Predictable chord progressions aren’t usually a problem, but too predictable all the time is just — boring!
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Songwriting formulas will get you in trouble. But they’re tempting to use because once you’ve experienced songwriting success, you want to duplicate that success. A songwriting formula, however, stunts creativity, and starts to make all your songs sound the same. The one area where I’ve always told songwriters that they shouldn’t worry too much about predictability is with chord progressions. Predictability, as long as it’s not excessive, is usually fine with chords, and most listeners don’t notice two chord progressions are the same if the underlying rhythms, instrumentation, and accompanying melody are different.
Having said that, there are times when you really want to do something to make your progressions more interesting. If you’re like most songwriters, you experience a bit of fear in playing around with a chord progression that works, just in case you ruin it. So what can you do to make a boring chord progression more interesting?
Here are 5 ideas that do something rather interesting: they modify an existing chord progression into something far more interesting without actually changing your chord roots. So the changes to your progression are subtle, but they’re extremely effective.
Let’s take a standard progression as our example: C F Dm G7 C
Now, let’s look at 5 ways to change that while keeping the roots of the chords (i.e., the actual letter names of the chords) the same:
1. Use a Bass Pedal Point.
A pedal point is a note that stays constant while chords change. The most effective pedal point in pop music genres is the tonic pedal. That means that you’ll get the bass player to keep the tonic note (C) in the bass while all the chords change as normal. You’ll notice that some of the chords don’t use the tonic note (Dm and G7 in our example), but that doesn’t matter. The clash is beautiful, and the tonic pedal gives you a fresh sound. Also, try a dominant pedal. By the way, keeping a pedal point bass doesn’t mean that your bass player has nothing to do but sit on a note. One of my favourite examples of a magnificent display of bass prowess while playing a pedal point is Peter Cetera’s bass work in the latter half of the Chicago tune “Hollywood“, from their album Chicago VI. From 2’06” to the end represents a dominant pedal on F, but don’t tell that to Cetera!
2. Use Modal Mixture Chords
A modal mixture simply means that you’ll use the minor key’s equivalent of your chord choice if your song is in a major key, or the major key’s equivalent if your in a minor key. In our example, we know that in the key of C minor, a chord based on D would be Ddim, and a chord based on F in C minor is Fm. So you can subtly alter the progression by changing it to this: C F Fm Ddim G C. Change some or all, just let your ears be your guide.
3. Add Non-Chord-Tones
A non-chord-tone is a note that doesn’t exist in the normal triad-version of your chord. The most popular type is the sus4. Just remember that once you’ve used a non-chord-tone, you’ve got to let the chord”resolve” to the normal triad-version before moving on. So our chord progression example might be this: C F Dm Gsus4 G7 C
4. Use Chord Inversions
To invert a chord means to put a note other than the letter name of the chord in the bass. The most common reason for doing this is to create a bass line with more interest, allowing it to step around rather than leap around. But you can also use it simply to create chord interest. Here’s an example: C C/E F Dm G G/B C
5. Create Secondary Dominants
A secondary dominant probably requires a lot of explanation to describe accurately, but as far as the listener is concerned, they’re hearing a major chord where a minor one used to be. To see if your progression is suitable for a secondary dominant, look for two things: 1) A minor chord, and 2) the chord that follows the minor chord is either a 4th higher or a 5th lower. We see that situation with our Dm chord, followed by G7. So simply change Dm to D, and you’ve got a secondary dominant that gives an interesting modification to the original progression: C F D G7 C
For more progressions that feature many different kinds of chords and different ways to use them, my two ebooks, “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions” are part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-Ebook Bundle.
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