Musical complexity happens better if you focus on melodic phrasing, time signatures and rhythms, and leave chord progressions more or less intact.
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You might be tempted to think that creating a good chord progression is a hit-or-miss activity, where you just keep randomly choosing different chords until something clicks. But most of the time, at least in popular music styles, a chord progression that works well does so because it promotes one chord as the tonic (or key) chord, and then provides other chords that establish and reinforce that position. So if, for example, your song is in the key of A major, you’ll want most of the chords you use to promote the A chord as the most significant chord.
How you do that is where creativity can happen. And a lot of how to choose chords depends on the genre you’re writing in. Also, chord choice changes over time, so the best songwriters are always listening, always determining what the current expectations are for today’s music. For example, in the 70s, it was common to load your song up with lots of major 7ths and major 9ths. Today, not so much.
If your chord progressions tend to sound a bit random, here’s a basic tip that can help: check the roots of the chords you use. There should be lots of root movement of 4ths and 5ths. In addition, give the following some thought:
- Most chord progressions will fall into one of two categories: fragile or strong. A fragile progression is one that tends to be tonally ambiguous, in the sense that it could be pointing toward one key or another, and it usually requires a strong progression to clear the ambiguity up. A strong progression is just as it sounds: it points clearly to one chord as being the tonic.
- Almost all the progressions you use need to be seen to be pointing to your chosen key. So even though fragile progressions are perhaps a little vague, a tonal direction should be at least likely.
- Chord progressions that are creative and complex will work best if they’re based on a strong foundation as a musical base. In other words, even if you choose a creatively complex progression, there should still be a sense of function, a sense of tonal direction that works.
I find that many songwriters who strive to add a layer of complexity to their music wrongly target chord progressions as a way to achieve that. In that sense, you would do well to listen to a group like Canadian rock band Rush, whose music incorporates considerable complexity of musical phrasing, time signature changes and backing rhythms.
The three musicians in Rush are virtuoso performers, and they can make the music they play sound almost impossibly complex. But at its core, their music is created on a very firm tonal base. As an example, listen to “The Spirit of Radio“, from their 1980 album “Permanent Waves.” The accuracy of their playing will (i.e., should) inspire you, and their extraordinary playing ability makes it sound like there is more going on than there really is.
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