How to Create Several Chord Progressions That Work Within the Same Song

Getting progressions to sound connected within a song means identifying the key of the chorus.


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Gotye - Somebody That I Used to KnowMost songs contain at least two separate progressions, and sometimes more. A verse and chorus can both use the same progression, as you find with a song like “Lights” by Ellie Goulding, and America’s “A Horse With No Name.”

But it’s more common to have verse and chorus use different progressions, and if your song has a pre-chorus and bridge, you’ve got the possibility of 3, 4, or even more separate sets of chord changes.

With all these progressions, it begs the question: how do you make sure that they all “sound good” together?

Practically every song you hear in the popular music genres of pop, rock, country, folk and jazz, are in a key. That means that one chord is acting as the tonal centre for the song. For some songs, that key is easy to identify, such as in “We Are Young” (F major). For other songs, the songwriters purposely veil the key, making it a little ambiguous: “Somebody That I Used to Know” (D minor or F major?) (Read this for a discussion of key identification).

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - Can't get past the hook?Every major key you choose has a minor key that is closely related to it. In music theory terms, those two keys are “relative” to each other by virtue of the fact that they use the same key signature, making it easy to switch from one to the other. For example, that accounts for the ambiguity of “Somebody That I Used to Know”. Gotye moves back and forth from D minor to F major easily and quickly, sometimes accompanying a melody that’s clearly in F major with chords from D minor.

Here are some tips and suggestions to keep in mind when you are constructing chord progressions for your songs. For chord progressions listed, try strumming each chord for 4 beats, or experiment:

  1. If your chorus is in a major key, you can try creating a verse progression that is in the relative minor key. To find that key, take the major key and move down 3 semitones. So if your chorus is in C major, try working out a verse progression in A minor. Carole King’s hit, “You’ve Got a Friend” does this by presenting the verse in F minor, switching to Ab major for the chorus (3 semitones higher). Example in C major: VERSE: Am  G  Am  F  Am  G  C  G.  CHORUS: C  Am  C  Am  Bb  F  Bb  F  C.
  2. You’ll find that switching from a minor verse to a major chorus provides a pleasant “brightening” of the music that doesn’t work quite as well the other way around; there aren’t nearly as many songs that move from a major verse to a minor chorus.
  3. Bridge progressions need to take a song in a new direction, so use the bridge as an opportunity to change the key. Again, switching to a related key, like from C major to A minor, works well. You can also try working out a bridge progression in D minor. Example in C major: For the progression from Tip #1 above, you might try a bridge progression such as this:  Am  Em  Am  G  Dm  Am  Dm  G.
  4. If moving to minor doesn’t work for your bridge, try moving up a perfect 4th. Example: F  Bb  Dm  C  F  Bb  Dm  Gsus  G – return to chorus in C major.
  5. Verse progressions can be tonally ambiguous (i.e., not easy to pin down which key it’s in), but chorus progressions should settle rather strongly in one key.
  6. Verse and chorus progressions can be the same, but if that’s the case, the bridge progression usually needs to move into a different key area.

-Gary Ewer. (Follow Gary on Twitter)

Gary Ewer’s Essential Secrets of Songwriting eBook Bundle now contains an 11th eBook – and right now, that eBook is FREE: “Creative Chord Progressions” Click here to learn more.


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