Using Chord Progressions That Avoid The Key of Your Song

Some of the best verse progressions are ones that pleasantly avoid the key of the chorus.


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Guitar and piano - chord progressionsIt’s really not important to an audience that your song is in G major. But it can be very important to you as the songwriter, particularly if you’re trying to work out a chord progression.

In fact, many songs will seem to be in different keys at different times: one key for the verse, and a different key for the chorus, for instance. A song like Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” is a good example. The verse primarily uses the chords Cm Gm Fm, giving the impression of C minor. The chorus switches focus to Eb major, using the chords Eb Bb Ab.

In fact, both the verse and the chorus derive their progressions from the same set of chords that come from Eb major. The chords that exist naturally in Eb major are:

Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb Cm Ddim

What’s happening in the verse is typical of many pop songs. The verse progression tries to avoid making the key really obvious, opting instead for progressions that sound deliberately ambiguous, or even pointing to a different key. So when “Mirrors” focuses on making C minor the tonic in the verse, it’s really more a case of trying to avoid making Eb major obvious until the chorus.

So let’s say you’ve written a song chorus, and that chorus is in C major, using progressions that make C major really obvious: C F Dm G C, or C G Am F, or some other such progression. What progressions can you create for your verse that make the key less obvious in a nice sort of way?

Here’s a list of tips, followed by some chord progression examples, that will help:

  1. Create a verse progression that contrasts with the mode of the chorus. If your chorus is in C major, the idea here is to try creating a verse progression that sounds minor.
  2. Don’t make your progressions too long. You will usually find that 4 or 5 chords in a verse amounts to being plenty. But up to 7 or 8 chords is fine.
  3. Look carefully at how a verse progression connects to the chorus. Remember that verse and chorus need to connect rather seamlessly. In “Mirrors”, a pre-chorus is inserted, but in any case, the way the verse (or pre-chorus) connects up to the chorus is very satisfying.
  4. A verse progression will typically use more altered chords than a chorus. An altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally exist in your chosen key, and they can be very nice additions to a progression. So see if you can work flat-VII, flat-VI, flat-III, modal mixtures, or other types of chords into your verse. A chorus progression typically strengthens up and sits strongly in a key with less of the diversionary effects of altered chords.

If you’re looking to create a minor-sounding verse, here are some examples. Let’s say that you’ve written a chorus progression such as this: C  F  Am  G… Here are some minor choices that might contrast well for a verse. You’ll notice that the verse progression is longer (they often are), and that the end of the verse progression starts to sound major as it switches to the chorus tonality.

To start, try playing each chord for 2 beats unless otherwise noted. They will work in any playing style and genre.

  1. Am  Em  F  Dm  (repeat) Dm  C/E  F  G (repeat) ||CHORUS
  2. Dm  Em  Dm  G  (repeat) Dm  Bb  F  Am  Bb  F  Gsus4  G  ||CHORUS
  3. Em  Am  F  Am  Em  C  F  Dm  (repeat)||CHORUS
  4. Em  Dm  G  Am  (repeat) G  F  Dm  Em  G  F  Dm  G  ||CHORUS
  5. F  G  Am  Em  Am  G  F (4 beats)  (repeat)||CHORUS


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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