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Compare these two progressions:
1. Am Am/G FMaj9 C/E Cm/Eb Dm7 G C
2. Am F Dm G Em Am F G C
The first one is a good example of a progression we’d call mainly fragile, while the second one is mainly strong. Those two terms, fragile and strong, relate to how clearly the progression points to the tonic note and chord.
The tonic note is the one that represents the key of the music. For music in C major, C is the tonic note, and a triad (a 3-note chord made up of a root, 3rd and 5th) built on that note will be the tonic triad.
Now that we have the main terms in this topic defined, let’s get to the question: What makes a progression fragile, and what makes it strong?
In both the progressions above, C is the tonic chord, and both progressions end on that chord. But with the first progression, you see that the key of C major isn’t really clear until you get to the end of the progression: Dm7 G C.
In the second progression, C major starts to feel very obvious by the time you’ve reached the 3rd chord. And certainly, after the fourth chord (G), you could easily have the next chord be C. So even though the progression continues on, avoiding the tonic chord, it still feels like C major.
Think of it this way: If instead of describing chord progressions we were looking at pictures of houses in your neighbourhood, the second progression (the strong one) would be showing you the houses in close proximity to your own. There’s no ambiguity as to which neighbourhood you’re in. Even though your house (the tonic chord) doesn’t appear until the end, everything else makes it clear that you’re looking at your own neighbourhood.
But the first progression is showing you pictures of houses from a slightly different angle, not making it clear that you’re in your own neighbourhood until the very end.
That’s the main difference between fragile and strong progressions. The fragile ones have a more wandering quality, where the tonic chord is only alluded to, rather than strongly indicated. Strong progressions make the tonic chord very clear. For that reason, strong progressions tend to be more predictable, while fragile ones have the capability of going in many possible directions at any given moment.
What makes a progression fragile? Generally, any of the following help to veil the strong feeling of being in a key:
- Avoiding root movements of 4ths and 5ths between adjacent chords.
- Adding extra notes to the chords (7ths, 9ths, etc.)
- Inverting chords (i.e., putting a note in the bass that’s not the root of the chord, like C/E, which is a C chord with an E in the bass)
- Adding altered chords to the progression. (An altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally exist in the song’s key, like an Eb chord in C major.)
The term fragile is not meant to convey anything undesirable, of course. In fact, fragile progressions can be very evocative and descriptive, and for that reason, fragile progressions work best in a verse, as the story or situation is described.
Strong progressions work well in verses, but especially well in choruses, where the strength and predictability of the progression lends itself well to supporting the emotional nature of a chorus.
Here are a few more fragile and strong progressions you can experiment with:
F Bb/F F Em F G Am G
Em Dm Em Dm F Em Bb G
F/C C Eb/Bb Bb Ab Bb F G
C Am Dm G C
F G Am Em F G C
Em Am Dm G C
If you’d like to learn a bit more about strong and fragile progressions, check out the following video:
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Gary is also the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, published in hardcopy by Backbeat Books, and available from Amazon and any other online bookseller.