A Guideline for Creating and Using Fragile Progressions

Fragile progressions have a charm that really works well in song verses. Here’s how to create them.


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In simple terms, chord progressions are either strong or fragile. A strong progression clearly and unambiguously points to one chord as being the tonic, while a fragile one tends to make the tonic a little less obvious. Fragile progressions do this in a number of ways which we’ll look at in this post. Some would argue that fragile progressions have the greater potential for creating interesting musical moments, as they are a little less predictable. But how exactly do you create a fragile progression?

In most pop music genres, chord progressions are designed to point to the tonic chord as being harmonically the most important of all chords. So what we’re talking about is how strongly that chord gets indicated. A strong progression makes it immediately clear and obvious, while a fragile one softens that effect.

It’s not unusual for songs to use all strong progressions. But for those that stray into the world of the more ambiguous fragile chords, you’ll see them used more often in the verse than in the chorus. So the normal way of using progressions is to allow the first part of the song (i.e., the verse) explore fragile progressions, while the chorus resorts to stronger, less ambiguous progressions.

It’s important to remember that what we’re talking about here is a matter of degrees. It’s possible to have a one progression be mainly strong, but with a “hint” of fragility. So bearing that in mind, here are some ways to create fragile chord progressions that will work well in a song’s verse.

  1. Use chord inversions. To invert a chord means to place a note other than the chord’s letter name in the bass. Some musicians know these as slash chords. So while this progression is strong: C F G C, you can introduce a hint of fragility by inverting some of those chords: C  F/A  G  C/E (the note after the slash is the note that should be in the bass).
  2. Use pedal tones (pedal point) in the bass. A pedal point in the bass means to leave the same note in the bass no matter what the chord is. This static bass line is more common in verses than in choruses. Example: C  F/C  G/C  C.
  3. Avoid the tonic chord. Try creating a chord progression for your verse that sits strongly in a key, but avoids the tonic chord. It works nicely to then switch to using lots of tonic chord in the chorus. Example for a progression in C major: Dm  G  Dm  G  Am  Em  F  G (repeat).
  4. Avoid root movement of 4ths or 5ths. When we hear chord roots moving by 4ths and 5ths (C to F, or Dm to Am, for example), it tends to strengthen a progression. So to create more fragile progressions, try lots of roots moving by 2nds or 3rds:  C  Em  Dm  Em  F  Am  G  Em
  5. Include altered chords. An altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally exist in the key you’ve chosen. So introducing them has the effect of making a key’s tonic chord a little bit ambiguous, even if temporarily. Example: C  F  Eb  Bb  F  Dm  C.

Keep in mind that a verse doesn’t need to use a fragile progression. Many songs work nicely with both the verse and the chorus using strong progressions. And some songs use identical progressions for both verse and chorus.

But fragile verse progressions have a way of making listeners want to hear something stronger. So they’re more likely to “stick around” and wait for the stronger chorus if they sense any kind of tonal ambiguity in a verse.

A good example of this is Foo Fighter’s “Rope“, which has a rather fragile verse progression (Bm  Dm  A…), with a stronger chorus (G  Em  Bm). As you can see, it doesn’t take a lot to make the difference.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: Fragile chord progressions | Kim Lajoie's blog

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