Good progressions provide a solid base for your melody and lyrics, and pull everything together.
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Yesterday I wrote about song form, and said that when it’s working well it stays out of the way, being unnoticed. That’s what you’d call “ultimate beauty” in music and the arts, when something sounds great without being obvious. That same concept applies to chords as well. When a chord progression is working well, it often stays unnoticed. But there are times when a chord progression can draw negative attention to itself. Listeners can tell something’s wrong, but often don’t have the musical vocabulary to identify the problem.
I wrote about this in my latest Songwriter’s Quick-Tips newsletter (to which you can subscribe by going to “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website and clicking in the left menu pane). Here’s a list of what I would identify as the most common chord progression errors committed by songwriters, with solutions and example progressions:
The chords wander aimlessly. In most songs, a chord progression should be referring back to the tonic chord as much as possible. If your progression is too long, it can start to sound confusing and lost. SOLUTION: Keep your progressions relatively short, especially in fast music.
Strong and fragile progressions are used haphazardly. A strong progression is one which points to one chord as being the tonic. A fragile progression is one where that sense of tonic might be a bit ambiguous. That’s not a bad thing; most songs use a combination of fragile and strong progressions. But if they’re used too haphazardly they can weaken the structure of your music. SOLUTION: Keep fragile progressions in a verse and bridge, and use strong ones in the chorus.
Not enough root movement of 4ths or 5ths. Nothing strengthens a progression as much as having the roots of adjacent chords being a 4th or 5th away from each other. Progressions without that kind of root movement can sound weak. SOLUTION: Don’t allow more than 3 or 4 chords to happen without having a root movement of a 4th or 5th.
Chord roots move by augmented or diminished intervals. When one chord moves to another whose root is an augmented interval away (say, from C to F#), the jump is often too strident for the listener’s ear to make sense of. SOLUTION: Keep progressions simple. But if you like that strident sound of an augmented interval, try putting one of the chords in an inversion. So you can turn this — C F# — into this: C/E F#, or C F#/C#.
Non-chord-tones don’t resolve properly. A non-chord-tone (NCT) is a note that doesn’t belong to the normal triad version of a chord. For example, with Gsus4, the sus4 is the note C, which normally doesn’t belong to a G chord; it replaces a B. NCTs sound great, but will weaken a progression if they don’t resolve properly. SOLUTION: Always allow chords that use an NCT to resolve to their normal triad version before moving on. So this progression –-Csus4 F G C — would sound better as this: Csus4 C F G C.
Not enough contrast. Contrast is a vital component of attractive music. In chord progressions, contrast means that you’ll usually want to use different progressions in different parts of your song. But if different sections are all using the same 3 or 4 chords, there can be too much sameness. SOLUTION: Think of ways to “categorize” your chord progressions. For example, try using mainly minor ones for the verse and major ones for the chorus.
Harmonic rhythm is random. The harmonic rhythm of a chord progression refers to how long you keep a chord before moving on to the next one. A song doesn’t need to stick to the same harmonic rhythm throughout, but there should be one basic pattern — every 4 beats, or every 8, for example — that seems to be predominant. SOLUTION: Settle on one pattern, and let that be the predominant one for your song.
Some strong progressions:
MAJOR:C F Dm G Am F G C C Am F G C C G/B F/A G F C/E Dm G C C C/E F Dm Gsus4 G Am G C Eb F C C F Am G Em Am F G C C A D7 G7 C C Gm7 F Bb C
MINOR:Cm Fm Gsus4 G Cm Cm Bb Ab G Cm Cm Eb Ab G Ab Bb Cm Cm F Eb Bb Cm Cm G Ab Eb Fm C Ddim G Cm ____________
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