When chords work, you usually don’t even notice them. But when they’ve got problems, they can kill a song.
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There are times when I really notice a song’s chord progression, and how beautifully it works. But most of the time, when chord progressions really work well they tend to stay out of the way. And that’s the way it should be. But when chords have problems, they zoom to the forefront, grabbing our attention rather unpleasantly. There are no specific rules that tell us what chords must do, but there are common mistakes that songwriters make that can and will damage your song. Here’s a list of the 7 most common errors, and how to fix them.
- Progression wanders aimlessly. All progressions, even complex ones, need a harmonic goal. A progression that wanders aimlessly is one where it’s not clear where it’s going, or what the tonic chord is. There needs to be a sense that the progression is heading in some direction. Longer, complex progressions solve this by providing several “mini goals” as the progression advances. FIX THIS PROBLEM: Look for ways to shorten up the progression, and/or provide harmonic goals throughout the progression. (See problem #3 below, which will also help fix this problem).
- Strong and fragile progressions are used haphazardly. A strong progression clearly and simply points to one chord as being the tonic chord. A fragile progression can be a bit ambiguous. Both kinds of progressions are useful in a song, but in pop songs the strong progressions should be more common. Using strong and fragile progressions randomly will usually kill song energy. FIX THIS PROBLEM: If you use fragile progressions, they belong in the verse and/or the bridge (middle-8). Choruses should use mainly strong progressions.
- Not enough root movement by 4ths or 5ths. The root of a chord is its letter name. For example, the root of each of the following – Cmaj7, C7, C/E, and Cadd9 – is C. Progressions work well when a significant number of chord roots move by 4ths and/or 5ths. If the roots of the chords you use are always moving by step or by 3rds, and never 4ths or 5ths, the progression can sound unsettled. FIX THIS PROBLEM: Look for ways to strengthen this kind of weak progression by fitting in a chord that has a root a 4th or 5th away. For example, here’s a problem progression: C Dm Em F Em Dm Em F G… It can be improved by replacing one or two of the chords, so that a root is a 4th away from the chord that follows it: C Dm C/E F C Dm Em C G
- Root movement includes augmented 4ths. An augmented 4th is tricky to use. In musical terms, moving from C to F# (the distance of an augmented 4th) is a “long journey”, and it sounds awkward. FIX THIS PROBLEM: If you do like the sound of that augmented 4th, you can help the audience accept it a little better by using inversions (slash chords), so that the bass doesn’t jump by an augmented 4th. So the progression C F# Gsus4 G can be improved by inverting a couple of the chords, like this for example: C F#/C# Gsus4/D G (The letter name after the slash is the bass note.)
- Non-chord-tones don’t resolve properly. A non-chord-tone is a note that’s added to a chord, a note that doesn’t normally belong there. For example, the chord Gsus4 is a basic triad built on the note G, but where the sus4 is a note that takes the place of the 3rd. So instead of G-B-D, you get G-C-D. That C in the chord needs to move downward, so a Gsus4 should always be followed by a G chord. Problems arise when these kinds of non-chord tones are not properly resolved. FIX THIS PROBLEM: Here’s a problem progression: C F Gsus Am. It can be fixed by allowing the Gsus to resolve first to a G chord, and then proceed to the Am: C F Gsus4 G Am.
- Not enough chord progression contrast. We know that for every key, there are 7 chords that are native to that key. We find those 7 chords by simply taking a scale and building a chord on each note. If your key choice is major, some of those resulting chords will be major, some minor, and one is diminished. Songwriters often miss out on opportunities to provide harmonic contrast by always mixing major and minor chords in every progression they create. FIX THIS PROBLEM: Try creating sections of your songs that dwell mainly on minor chords, and then other sections that dwell mainly on major. For example, you might choose to create verse progressions out of mainly minor chords (Am Em Dm) and a chorus progression of mainly major ones: (C F G).
- Harmonic rhythm is too random. The harmonic rhythm of a song means how frequently chords change. In general, there should be a recognizable pattern to this frequency: chords changing every 2 beats, or every 4, or 8, etc. You don’t have to stick unfailingly to this pattern, but it’s an important part of a song’s groove to have chords change in a more-or-less predictable pattern. Being too random with this kills song energy. FIX THIS PROBLEM: Once you feel that you’ve got a basic chord change pattern that works (every 4 beats, for example), let that be the pattern that’s most common for the song, and change it only occasionally throughout a song. And here’s an important note: Verses will generally change chords more frequently than choruses. So it is possible to have a verse with a harmonic rhythm of half notes (2 beats per chord) and then a chorus with a harmonic rhythm of whole notes (4 beats per chord).
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