Chord progressions that are tonally ambiguous have that useful quality of making people wait around to hear the follow-up stronger progression.
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle. Write smarter – Tap into your creative mind.
Verse chord progressions differ from chorus ones in one big way: while a chorus progression usually needs to be harmonically strong, pointing to one chord as that all-important tonic chord, a verse progression can get away with being more ambiguous and more creative. It doesn’t need to be ambiguous, and in fact a strong progression can work equally well in both a verse and a chorus. But if you’re looking for a few creative progressions that can work well for your songs’ verses, read on.
An ambiguous progression, one that I term fragile, is one where the tonic chord is not clearly identified. Here’s what I mean: if you play C F G7 C, there is no doubt that C is the tonic chord. The function of those various chords clearly point to C as being a harmonic goal. When you hear the C chord at the end of that progression, there’s no doubt in your mind that you’ve reached “home.”
Because pop song choruses are repetitive and hooky, strong progressions work well. But in a verse, you may want to be more imaginative, allowing for the song’s harmonic base to closely match the storyline as it unfolds. I call that more imaginative progression “fragile”, because it often requires the follow-up of a stronger chorus progression to help it make sense.
A fragile progression, therefore, simply needs to make the tonic chord less obvious. A fragile progression should sound as though there might be two or three different possibilities for a tonic chord. Here’s an example of such a progression: Dm F Gm C.
It’s hard to identify what key this progression belongs to, because it could in fact belong to at least 2 possible keys: D minor or F major.
D minor is a good possibility, since it starts on Dm. But the end of the progression (Gm to C) sounds like it could be setting up a move to F (i.e., ii-V-I)
This ambiguity isn’t a problem; tonal obscurity is usually a pleasant quality. And it can in fact cause listeners to want to keep listening. Even though most listeners don’t have the musical understanding to know that strong progressions will usually follow fragile ones, they instinctively want to keep listening, to hear how it all turns out. That’s a basic musical instinct that most people have, regardless of musical experience.
Many fragile progressions are like the one I wrote above: simply just a little tonally vague. But other fragile progressions can sound more complex and more creative as they incorporate other kinds of chords that don’t belong to your chosen key.
Here are 5 ambiguous chord progressions that you can try. They’re followed by a suggestion for a strong progression that could be used in a chorus, one that helps the ambiguous progression work well. Experiment with chord length; try holding each one for 2, 4, 8 or even 16 beats, and play around with different performance styles: ballad, uptempo rock, etc.
- Dm Gm Dm C Dm Eb Bb C (CHORUS: F Gm Dm C F Gm Dm C)
- C Eb F G Am Gm7 F G (CHORUS: C F C G Am F C G)
- A7 Dm A7 Dm G C G7 C [repeat] (PRE-CHORUS: Dm G7) (CHORUS: C F G Am C F Am G)
- Dm Em Dm Em G Am G Am [repeat] (CHORUS: Am Dm F G Am Dm Em Am)
- C Bbadd9 C F Am Bb F Dm G [repeat] (CHORUS: C Am F G Am Bb F G)
The chorus suggestions above are simply that– suggestions. All you really want to try to do with your song chorus is to allow the harmonic goal to become more obvious. Many of the suggestions above use a chorus that moves solidly into a major key, but you can easily change that, and move the song into minor. Experimentation is the key!
Follow Gary on Twitter