Here’s how to make a simple progression more interesting, while leaving the original progression intact.
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I’m a big fan of keeping things relatively simple with regard to chord progressions in the pop genre. That’s certainly not to say that I don’t like complexity – I do! But more often than not, songwriters think they’re writing a complex chord progression when in fact they’re simply using those chords incorrectly.
Keeping things simple doesn’t mean that you can’t use some very interesting chord substitutes. Today, I want to focus on what could arguably be called the simplest (yet harmonically strongest) 3-chord progression we can use: I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C)
One simple way to dress this progression up is to insert interesting chords between the ones that make up the backbone of the progression. Here’s a list of altered chords that can take this progression and turn it into something far more interesting, while still leaving the basic I-IV-V-I intact. I’m going to give all examples in C major, though, of course, they can be transposed to any key.
Each inserted chord is shown in red, followed by a description of what it does.
1. C C/E F G C
The C/E is an inverted tonic chord. To invert a chord means to move the root of the chord up so that a different note from the chord is the bass. This chord works as a nice way to get from I to IV. It’s one of the two main reasons that inversions are used in pop music: to provide a nice variation in sound of the original chord without changing the notes of the original chord (the other being to smooth out a jumpy bass line).
2. C Gm7 F G C
Because we expect to hear a major chord on G in this key, the Gm7 acts as if it’s pulling you into a new key: F. In that regard, the Gm7 is a kind of “secondary supertonic chord” of F, and it adds a lovely flavour to the progression.
3. C Bb F G C
The Bb is simply a flat-VII, but in a way it acts like a “IV of IV”. Like the previous Gm7 choice, it has a way of making it sound like the music is temporarily changing key.
4. C F D7 G C
The D7 is a standard example of a “secondary dominant chord”. To create secondary dominants, you take a chord that’s normally minor in your chosen key, make it major, and then follow it with a chord whose root is 4 notes higher.
5. C F F/A Ab7 G C
Two chords have been inserted here. First, the F/A is just a way of extending the F sound. And getting the bass on an A in this way makes the next chord, Ab7, easier to get to. Normally, 7th chords act as dominant chords, and so you expect the chord that follows to have a root that’s 4 notes higher (like G7 – C). But in this case, the Ab7 moves to G. The theory behind why this works takes some explaining, and if you want to read about it, just Google “augmented sixth chord”.
6. C F F#dim G C
In music theory, that F#dim chord would be called a “secondary leading tone” chord. In major keys, there is only one note that naturally serves as the bass for a diminished chord: the 7th note. In this example, a diminished chord was built on the F#, which is then followed by G. It gives a nice, chromatic way to get to the dominant chord.
These chord progressions are all examples of how to dress up a simple chord progression, not by substituting chords as such, but by inserting interesting chords. It keeps the basic, strong structure of the original progression intact, and so the fundamental strength of the main progression still exists.
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