal mixture. As long as your melody note exists in a diminished-ii7 (D-F-Ab-B), it works really nicely when followed by a V, or moving back to I. The Max Webster tune, “Let Go The Line” features a progression that moves back and forth from I to a diminished ii7, all held together with a pedal bass that sits on the tonic note. Example: C Ddim G C; or C G Ddim C
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