5 Ideas To Turn a Boring Chord Progression Into Something More Exciting

Predictable chord progressions aren’t usually a problem, but too predictable all the time is just — boring!


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Bass playerSongwriting 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.


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

    I came across your site looking for material on slash chords and ways to use those. With regard to this article where 5 methods are outlined, I thought other than 1 and 4 the others have more to do with chord substitution right? keeping in mind your earlier articles about slash chords basically used for a smoother flow off chords or bass line. I not sure if I’m missing something here.

    Besides, do you have a FB page to connect


  2. Hi Gary, great article. I always find the hardest thing about songwriting is getting started – finding a few chords that sound exciting enough to make you want to build on them – and the inversion idea is the one that I think helps me the most. I look forward to reading your other pages!

    • That’s great, Adam, I’m glad the article helped. Keep in mind, as well, that chord progressions that are somewhat mundane can lead to some great songs, and it has more to do with great melodic structure than chords. Making chord progressions more interesting is a good idea, but as you work out a progression, try to partner it right away with an interesting melodic shape. People hum melodies, they don’t hum chord progressions.


        • It’s possible to hum arpeggiated chords, but unless your voice is producing several pitches at once, you’re probably selecting single representative pitches and humming those.

  3. Hello Gary! I enjoyed reading this article. I am trying to find a musician that will sell me some chord progressions for my website http://www.lyricyard.com or send me some in exchange for free advertising.
    It is a site where lyrics are posted in the hopes that a singer will add their vocals. (site is not running yet but you can see the explanations there on how it works)
    To assist the singers I am providing 21 melodies/chord progressions (7blues, 7 country, 7 pop) to choose from, to accompany their vocals. To facilitate the matching up of the lyrics and vocals, I am asking the lyrics be submitted in a specific format. (They can submit the lyrics in any format, but the singers won’t have the 21 melodies because they won’t fit.)
    The format requested from the lyrics writer is 8 lines with 9-12 syllables per line. And these chord progressions that I’m acquiring to make up my 21 “melodies” will pause after 9-12 syllables. These chord progressions need to keep in mind that though the lyrics writer is submitting just 8 lines of lyrics, if they like the vocals added, then they will have the option of giving the complete lyrics to the singer to complete. So these chord progressions would need to be just a piece of the larger song. Instead of 8 lines, would you bump that up to 10 to allow for the development of the chorus? If there’s any way drums could be added as well, that would be a big plus.
    Looking forward to hearing from you, Randall Beaird

    • Hi Randall:

      I’ve read your comment several times, and maybe I’m just a bit slow when I read things, but I am not clear on what your site is asking for. You are providing 21 melodies and chord progressions, and your site will be requesting lyrics from visitors to the site? So what does the singer do in this process? How is the copyright shared between melody writer and lyricist? What do you mean that a chord progression will pause after 9-12 syllables. Is the singer also the lyricist in this plan?

      Anyway, I think acquiring chord progressions should be the easiest part of your project, since there are many chord progression collections out there. And though collections of chord can be put into a book and copyright-protected and sold, individually they are not the copyrighted possession of any one person. You can take any chord progression you want and use it without copyright infringement.

      But if I’m understanding all of this, it sounds like an odd way to write a song. You’ve got some melodies and chords, and you’re looking for lyrics. Again, unless I’m misunderstanding, it sounds like you’d be better served by simply getting a songwriting partner and writing some songs together. If a lyricist has lyrics and wants to put them into a song format, wouldn’t it be better to simply provide a service that helps lyricists and composers get together?

      Am I missing something?

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