Many progressions actually move back and forth fragile and strong qualities, and you can use this to your advantage in songwriting.
Purchase Gary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, and become the songwriter you’ve always thought you could be!
Before reading this post, why not watch this video, which will explain some of the important concepts:
In pop songwriting, I like to classify chord progressions as being either fragile or strong. Those words refer to how strongly they point to one chord as being the tonic (key) chord. Rating a progression as being fragile or strong is sometimes a matter of opinion, and in fact you can describe a progression as being “sort of” strong, or “a little bit” fragile.
In the example above, while the progression at the strong end of the line is clearly in C major, the one at the fragile end doesn’t strongly imply one particular key. That’s certainly not to say that it’s undesirable. In fact, fragile progressions can be an important part of making music interesting.
Many progressions will move back and forth along that line, exhibiting qualities of being fragile, and then suddenly stronger. A good example is: C – Eb – F – F/A – Bb – G – C. It uses an altered chord Eb, then Bb, but then settles down and finishes strongly in C major.
I’ve written a lot about fragile and strong progressions on this blog, and have devoted a chapter to how they’re used in typical songwriting in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” ebook. Here are the qualities you’ll want to keep in mind as you create progressions for your songs:
- Strong progressions can be used anywhere and everywhere in a song. You can use strong progressions with little negative effect in any section of a song: verse, chorus, bridge, etc.
- Fragile progressions are best used in a verse or bridge. When you do that, your song fluctuates back and forth between fragile and strong (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, for example). That fluctuating between fragile and strong is enticing to the listener.
- You can nudge a strong progression toward being more fragile by using inversions (also called “slash chords”). The strong progression shown above (C-F-Dm-G7-C) can have its strong quality softened a bit by inverting some of the chords, which means to put a note other than the root (i.e., the letter name) of the chord in the bass. So you might use: C – F – Dm7/A – G7/B – C, where the note after the slash is the bass note. (In other words, Dm7/A means to play a Dm7 chord, but make the note A your lowest-sounding note.
- You can nudge a fragile progression toward being stronger by putting a tonic pedal point note in the bass. A bass pedal point simply means to keep the same note sounding in the bass regardless of the chord above it. Let’s say that the fragile progression in the diagram above is in the key of C major. Try playing the progression while keeping the note C (the tonic) in the bass until you get to the A7. You get this: Dm7/C – Em7/C – Bb9/C – A7. You’ll hear that the progression sounds more obviously in C major.
- A long progression can be fragile, and then move toward being strong. For example, you can take the fragile progression above, and then end it in a strong finish: Dm7 – Em7 – Bb9 – A7 – Dm – G7 – C. That works well for songs that use a verse-only or verse-bridge format.
Looking for more suggestions for fragile progressions to experiment with? Try the following. They’ll all work as progressions that can repeat as you wish :
Am Am/G| F#sus4 F# |G C |Dm E7 / / / / | / / / / |/ / / /|/ / / /
Em Bm |Am7 |F G |Am / / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / /
Fm Eb |Db Ab |Eb Fm |Gm C / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /
A fragile progression does not mean one that has no sense of harmonic direction. It’s more a case of a fragile progression being not so clear which chord (if any) is acting as a tonic.
You’ll notice that progressions that are strong often have many adjacent chords whose roots are a 4th or 5th apart, as in C – F – Dm – G – C. Fragile progressions often avoid adjacent root movement of 4ths and 5ths (Am – Am/G – F#sus4 – F# – G – C – Dm – E7).
Also, fragile progressions tend to use more added tones (7th, 9ths, etc.), as well as more modified triads such as suspensions (F#sus4).
Getting your chord progressions to sound right is a crucial step in getting songs to sound right. A progression with problems will compromise every other aspect of your songwriting.
(If you often get stuck at the chord progression stage of writing music, 4 of the ebooks in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” bundle deal specifically with this important step.)
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.“)