10 Tips to Help You Get Your Chord Progressions Working

There’s nothing random about a good chord progression. Here are some tips to help you get them working for you.

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GuitaristWhen a chord progression is working well, you usually don’t really notice it. That’s because the best chord progressions act as a kind of “landscape” upon which the rest of the song sits.

There are times when a distinctive progression can make a song come alive, but most of the time, just getting one to work (as opposed to standing out above everything else) is all that’s necessary.

Here are 10 tips to consider when working out progressions for your songs:

  1. Most chord progressions in the pop music genres are tonally strong, which means that they point to one chord (the tonic) as being the most tonally important. So while verses might tolerate progressions that wander a bit, even in those circumstances the progressions clearly refer back to a tonic chord.
  2. There are 7 chords that exist naturally in any key. The majority of your chord progressions will use those chords, with the occasional altered chord (i.e., a chord that doesn’t naturally belong to your key of choice.
  3. Progressions whose roots are a 4th or 5th apart are the strongest. It’s why circle-of-fifth progressions (C F Bdim Em Am Dm G…) are so common.
  4. Most progressions that are used in pop song genres can be described by using Roman numerals, where the tonic chord (the one representing the key) is called ‘I’. Roman numerals don’t just tell us the vertical structures of chords (e.g., a V-chord in C major has the notes G-B-D), but they also tell us the function of chords (e.g., a V-chord in any key has a musical desire to move to a I-chord, whether it actually goes there or not).
  5. Chord progressions are transposable to any key. When you transpose a progression, the functions of chords stay the same – it’s just the notes (and of course the chord names) that change. So transposing this chord progression in C major – C F G C – to the key of Ab major gives us: Ab Db Eb Ab. The chords are all different, but the function of each chord in the new key is still the same: tonic – subdominant – dominant – tonic.
  6. The best progressions in pop genres are largely predictable, and this is not a bad thing.
  7. Inverted chords (also called slash chords) need a purpose. It often doesn’t work to just throw them into your music haphazardly. The two most common reasons to use inversions: 1) smooth out a jumpy bass line; and 2) provide a bit of chord variety if you’re using too much of the same chord.
  8. Songs that begin with the writer working out a chord progression run the risk of having boring melodies. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start songs with chords – it just means that you need to be careful to give the melodies you create with those chords some special attention.
  9. If you’re looking to add a bit of contrast to your chord progressions, try this: use mainly minor chords in the verse, and major chords in the chorus.
  10. Most songs need a regular harmonic rhythm, which means that the frequency with which chords change is a somewhat steady pattern. Changing chords every 4 or 8 beats is most common, but you should experiment with other patterns. Generally, the faster the song, the slower the harmonic rhythm.

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Written by Gary Ewer
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