With Chords, Is It Really "Whatever Sounds Good"?

There is a logic behind progressions, even though personal taste is a large factor.

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Guitar & PercussionIf you do any lurking around on music forums that deal with chord progressions, you’ll usually see a question that starts with some variation on the “Can I have a progression that…” Early on in the replies, someone will answer, quite correctly, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

That answer is right, because like everything in the arts, there is no one right way to do something. That’s not to say that “good” and “bad” are irrelevant in music. We seem to all acknowledge that there are songs that are good, bad, and everything in between, even if we argue about what we mean by that.

But even though “whatever sounds good” is at least philosophically sound in the world of songwriting, I’m going to make the case here that that answer doesn’t help us much when it comes to the writing of music. It’s like trying to equate the relevance of chords in music to the relevance of colour choice in a car: the colour of your car is not pertinent to the functionality of the car… whichever colour you want is fine.

But chords really don’t work like that, and particularly not in pop music. Whenever I hear someone ask a chord-related question that starts with, “Can I…”, I realize that they are actually asking something else more important: “Is there a logic behind good chord progressions?”

There is. At least in pop music, for which chords represent a way to leave home, make a small journey, and return home. Most people, however, are musically programmed to search for something more complex than the garden-variety progressions usually offer.

So how do you create a complex progression that doesn’t sound completely random and disorganized? How can you create an intricate chord progression without sounding like it was thrown together arbitrarily?

The answer is based on the advisory that if you want to plan a unique trip around your city, that uniqueness will come from making turns and side-journeys that few people consider… but you don’t leave your city. In musical terms, uniqueness will come from making musical turns and side-journeys that few songwriters consider… but you don’t leave your key.

Those little side-journeys come from using altered chords, chords that don’t belong naturally to a key. To know which chords belong to any specific key, read this article.

And then, follow this important rule:

Once you use an altered chord, one that perhaps even feels as though it might be pulling you toward a new key area, start thinking of how to get back to naturally-occuring chords for your key. Remember, pop song journeys are short. In 3-4 minutes, you need to start and complete an entire trip.

Here is a short list of progressions that might serve as verse progressions. You’ll see that they start solidly in C major, and then by way of altered chords get pulled a little off to the side. Make note of how they get back to the original key. (Altered chords are in bold). (Chords with a slash (G/B, for example) mean that the chord G should be played, with the note B in the bass, or left hand of keyboard). Try holding each chord for 4 beats, and then experiment a bit:

  1. C  G/B  Am  Bb  F  G  C (Works because Am to Bb is very close, being a semitone)
  2. C  F  Dm  G  Ab  Eb  Dm  G  C (Works because the altered chord Ab is only a semitone away from G, and then Eb slips nicely back to Dm – another semitone change.)
  3. C  Dm  Am  Em  Bm  F#m  Gsus4  G7  C (Works because any root movement of a perfect 5th (Em to Bm) will sound strong, even if (in this case), it’s jumping to an altered chord.)
  4. C  G  Ab7  G7  Gb7  G7  C (Works because it just slides above and below the dominant (G7) chord, using an effect called planing.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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