Helping a Complex Chord Progression Make Sense

Looking for ideas to help a weird progression make better sense? Try these.

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piano and music notesOf all the elements that go together to make a song, the chord progression is the one that you shouldn’t particularly worry if it’s somewhat predictable. Think of the chords as the land upon which you place a building. If you’re looking to construct something that looks innovative, even bizarre, you still need to make sure that it’s built on solid land that’s good for buildings. Chord progressions that wander about aimlessly lead to melodies that are weak.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a chord progression that stands out from others just a bit. In any case, chord progressions need to make sense on some level to the listener or they just sound confusing, and you lose listeners.

If you’ve created a chord progression that sounds like it wanders just a bit too much from the home key, or in other ways sounds a little dicey, here are three ideas that can help it make sense to an audience:

1) Use a bass pedal point. A bass pedal point is a note that’s held in the bass no matter what the chords above it are doing. The most common bass pedals are the tonic (I) and dominant (V), but you can get creative and experiment with other bass pedals. Example: C  F  Eb  Ab  Db  G  C (CLICK to listen). The section that goes from F to Eb, then on to Ab, etc., pulls the progression away from the home key. Then the augmented 4th leap from Db to G near the end is a bit jarring. Instead of throwing it out, try adding a tonic bass pedal point. (CLICK to listen).

2) Use an inverted pedal point. An inverted pedal uses the same idea as the bass pedal, but the note that’s held is an upper one instead of the bass note. Here’s what the above progression would sound like using an upper tonic pedal point. (CLICK to listen) .

3) Use chord inversions. Part of what makes this chord progression interesting is the augmented 4th leap near the end. But depending on your taste and the musical circumstance, it might not be working for you. One other way to help it make sense to a listener is to invert some of the chords, which means to place a note other than the root in the bass. For example, by inverting the Db chord just before the G, placing the F of the Db chord in the bass, that augmented 4th leap is replaced by a whole tone step, which is more easily “understood” by the listener. (CLICK to listen).

These chord ideas are ones you can use with any chord progression. You don’t need to limit their use to complicated progressions. The benefit with simple progressions is that they add a breath of fresh air to an otherwise predictable chord progression.


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