5 Chord Progression Tips For Your Next Song

You’d be surprised how effective a plain, predictable progression can be in a pop song.


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The best chord progressions are usually the ones that simply work well, staying out of the way of everything else. That’s certainly not to say that chord progressions can’t be more enticing or unique, and in certain genres, like progressive rock or different types of jazz, that may be what you want.

But most of the time, for pop music genres, chords are best if they don’t draw excessive attention away from other elements such as rhythm, melody or lyric. Like the land you build a house on, chords should be mainly predictable and relatively plain.

Are you having troubles assessing whether or not your chords are the cause of your song’s problems? Every song is different, but here are five tips to keep in mind for getting the most out of your chord progressions.

  1. The tonic chord should be the obvious target in most chord progressions. The tonic chord is the one that represents the song’s key. So for songs in C major, C is the tonic chord. That tonic chord should sound like the ending, and often the beginning, of most of the progressions you’ll use in the verse and especially the chorus.
  2. Bridge chord progressions usually need to move away from the original key of the song. It’s normal to start a bridge on a minor chord if your song is in a major key. Allow that minor chord to serve as a temporary focus for the first half (4 bars) of the bridge, and then use the second half of the bridge to wander back to the tonic. Example: If your song is in C major, a typical bridge progression might be: Am  Em  F  Am  Dm  C/E  F  G. The first half emphasizes the key of A minor, but by the time you reach the Dm, you notice things moving back to C major, in time for a return to the chorus.
  3. Opt for shorter rather than longer progressions, particularly in a chorus. Verse and bridge progressions might tend to be longer, but certainly chorus progressions are usually shorter – 4 chords is typical – and tonally strong. A tonally strong progression is one in which the key of the song is obvious. So a typical chorus progression in C major might be: C  Am  Dm  G, or C  Eb  F  C.
  4. Whenever you use an altered chord to pull the progression toward a different key area, find a way to almost immediately pull the music back into the original key. An altered chord is one that doesn’t normally exist in your song’s key. In point #3 above, in the progression C Eb F C, the Eb chord is an altered chord. It doesn’t normally exist in C major. You’ll see that once that chord happens, it’s followed by chords that are in C major: the F and then the C. So altered chords should be used simply as “colours”, not usually as a way of exploring new keys. Pop songs aren’t usually long enough for that.
  5. Make certain that the roots of adjacent chords show lots of 4ths and 5ths. This means that in every progression, you should see a good number of instances where one chord moves by a 4th or a 5th to get to the next one. In the progression C F G7 C, there is a 4th between C and F, and again between G7 and C. This strengthens a progression, making it an especially great candidate for a chorus progression.


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