Chord Progressions: The Importance of a Harmonic Goal

How to give your chord progressions a sense of direction and purpose.

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Piano keyboardAn excerpt from “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!”*
Written by Gary Ewer

When we say that a chord progression wanders aimlessly, we mean that it lacks a harmonic goal. Think of it this way: you decide to go for a walk. You step outside your house, take a few steps to the sidewalk, and then proceed down the street. But before you take more than a dozen steps, you quickly switch to the other side of the road. After a few more steps, you reverse direction. Once you get to the end of the street you reverse direction for a few steps, then cross back over.

And so on.

It’s not difficult to see how such a walk would be confusing to anyone accompanying you. Your erratic journey seems to have no purpose, no direction, and no goal. Anyone walking with you would feel uneasy and confused.

How could your journey be improved? How about this: you proceed down the street, taking a left turn at the end. You continue to walk toward what seems to be a green area. You cross the street and enter a park. As you continue through the park you change direction onto a cobblestone path and see a beautiful fountain looming ahead. You walk until you reach the fountain. When you get there, a flock of birds fly overhead. You take in the beautiful site for a few moments, and then you turn to head home on mostly the same streets you used to get there.

That’s the kind of walk that makes sense. It has a goal, and even if your walking companion doesn’t know what it is at the start, it begins to become apparent as the journey progresses.

Even if the goal seems to change, it still makes sense. If, for example, it appears that the fountain in the park is the goal, but just as you reach it you turn and head toward a magnificent waterfall, it still all makes sense.

That’s how a good chord progression works. It’s a musical journey. You may not know what the goal is when it starts, but good chord progressions help you make sense of every little turn. It’s why we call them chord progressions, and not chord successions.

So the things you’ll want to remember are:

  1. Keep the tonic chord (i.e., the chord that represents your song’s key) in mind as you create your progressions. Think of progressions as little journeys away from and back to the tonic chord.
  2. Keep progressions from getting too long. The longer a progression, the more it gains that “wandering” feeling, and the more obscure the tonic chord becomes.
  3. Predictability, at least with chord progressions, is a positive characteristic. Songwriters like to think that everything they do is unique, but with regard to chord progressions, following a tried & true formula is hardly ever a bad idea.
*”Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” is a free eBook offered to subscribers of the Songwriter’s Quick-Tips Newsletter. Subscribe here.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Predictability in general is a good thing , but many great songs have unusual modulations to other keys . and the big surprise chord , adds to the journey, by surprise I imply a chord
    not normally found in your songs home key.
    Elton John uses this method in his best compositions as does Mutt Lange top producer and composer, who’s collaborations with Shania Twain made her into a superstar.
    Mutt also wrote the bridge to “Everything I do I Do for Your” by Brian Adams, it made an ordinary song into a masterpiece, that stayed number one in Britain for around three months, (Yes we were all fed up with it at the end) but that was just down to over exposure.
    I agree Predictability is not a bad thing but combined with the well written modulation or a surprise it can be a master stroke

    • Hi Peter:

      Of course you’re right about that, and being creative with chord progressions is something I write about very positively on this blog, such as here. The issue I was addressing with this particular post is that while predictability is often seen as a detrimental quality with respect to most components of a song, chord progressions are one area where predictability can be a strengthening agent, rather than something that might overly bore an audience. Some of the greatest songs every written use very simple, strong progressions that don’t stray at all into the realm of being creatively unpredictable.

      Thanks for your comment,

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