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In most of the popular music you hear today, chord progressions are designed to make the key of a song clear. Occasionally, you’ll find songs where chords seem to be almost randomly organized. The effect can be interesting, and I recently mentioned the song “Manchild” by Neneh Cherry, for which the implied key of the song changes with almost every new chord.
But that’s rare. Most of the time, chord progressions designate one chord as the home chord – the tonic – and most of the other chords are organized to make that chord obviously important.
The two words I use to describe the level to which this is true are strong and fragile. A strong progression is one in which most if not all of the chords work to identify the tonic, in a clear and unambiguous way. The circle-of-fifths progression is a good example of a strong progression:
C F Bdim Em Am Dm G C
Fragile progressions tend to be a bit more creative, making the key of the song a little less obvious, but doing so in a pleasant, musical way:
Em F Am Bb F G Em F
In this progression, it’s not clear what key, if any, is organizing these chords. Starting on Em, you might think the key is E minor. But then we hear an F chord, which doesn’t belong to that key. The Bb that follows also throws another wrench in the works, and then the progression ends the way it starts, Em moving to F.
As you can see, the progression has a beauty and charm, even though we can’t identify with certainty what the key is. It sounds as though it wanders from one possible key to another.
In most pop songs, these kind of ambiguous progressions work very well in verses and bridges. Verses usually tell a story, or describe people or situations, and progressions that exhibit a sense of ambiguity or aimlessness can work well to help the narrative.
But choruses usually “tighten up.” They use shorter, more memorable melodies, and the chord progressions tend to be tonally strong, where the key is much more obvious. Keep in mind that the actual identification of the key is not the important part for a listener. Most listeners don’t know the key of any particular song. But even without that knowledge, most can tell that one chord stands above the others in importance. They can usually hum that note, even if they don’t know its name.
So to summarize the main differences between strong and fragile progressions:
- Fragile progressions make the key of a song a bit ambiguous, while strong progressions make it obvious.
- Fragile progressions may tend to be a little longer than strong progressions.
- Fragile progressions work best in verses and bridges. Strong progressions work best in a chorus.
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