A good chord progression’s best quality is that when it works well, you hardly even notice it.
It’s not easy to attribute the success of a song to just one song element. As you hopefully know, all components of a song must work together to ensure its success. It is, however, possible to attribute the failure of a song to one element. You can have a great lyric with a fantastic melody and a catchy hook, but if the chords aren’t working, you’ve got a dud, and that’s for sure. But what makes a chord progression fail, and how do you fix it? A good chord progression actually strengthen’s your song’s underlying structure.
Of all the various elements of a song, the chords will benefit from being somewhat predictable, though hopefully not excessively so. While in songwriting predictability will often get you labelled as a copycat, a healthy dose of predictability in your chord choices actually works well for you. You want the chords most of the time to be doing what your audience expects them to do — to go where they expect them to go.
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So what are the things you should be doing with chord progressions to make sure that they’re benefitting your song? Check out the following 7 tips:
- Use the circle-of-fifths in your progressions. A progression becomes stronger when the roots of adjacent chords move by 4ths of 5ths. That means that a progression that features a Dm going to G is going to be strong because the notes D and G are a 4th apart.
- Keep progressions simple. Creativity can be good, but if you’re worried that your progression is confusing your audience, it’s far better to keep progressions simple and allow other elements (melody and lyric, for example) to be the creative part.
- Keep chorus progressions short. A song’s chorus needs to sound catchy and memorable. So melodies need to be repetitive, and chord progressions should be short and simple.
- Most progressions should have a clear harmonic goal. That means that a chord progression should sound like they exist to make one chord sound like the most important one. In most cases, chord progressions, especially chorus ones, should point to the tonic chord as the most important one. Verse progressions, however, often point to the dominant chord — that builds momentum.
- Be careful how you use altered chords. An altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally exist in your song’s key. They can be really powerful and useful, but they can also pull the listener out of the song’s key and lead to confusion. Once you’ve used an altered chord, look for ways to move back to diatonic chords (i.e., chords that exist naturally in your song’s key.) To learn more about altered chords, read this article.
- Be careful how you use chord inversions. An inverted chord means that you’ve placed a note other than its letter name in the bass. They’re often called slash chords, and they’re great for creating a bass that moves in interesting ways. But chord inversions can make your progression sound erratic if they’re used improperly. Most of the time, a chord inversion should be used to smooth out a jumpy bass line. If you find that you’re inverting chords just for the heck of it, it’s better to simply avoid their use until you’ve got a good reason to use them. Elton John is one songwriter who uses chord inversions intelligently, so check out any of his songs for good examples.
- Try a bass pedal point. A pedal point means keeping the same note in the bass while the chords change above it. It helps glue a chord progression together. The bass pedal point doesn’t even need to be in the chord, so this works just fine: C F/C G/C C.
If you just want some standard progressions that really work, check out these ones. They all feature altered chords and inversions, and use root movement of 4ths and 5ths extensively:
- C F Dm G E7 Am C/G G C
- C G/B Am Gm7 F C/E Dm G C
- C G Am Em F G C
- C A/C# Dm B/D# Em F G C
- C Am C C7 F D/F# C/G G C
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