Can Chord Progressions Be Too Predictable?

Predictability is a bad word to most songwriters, but more good comes from predictable chords than bad.


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GuitaristMost songwriters hate predictability. That’s understandable, because predictability means that something’s been done so much that the average listener can tell in advance what’s about to happen. And who wants to write music like that? For most components of songs, especially melody, lyrics, along with aspects of song structure and performance ideas, being unique is vital. Uniqueness says to an audience, “What you’re hearing right now is not something you’ll hear from anyone else.”

But it is possible to make a strong case for at least a good measure of predictability with regard to chord progressions. A chord progression that is comprised mainly of chords that move in a more-or-less anticipated way offers a feeling of confidence to the listener that’s quite welcome.

A good analogy would be thinking of a song as being a walk down an unknown street in a city you don’t know very well. It can be exciting to view the sites along the way. But it would make you feel uneasy and nervous if the sidewalk you were walking on suddenly twisted and turned in odd directions, or broke apart, or became too precarious to walk on. That’s what an unpredictable chord progression can do.

So does that mean that every progression you use needs to be predictable? No, there are ways to incorporate interesting chord moments in your music that captivate listeners, and great songwriters have been creating them for years. But even in some of the most interesting harmonic designs that enter the pop music sphere, there is a certain measure of predictability, or at least structural foundation that helps the listener make sense of what they’re hearing.

If you find the standard I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C) progressions a bit too predictable for your liking, here are some ideas for creating something a bit more creative without resorting to chord randomness:

  1. Invert one or more of your chords. A chord inversion simply means that a note other than the chord’s letter name is serving as the bass note. So C-F-G-C could perhaps become C/E  F/C  G  C/E (The notes after the slash indicate the bass note).
  2. Add non-chord-tones to standard chords. A non-chord-tone (NCT) is a note that doesn’t normally belong to a chord, but gets added simply to increase the “interest level” of the chord. You’ll need to be a little careful here, because some NCTs (like the sus4) need to resolve properly. But if you let your eases be your guide, you’ll probably use them properly. So C-F-G-C might become C(add9)  Fmaj7  Gsus4  G  C(add9).
  3. Use deceptive cadences. A cadence in music is the end of a musical phrase, and so hence the end of a chord progression. It’s interesting to find an alternate chord to end on, one the audience wasn’t expecting. So C-F-G-C might become C  F  G  Am, or maybe C  F  G  Dm7, etc.
  4. Add curious moments between predictable chords. This is a great idea that can preserve the strength and integrity of a predictable chord progression, while at the same time adding something unique. The idea is to create a predictable, strong progression, then slip in a chord or two that are less predictable, or that might even raise some eyebrows. So C-F-G-C could become C  Eb  F  Ab7  G  Bb  C.
  5. Use a pedal point in your chord progressions. A pedal point is a sustained note that gets held throughout a chord progression, even if it doesn’t belong to some of the chords. You typically see this in the bass, where, let’s say, a tonic note gets held while a progression moves. It can add a surprising dose of freshness to music. So C-F-G-C sounds suddenly new and interesting with a tonic bass pedal: C  F/C  G/C  C. Or try a dominant pedal: C/G  F/G  G  C/G.


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