Some problems with chord progressions are easily fixed with these 5 tips.
“From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro” is included as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle, or sold separately.
There are clear reasons why some chord progressions work while others don’t, but understanding the reasons means you need to understand a bit of chord theory. If you don’t have at least a moderate background in theory, it’s often going to seem that creating progressions that work is the result of a random search.
There is nothing random about good progressions. It starts with knowing what key you’re in, and moves on from there.
But knowing the key you’re in comes back to music theory. If you don’t know a lot of chord theory, you’re likely not going to know how to identify the key of your song.
All of these problems are solvable if you take some time to learn theory, but until that happens, here are some tips for fixing problems with a chord progression. Most of these fixes will work even if you don’t have a music theory background.
- Think of a progression as a journey away from and back to the tonic chord. And the simpler you make that journey, the better. Good progressions don’t need tons of chords. Choose 4 or 5 that work well together, but more than anything, make the tonic chord a prominent part of the journey.
- Be sure to use lots of root movements of 4ths and 5ths. Every chord has a root. It’s identified by the main letter name of the chord: the root of Gmaj7 is G; the root of C/E is C. A progression where the roots often move a 4th or 5th away is going to be strong and satisfying: C F Dm G C. Ones that don’t often sound confusing C Dm F Em F Dm Bdim...
- Inverted (i.e., “slash”) chords usually need a reason for being there. An inverted chord means that a note other than the root is the lowest-sounding note. C/E means that the chord is C, but the lowest note will be E. Using an inverted chord should be done with some thought and care. Simply throwing them in anywhere can cause problems. So this sounds not so good: C G/B F G/B C. But this sounds really quite fine: C G/B Am C/G F. Why? Because the first example causes odd augmented-4th leaps in the bass, but the second one creates an enticing descending bass line.
- Shorter progressions are less troublesome than longer ones. A long progression can be fine, but can lead to listener confusion. Shorter progressions provide a solid musical “landscape” for your melody to sit on. Especially with choruses, shorten up your progressions.
- Non-chord tones should usually “resolve”. A non-chord tone is a note that doesn’t usually exist in the normal version of the chord you’re playing. For example, Gsus4 means that instead of playing a normal G chord (G-B-D), you’ll raise that middle note to give you this: G-C-D. But once you’ve chosen to play Gsus4, you usually need to follow it with the normal triad-version of the chord: G. So this progression has problems: C Gsus4 F Gsus4 C. This fixes the problems: C Gsus4 G F Gsus4 G C.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle: $37.00, available at the online store. Get today’s deal!