One way to be creative with chords is to simply start on a chord other than the tonic.
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A tonic chord is the one that represents the key that your song is in. So if your song is in the key of G major, the tonic chord is G, and all the chords you choose will usually move away from and back to that chord. So it will seem to make sense to create various chord progressions for your song that start with the tonic chord. But you can create a pleasant sense of tension and energy by starting on non-tonic chords – a chord that isn’t the key chord.
A good recent example of this is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” The song starts with what’s termed an implied chord. That’s a chord that’s missing notes, but enough of it is there that we can tell what chord is being suggested. The plucked string motif at the beginning uses the notes D and G, so we get the strong sense of G major. And since it’s the only chord we’ve had to this point, we think of it as the tonic chord.
But at the entry of the voice, the chord switches to C, the IV-chord, also known as the subdominant chord. This creates a nice moment of musical tension, because we automatically expect to hear that G major chord return. That’s the power of a tonic chord.
So in a way, starting the main verse progression on the IV-chord entices people to keep listening. In music, tonic chords represent a feeling of arrival, a sense that that’s where everything is headed. In between tonic chords, listeners are conditioned to wait for that tonic.
In “Call Me Maybe”, we quickly realize that the Cmaj7 that starts the verse is not the tonic, because we’ve heard that implied G tonic chord before it (the plucked strings). But it’s also possible to start a progression without having given the real tonic at all. When you do that, listeners will think that the first chord is a tonic until they start to hear all the other chords, and they slowly come to the realization that the verse started elsewhere.
I’ve mentioned in several blog postings that it works well to have a verse that uses mainly minor chords, then switching to progressions in major for the chorus. In a way, that’s another example of what I’m talking about in this post: making your audience wait for the tonic.
If you’re interested in trying some verse progressions that start on chords other than the tonic, try these (all in C major). Experiment with different tempos and time signatures. Chords with dashes after them are ones you might want to consider holding longer than the others. Chords in parentheses are ones that sound like the start of the chorus:
- Bb F C—- Bb F C—- Dm Em Am—- F G (C)
- Dm Am Dm Am F G C
- F G F G Am Dm Em—- (C)
- Em Am Em Am G/B C F G (C)
- F G Am Bb F G Am— (repeat) Dm Em F—- Em F G—- (C)
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