5 Pleasantly Ambiguous Chord Progressions For a Song Verse

Chord progressions that are tonally ambiguous have that useful quality of making people wait around to hear the follow-up stronger progression.

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Studio band in rehearsalVerse 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.

  1. Dm  Gm  Dm  C  Dm  Eb  Bb  C  (CHORUS: F  Gm  Dm  C  F  Gm  Dm  C)
  2. C  Eb  F  G  Am  Gm7  F  G  (CHORUS: C  F  C  G  Am  F  C  G)
  3. A7  Dm  A7  Dm  G  C  G7  C [repeat] (PRE-CHORUS: Dm  G7) (CHORUS: C  F  G  Am  C  F  Am  G)
  4. Dm  Em  Dm  Em  G  Am  G  Am [repeat] (CHORUS: Am  Dm  F  G  Am  Dm  Em  Am)
  5. 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!

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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10 Comments

  1. A# would be a secondary dominant in this case but wouldn’t necessarily resolve to the D#min so it is technically modal interchange where you pull chords from the harmonic minor scale of D#minor. I like this movement and it can be found in Bob marleys song (high tide low tide)

  2. nice article but just want to add that an ambiguous chord progression – for me anyway – is not one that shares the same key signature. For example, Dm and F do actually share the same notes (if the minor is not harmonic or melodic).

    • In this context, “ambiguous” was meant to convey that it includes chords not found in the progression’s key – in other words, altered chords. Most of these progressions do reflect your definition of ambiguous, since (in the first example), you get an Eb chord in the key of Dm.

      -G

  3. sure, just shoot me an email. ill reply.
    thank you so much.
    Its in very very rough stage right now so it may hurt your ear but I think you’ll get the idea!

  4. Hey gary,
    nice posts. just a quick question, when you give us chord progressions, i understand that it has to ‘progress’ and eventually end up at the tonic, but can you mix the chords within that progression and will it be still ‘progressing’ right as long as it ends up in the tonic?

    • Hi Patrick:

      There are times that a chord progression can be mixed so that the chords are in a different order, but that’s certainly not to say that that can always work. For example, I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C) will work well even if you switch the IV- and V-chords. But some progressions are less successful, and in particular, longer progressions that use altered chords will only work well in one direction. For example, C F D7 G A7 Dm G C works well in one direction, but not so well backwards, or with the chord order randomly selected.

      Within many progressions, there are short “mini progressions” that need to resolve properly, and they tend to make the larger progression work well in the order it was created.

      -Gary

      • Thanks for the response, just a follow up if you don’t mind.
        Of course we’re talking pop production, i got a song based in F# major. I ended up with a chord progression of
        Verse – F#-B – F# – B – A# – B – G#
        Pre Chorus – F# – B 3x
        Chorus: F# – A# – B

        I don’t think its ‘resolved’ in the chorus. I think it should be F#-B-C# – to keep it I-IV-V ?
        I’m using mostly SUS chords by the way .. I don’t know if that matters…
        PS.
        I’m getting so much value with your free articles. I’ll get the paid ebooks. just saving up.
        Thank you.

        • Just a question.. are these all major chords that you’re using? If so, the A# chord would be a strange one to use in that context. If you want to email me an MP3, let me know and I’ll give you my email address. I might be able to help better if I hear what you’re doing with those chords.

          -Gary

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