Getting Creative with Chord Progressions: Adding Altered Chords

It’s practically impossible to create progressions that haven’t been used before. But altered chords will help.


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GuitaristAn altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally exist in the key of your song. The chords that naturally exist are the ones that you build on top of the major or minor scale representing your song’s key. So if your song is in C major, the naturally existing chords are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim. Anything else that you might use can be broadly defined as “altered.” That means that you’ve got a whole slew of chords that can go a long way to making your song’s harmonic base sound somewhat unique.

Having said that, you’ll want to be careful when using altered chords. Every time you introduce a “foreign” chord to your song, you make it less clear where the tonic (key) chord is. That’s a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that you make the harmonic journey more interesting. The bad news can be that if you use too many, you wind up too far away from the key you started out with. And because most songs will eventually need to make their way back to the original key, it can sound a bit awkward.

But altered chords are a great way to be creative. I’ve put several examples below, with a brief description of how the altered chord works:

  1. Secondary dominant chords. A secondary dominant is a chord that “pretends” to be a dominant chord of a non-tonic chord. Sometimes an example is better than a definition, so check this out: If we take C  Am  Dm7  G7  C, and change it to  C  Am D7  G7  C, the D7 is a secondary dominant of G. Generally, whenever you change a minor chord to a major chord, and then follow it with a chord 4 notes higher (like D7 to G), you’ve created a secondary dominant.
  2. Modal mixture chords. Here’s a quick description. The 7 chords occurring naturally in C major are listed in the 1st paragraph of this article. The 7 chords that occur naturally in C minor are: Cm, Ddim, Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, and Bb. A modal mixture means that even though you may have decided to write your song in C major, you occasionally “borrow” a chord from the opposite mode. So a good example might be: C  F  Fm  C. Other examples: C  F  G  Ab  Bb  C, and C  F  Ddim  G  C.
  3. Flat-III. A chord based on the flattened 3rd degree of a scale (in a major key) is a great way to get from I to IV. It’s a grittier alternative to using C/E. The most typical way it’s used is: C  Eb  F  C.
  4. Flat-VI. A flat-VI chord can be used in at least two different ways. One way is a following chord to the flat-III (for example, C  Eb  Ab  G  C). It also acts as a deceptive cadence, meaning that instead of ending a progression on the tonic chord, you go to the flat-VI as a way of extending the progression: C  F  G  Ab  G  C.
  5. Flat-VII. A flat-VII can act as a substitution for a V-chord (for example, C  F  Dm  G  Am  Bb  C), and can also behave as a kind of “secondary subdominant” chord, moving easily to the IV-chord: C  Bb  F  G  C.
  6. Augmented sixth chords. This can require a lengthy discussion (most university theory courses devote almost entire terms of study on this category of chords), but to form them is quite simple: Go to the 6th note of the key you’ve chosen, lower it by a semitone, then create a major chord with a dominant 7th. That’s the structure of an augmented sixth chord. So in the key of C major, it’s this: C  G/B  Am  Ab7  G  C.
  7. Neapolitan 6th. You don’t tend to see this one very often in pop music, but it’s still a great chord to use. It’s created by going to the second degree of the scale, lowering it, creating a major chord on that note, and then putting the 3rd of the chord in the bass. It takes the place of a IV chord in progressions. So it turns this: C  F  G  C into this: C  Db/F  G  C. Neat sound.
I’m fond of reminding people that there’s really no such thing as a killer chord progression, because what makes a song a killer is how everything works together. But altered chords give you a good chance to create something imaginative. One other purpose for altered chords that I haven’t really dealt with in this article is that they offer a way to change key, which is something I’ll deal with in a future article.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  3. Gary, I find this posts really interesting and every altered chord posts that you make occasionally. I have a small problem though. I don’t know the lingo. I’ve tried to study it and I just can’t grasp it. I just want to know how to make a d7, augmented 6th, or major 9 like I naturally know the chords I already do. Is there any fundamentals to know for knowing alterations. A lot of the songs I like have an altered chord in them and it really hooks my ear and I just want to know when and how to do it, without the pains of music theory. “God only knows” by the beach boys is one in particular. Is there an altered chords for dummies explanation to this? or can you point me in the direction of helpful material for the very beginner on the subject? When I do, I get people telling me learn every note on every string of every fret of the guitar. It’s overwhelming.

    • Hi Max:

      To fully grasp altered chords (or any chord, for that matter) probably does require “the pains of music theory”, since chord function is the most important aspect of harmony, and it’s hard to discuss that without a knowledge of theory. I’ve not done a comprehensive guide to chord function yet, but perhaps I could do something up and make it available to you. In the meantime, perhaps one of the readers of my blog can suggest an online resource that explains things clearly, and I’ll also look for one. I’ll get back to you if I find anything that can help.


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