Chord Progressions: How To Get Back Home

Complex chord progressions need to provide a clear way back “home”.


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Guitar - chord progressionsIn the early days of rock & roll, chord progressions were short and tonally strong. A tonally strong progression means that if a song is in the key of A major, the chords will be assembled to make that fact obvious. Since long progressions tend to make the tonic chord less obvious, early rock & roll tended to avoid them. It just wasn’t the style.

So the 3-chord song was common in the 50s and earlier 60s. In A major, those 3 chords were usually A, D and E. For songs that used 4 chords, it was often A, F#m, D and E. Occasionally, the D was substituted with Bm. But in any case, as you can see, you’d rarely get anything more complex. Once in a while, an attractive “altered chord” would be tossed in, but that was just a “spice”, not meant to cloud the key.

For example, you can hear how strong and predictable the chords for “Young Love” (1956) are, and that simplicity is part of the style of the day, part of the charm.

In the mid- to late-60s and into the 70s, musical styles changed, and chord progressions became longer. Longer progressions means that it’s often longer between tonic chords. Longer progressions is analogous to taking a longer walk in your town. 50s and 60s progressions were like walking around the block, where you can always see your house. Late 60s and 70s progressions were sometimes like walking to a different part of your town, where the path back to your house often wasn’t so obvious.

In tonal music (i.e., music that is in a key, which is practically all music), the job of a chord progression is not just to take you on a journey, but to always allow you a relatively sensible way to get back home.

For short progressions, the way home is always obvious. So if you start by playing A, followed by D, you get home by either going straight there (A D A), or getting to the V-chord which will provide a sensible step home (perhaps A D E7 A).

For long progressions, it’s typical to see a visit to a new key area. So you might see this: A D Bm E C#7 F#m… Because we expect a chord based on C# to sound minor in this key, the fact that it’s major (and has a 7th) makes F#m sound like a temporary key.

When you allow progressions to move to new key areas, it can be very interesting and musically exciting. But the question always needs to be: How do I get back home? In pop music, once music visits a new key area, the task should almost always turn rather immediately to returning to the original key.

Visiting a new key area often happens in a bridge, and Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors“, the bridge for which moves into C minor. It stays there for a few bars, and then the writers start looking for a way to get back to the original  key of Eb major. They do it by throwing in an Ab chord near the end of the bridge, and that chord pulls the ear back to Eb major very quickly.

If you’re into creating complex chord progressions, here is some advice:

  1. Think of long progressions as being in 2 parts, where part 1 is an interesting journey away from the home key to some other key, and part 2 is your journey back to the original key.
  2. Don’t allow chord progressions to stay in a new key area for a long time. Songs are usually too short for that. Get to your new key, and then start looking for ways back.
  3. Consider returning to the original key to be an important aspect of your songs harmonic make-up. Unless you throw in a key change (a topic for another post), songs should usually end in the same key it started in.
  4. Songs rarely suffer from chord progressions that are too short and predictable. Look for other ways to inject innovation, and allow progressions to be largely predictable.
  5. For progressions that visit a new key area, allow that new key to be one that is somehow related to the original key. For example, in “Mirrors”, the bridge visits the key of C minor, which is the relative minor of the original key.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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