Simple chord substitutions can do more for your music than simply vary the sound.
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If your song is in C major, most of your chords will be chosen from the following list of seven:
C (I) | Dm (ii) | Em (iii) | F (IV) | G (V) | Am (vi) | Bdim (viio)
You can group those chords together into three categories:
- The tonic chord (I), plus others that could act as a nice replacement for the tonic: iii, vi.
- The subdominant chord (IV), plus others that could act as a nice replacement for the subdominant: ii.
- The dominant chord (V), plus others that could act as a nice replacement for the dominant: iii, viio.
And in fact, there is considerable crossover when you think about which chords could replace other ones. For example, the IV-chord (F) could be used in place of a tonic chord, as long as the right notes are being used in the melody. But that list above gives us the general idea.
So why would you ever consider substituting chords? Getting a better variety of sounds is the main reason. Let’s take a standard progression like: C F G C (I IV V I). You could change the second chord, F, to a Dm — as long as your melody note will accommodate that change.
It’s an interesting musical exercise to take standard progressions you might have used in your latest song, and experiment with some chord substitutions:
PROGRESSION: C Am Dm G C
- C F Dm G (C…)
- C Am F Em (C…)
- C Am F Bdim/D (C…)
- C F Dm G (Am…)
It’s that last one, C F Dm G Am, that I want to take a closer look at. You’ll notice that the final chord, which was a C, has been changed to Am. Other than providing a nice variety of sound, it happens to occur right at the end of the progression. And that has a particular benefit: it allows you to extend the musical line, and give you another chance to “go around again.”
Here’s what I mean. The progression C F Dm G C starts very strongly in C major, and then is followed by chords that emphasize that key, then ends on the tonic. By choosing to avoid ending on the C again, but rather end on a substitute, Am, you remove the sense of finality that comes from the original progression. With Am, the progression sounds like it needs something more in order to end in C major. And that’s often a good thing.
Let’s say that your song’s chorus features a progression of C F Dm G C, played four times. Each time you return to the C, a bit of musical momentum is compromised. Now, let’s say that you decide to replace the 2nd and 4th run-through of that progression with Am, with the Am becoming the first chord of the next phrase. You now get this:
//// //// //// //// |//// //// //// //// | repeat... C F Dm G Am F Dm G | repeat...
By starting every second phrase on the Am chord, you give the listener the sense that more is coming, and it doesn’t allow the musical momentum to die away as would possibly happen with the constant return to the tonic.
So look for opportunities to change tonic chords to vi-chords (i.e., changing C chords to Am) once in a while. You help boost and maintain listener interest, and it works particularly well in progressions that are very repetitive.
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.“)