Bridge progressions need to start somewhere other than the tonic, then find ways to move back.
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I often talk about strong versus fragile chord progressions as they are used in most pop songs. Those two terms refer to how clearly the tonic (key) chord is pointed to and supported by the progression. A strong progression is usually relatively short, and makes the tonic chord fairly obvious. For example, this progression – G C D7 G – is very strong, making G the obvious tonic chord. There’s really no other way to see that progression; there is nothing ambiguous about it.
A progression such as Em7 Fmaj7 Em7 Am would be described as fragile. That’s because those chords don’t point to any one chord as being an obvious tonic. That progression could be from the key of C major, but it could also be from G major, thinking of the Fmaj7 as an altered chord. It could also be from the key of A minor, using chords from the natural minor form of the key. So as you see, there is a fair bit of ambiguity regarding key. It’s important to emphasize here that ambiguity does not at all mean “confusing” or “undesirable.” In fact, fragile progressions are often some of the most interesting and beautiful progressions you find in a song.
If you use fragile progressions, you should consider using them in verses and bridges, and not so much in choruses. But it is very acceptable to use chord progressions that are all strong. That’s because in the world of pop songwriting, predictability is a more valuable characteristic than innovation.
But how do you create a fragile progression? Do you simply let your musical mind wander? Is it really that random? Usually, the answer is no – the fact that a fragile progression doesn’t point solidly to a clear tonic doesn’t mean resorting to random wandering.
A good example of a bridge progression that really works well is Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” The song is in the key of E-flat major, but the verse focuses on the minor chords from that key. So we hear the verse as sounding like C minor, which then transitions to Eb major for the chorus. You can make a case for saying that the song is in C minor, and then modulates to Eb major, but that debate can be saved for another time.
To create a bridge progression, you want to usually start on a minor chord from your song’s major key. In the case of “Mirrors,” the choice is made to start on Fm. But as you see, all the chords are still coming from the list of chords we use for Eb major:
Fm Cm Fm Cm Bb Fm Cm Ab
With the inclusion of the Ab chord at the end of that bridge progression, we’ve got an easy way back to Eb major. So that’s what you want bridge progressions to do: start on a chord that makes the listener forget about the key of the chorus, and then eventually find a way back to the chorus key.
In that bridge progression, you’ll see that it’s considered fragile because even though F minor seems to be the new key, the Bb chord — which is usually Bbm in the key of F minor — throws a bit of “doubt” into the mix, reminding us of Eb major. It’s not until we return to the chorus that the progression switches to a much stronger Eb Bb Ab.
So to create a fragile progression that works well for a bridge, start on a minor chord that exists in your song’s major key, work to make that minor chord sound, at least temporarily, like a new tonic chord by moving up by 5ths or down by 4ths (e.g., Fm to Cm), and then find a way near the end to present a IV- or V-chord from the original key.
If your song’s chorus is in a minor key, try starting your bridge on either the major III-chord, or perhaps the iv-chord. In any case, you’ll be wanting to find ways to stray away from the key of your chorus, and then a way back again.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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