Why Do Chord Progressions Get So Much Attention From Songwriters?

Chords are the landscape upon which all other song components sit. That’s reason enough to focus on the importance of chords.

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My Little Town ChordsIf you check out the most-read posts from the past day and the past week on this songwriting blog, you’d find the following stats: 4 of the 5 most-read posts from yesterday, and 9 of the 10 most-read posts from the past week, pertain to chord progressions.

Let’s assume that most people look for the things they believe they need: you aren’t going to look for socks in your drawer if you don’t need socks. That means at least 90% of songwriters believe that the problems with their songs stem from a problem with chords.

Why do songwriters home in so quickly on chord progressions as being the main problem with their songwriting? Why do chord progressions get so much attention?

In a sense, getting a good chord progression is easy: keep the tonic chord as a vital anchor, where all the chords work their way back to that chord. And use lots of root movement of 4ths and 5ths, and you’ve probably got chords that will do just fine.

And yet, 4 of the 7 ebooks I’ve written on songwriting pertain directly to chord progressions, and how to get them to work. So obviously I believe that getting chord progressions to work is rather important.

I believe chords get so much attention because chords act as a landscape above which most other song components reside. A bad line of lyric can be easily fixed, given enough time and experimenting. The same with a bad bit of melody. But a bad chord progression has a way of making everything seem wrong. It’s hard to get anything to sound right if there’s a problem with the chords.

As far as determining the cause of the problems with most songwriters’ chords, there are many potential issues, but here are 3 of the most likely culprits:

  1. Your progressions don’t have a strong harmonic goal. A harmonic goal means that one chord stands above the others as being the tonic – the chord that represents “home.” A progression like this works well: C Am Dm G C, but a progression like the following one is lacking that vital aspect of direction: C  Bb  Em  Bdim  C.
  2. Your progressions don’t use enough root movement of 4ths or 5ths. When adjacent chords use roots that are a 4th or 5th away from each other, the progression sounds more predictable, and stronger. In general, you want those 4ths and 5ths to be more prevalent toward the end of a progression. That’s why C Bb Em Bdim C sounds clumsy. The roots of Em to Bdim are a 5th apart, but Bdim to C is more difficult to get to work.
  3. Your chord progressions are too long. If you check most songs in the pop genres of pop, rock, folk and country, you’ll notice that most use 4 or 5 chords in any one progression. Songs that use longer ones risk sounding like aimless wandering. It can be done, and I’ve written about songs in the past that use almost 20 chords in one progression. But generally speaking, the longer a progression is, the trickier it is to keep a strong sense of tonic.

To properly analyze your progressions and make sure they’re working for you, try the following diagnostic steps:

  1. Play just the bass notes of the chords in your progression. The bass notes should give you a somewhat predictable and pleasant line.
  2. Using a slow tempo, play the chords simply by strumming each chord once, then move on to the next chord. If it sounds awkward or strained, you’ve got problems that probably relate to points #1 and #2 above.
  3. Pause randomly on any chord as you play through the progression. Most (not all) of the time, you should be able to predict what the next chord “should” be. A sense of predictability is rarely a bad thing in chord progressions.

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Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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4 Comments

  1. Yes with great melody, chords can be kept to a minimum however it’s a good idea
    to save one or two chords for the hook especially if the hook is included in a verse
    chorus song , by that I mean don’t use those chords in either the verse or any
    pre chorus you may include in the song I would say a minimum of six chords
    unless the songs format is A A B A bass inversions can also make a difference
    to songs written in any genre as well

  2. This is very good advice. The key for pop music is to not make it overly complicated. We sometimes have clients that want to produce songs with every chord there is for one song while the song could easily do with 3-4 chords. We just produced a song that has 2 chords in the verse and then the same two chords plus a third one added in the chorus and it sounds amazing. It’s simple, the instruments harmonize perfectly and the vocal melody sets the highlights. Sometimes less is more. I would really try to keep a chord progression to max. four chords and just add a 7th etc. here and there if you wish.

  3. Pingback: Stealing Like An Artist: Herbie Hancock and Pygmy Musical Improvisation | The Practice of Practice

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