The Problem of Too Many Chords in a Song

Chord progressions that are long require a way to allow the listener to rest.


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Guitar and PianoIf we think of chord progressions as representing a kind of musical journey, then you might think that longer chord progressions are preferable over shorter ones. The rationale is that a longer journey gives you more landmarks, and that should be a good thing, right?

The problem with longer progressions, however, is that listeners can get a little lost. Think of it this way: on a long journey, you want to have rest spots — places where you can pause and relax. You don’t need to be home to relax, but you do need to be able to put your feet up. On real journeys, those rest spots are hotels, restaurants, park benches… that sort of thing.

A long chord progression that doesn’t offer “rest spots” is like doing a 12-hour non-stop visit of a city. Even in a gorgeous city, everyone needs to be able to pause for a bit.

So in most tonal music (i.e., music in a key), your choices are either to create long progressions that give you occasional moments where the chords visit a new key area (prog rock and jazz often do this), or to create short progressions, where the tonic chord is visited fairly often, and represents the rest spot. Pop music usually uses this option.

“Beth”, written by Stan Penridge and recorded by Kiss, is a great example of a song that works very well with a long progression:

C  C/F  C  Am  F  G/F  Em  E7 | Am  G  F  Em  D7  F  G  Am… F  F/G  C

Why this works is because of what happens in the middle. The chord E7 acts like a dominant chord, temporarily shifting the tonality toward Am. In our journey analogy, it’s like stopping at a hotel for the night. You’re not home, but you get a rest anyway. The progression then continues, pulling the listener back to C major.

If you want to experiment with long progressions, you can avoid the problem that often comes with using too many chords by doing what the song “Beth” does: provide a spot in the middle that acts like a kind of temporary change of key, then moving back to the original key.

The sense of rest naturally happens when you take a chord that’s usually minor in your key of choice, make it major, and then follow it with a chord whose root is 4 notes higher (E7 to Am, for example).

You’ll notice that Elton John does this slightly differently with the chords for Crocodile Rock:

G  Bm  C  G  D  G  Bm  C  G  C  D  | Em  A7  D7  G  E  A7  D7  G  C  G

In this case, the progression moves abruptly to Em, and then gives a series of circle-of-fifths progressions that keep pulling back to G, the key of the song. So even though the progression is rather long, it keeps G strongly within its sight.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: FEATURED LINK: The Problem of Too Many Chords in a Song | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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