Strengthening an Aimless Chord Progression

When chord roots move by 4ths and 5ths, your progressions suddenly gain direction and purpose


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Elvis Presley - Jailhouse RockIf you’re a chords-first kind of songwriter, you probably know the frustration of trying to put chords together that make sense. At times, the whole process can feel a bit random, as if finding the right chord is something you stumble on by accident. But creating strong progressions isn’t random. The way chord progressions work today is the same way they’ve been working for literally centuries. If your chord progressions sound confused or aimless, here are some things you can do to strengthen them.

First of all, a bit of information that every songwriter needs. For any key you choose, there are seven chords that naturally exist in that key. These are referred to as diatonic chords. I’m going to use the key of C major as an example here, but this applies to any major key. If you take a C major scale and build a chord on each of the seven notes of that scale , you’d get the following chords:

C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim

So you have seven chords that feel at home together. But that doesn’t mean you use those seven chords with equal frequency. Remember, a chord progression is like a short walk you might take, where you start from home, wander away a little bit, and then return home. So the chords you’ll use the most will be C, F and G.

Like most short walks, you don’t often stray beyond your neighbourhood. To go beyond your neck of the woods requires transportation, and to go beyond your musical neighbourhood requires musical transportation: altered chords.

An altered chord is simply a chord that doesn’t naturally exist within your chosen key. So if your song is in C major, but you’ve found that an Eb chord sounds good in the mix, you’ve just used an altered chord.

But back to the idea of a chord progression being a “short walk”. If you were writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, you’d be using the following 3 chords the most: C, F and G (or G7). And most of the progressions would start on C and end on C, with not a lot of chords in between. Elvis Presley’s hit “Jailhouse Rock” uses just 3 chords: Eb, Ab and Bb — the equivalent of C, F and G. (The D chord that leads into the Eb at the beginning of each verse is simply there for embellishment).

As music progressed through the 60s and into the 70s, the vi-chord (Am), ii-chord (Dm) and iii-chord  (Em) were used much more.

But no matter what the progression is, whether three chords are used, or many more, there has always been something that gave progressions strength and direction, and it’s this: most progressions include adjacent chords whose roots move by 4ths and/or 5ths.

In “Jailhouse Rock”, root movement of 4ths and 5ths plays a big role. You get Eb moving to Ab (a root movement of a 4th), then back to Eb. Then from Eb it goes to Bb (root movement of a 5th), and so on. Not every chord will move to a chord that’s a 4th or 5th away, but strong progressions feature that as an important characteristic.

So if your chord progressions sound a bit confusing or directionless, take a look at adjacent chords within your progression. If there’s not a lot of 4th or 5th root movement, there’s the cause. Weak progressions can be strengthened by reworking them to include roots that are 4ths and 5ths away.


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

    Thanks for the tips on making a stronger chord progression. I’ve just realized the importance of chords in relation to song structure. Chords do have a strong role in delivering the direction and therefore the story of a song.


    • Thanks for writing, Endy. Here’s one great way to think about the value of strong progressions: When we see a beautiful building, the beauty of it is not what keeps it standing, it’s the underlying structure. But if a building is beautiful enough, we never give the structure a second thought, and we don’t even think about it.


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