When chord progressions work well, they basically stay out of the way of everything else.
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Boring an audience with music is probably the worst thing that can happen to a singer-songwriter. It’s worse than outright hatred. At least with hatred you’ve been able to stir up some emotions. And experience shows that when a song is hated, there’s usually another group of listeners that love it. Boredom is a much worse reaction, and part of the reason is that bored listeners can’t often say why they’re bored. Without meaningful feedback, it’s hard to improve.
There are several reasons that songs can come across as boring, including:
- a lack of dynamic (no noticeable louds and softs)
- a lack of melodic shape (melodies wandering around to the same 3 or 4 notes throughout)
- a confusing form (listeners get lost)
- lyrics that don’t stimulate the imagination (the listener isn’t interested in what you’re singing about)
And there’s another important cause of boring music: chord progressions that are too long, and don’t appear to have a harmonic goal.
Chord progressions are a funny part of the songwriting equation, because when done properly, a chord progression should hardly be noticeable by the average listener. A good chord progression should stay out of the way, allowing melodies and lyrics to move forward. But without that good progression, melodies and lyrics can flounder.
When chord progressions are problematic, there are two main reasons:
- It’s too long, with too many different chords. Generally, the faster a song, the less chords you need. In fact, fast-tempo songs tend to gain a panicky, unpleasant feel if the chord set is long and involved. It’s a bit like being on an out-of-control roller-coaster.
- A sense of harmonic goal is missing. By harmonic goal we mean a sense that the progression is moving forward to a somewhat predictable conclusion.
It’s usually best to demonstrate the second problem above with an example. A chord progression with a weak sense of harmonic goal:
Dm Em C Bb G Em…
A harmonic goal could be created by modifying that progression in two ways:
- Ensure that one chord is treated as a tonic chord. In other words, create a progression that allows one chord to be the harmonic goal.
- Rework the progression to include more 4ths and 5ths. The weak progression above uses root movements of 2nds and 3rds (e.g., Dm to Em, and Em to C, etc.). Root movements of 4ths and 5ths strengthen a progression, particularly if the final chord is a tonic chord, and it is approached by a chord that’s a 4th or 5th away from it.
So here’s a good example of a progression that exhibits a strong sense of harmonic direction, with a harmonic goal:
Dm Em Am F Dm G C
As you can see, it uses many of the same chords as the weaker progression, but now uses a few adjacent chords that move by 4ths and 5ths (Em to Am, Dm to G and G to C).
I often write about “fragile” progressions, which I describe as progressions that don’t clearly point to a tonic chord, and are, you might say, “pleasantly ambiguous.” But even fragile progressions need to offer a sense of key, a sense of some kind of harmonic goal eventually.
Once you’ve established a strong sense of direction, it becomes easier to occasionally insert an altered chord (i.e., a chord that doesn’t belong in your chosen key).
So if you want to make sure that the progression you’re using is a good one, allowing a melody to really shine, be sure that a sense of harmonic goal is obvious, and don’t clutter it up with too many chords.
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