With Chord Progressions, “Unpredictability” Does Not Mean “Complete Randomness”

Unique chord progressions that work well are hard to create. But that shouldn’t be a worry to a songwriter.


The predictability of chord progressionsHopefully it goes without saying that good chord progressions are not simply a random collection of nice chords. There’s very little that’s random about it. After you play the first chord, there are a number of directions in which you can go after that. But as a progression proceeds, you will find that it becomes more predictable.

Here’s an analogy to explain that point. If you were standing in your house and telling everyone that you are going for a walk, there’s two things to note right away:

  1. You have two or three doors through which you can leave the house to start your walk.
  2. For each of those doors, once you choose one and walk through it, you can then go left, right, or even possibly straight.

As you can see, for the first 20 seconds or so of your walk your choices are numerous. Once you make your initial two decisions — which door, and then which direction after that — things become a bit more predictable.

Then as the walk continues, something else becomes predictable: returning home. You may not know exactly how you’re going to get home, but you do know that soon,  you’ll be standing in your house again, and you’ll likely do it by one of the doorways. At that point, someone seeing you walking on the sidewalk a few blocks away would know that you could be going anywhere, but the likelihood is that you’re returning home.

Like taking a walk, progressions start with a small bit of unpredictability, and then become more predictable as they continue. In my analogy, the aim is to get home; in chord progressions, that sense of  “home” is called the harmonic goal.

In chord progressions, unpredictability does not mean that any completely random thing can or should happen. Using the walk analogy, I mentioned that once you leave through a door, you have a choice of going left, right or straight. But in fact you have other options. You could have left through a window. Or you could dig a tunnel from your basement to your neighbour’s backyard, hop onto the green recycling bin and ride it across the highway.

Given that analogy, you might be tempted to rethink the original premise that there are only a few ways to start your walk once you leave the house. But in fact, that kind of complete randomness simply makes people feel uneasy. It’s the same way with chord progressions. The weirder your progressions are, the more musical anxiety a listener experiences.

So here’s a good way to keep your progressions feeling strong and predictable, while also allowing for a small dose of predictability.

  1. Play the following progression: C  G  F  Dm  Em  Am  G  C. As you can see, it uses all of the chords from the key of C major (with the exception of the vii chord), with the chords arranged to use a good number of 4ths and 5ths, and to finish up with a strong sense of harmonic goal.
  2. Now create smaller progressions from that larger one by starting on the last chord, jumping left into the progression and then playing the chords in sequence. For example, play the last chord C, then leap left to the Em chord, then play the rest of the progression as shown, giving you C  Em  Am  G  C.

With any long progression, you can start with the right-most goal (i.e., the final chord), jump left into the progression, then finish out the progression normally. This is a great way to create numerous progressions. Believe it or not, it resembles the way a composer like J. S. Bach created his chord progressions. Most of Bach’s music starts with short little progression fragments that seem unimaginative, but then become longer and more involved using the procedure I just outlined.

So to summarize, if you’re looking to add a bit of unpredictability to your progressions, it’s the start of the progression that can tolerate more unpredictability than the end. Your music will never suffer from predictable chord progressions. With a predictable progression, you still have a lot of flexibility to play with melodic shapes, phrase lengths, and lyrics to add a sense of complexity and uniqueness to your songs.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, which includes “Chord Progression Formulas”, a great way to create dozens of progressions in any key.

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