To make a longer progression, consider repeating a short one, making substitutions each time through. Here’s how.
In yesterday’s post, we looked at how each chord in a progression can be categorized, and we used that information to help us create chord substitutions. We can also use that information to extend chord progressions, making them longer. That’s what we’re going to look at in this post.
Let’s say you want to come up with a chord progression that would work well for a chorus. As you (hopefully) know, choruses work best with progressions that are tonally strong, meaning that they focus strongly on the tonic chord (as opposed to verse and bridge progressions, which might wander about to different key areas.)
Something like this works well for a chorus:
C G F C
But that’s rather short, assuming you hold each chord for two beats. So the normal solution would be to play it several – maybe 4 or even 8 – times, giving you something that’s going to work well. But that gives you another potential problem:
C G F C |C G F C |C G F C |C G F C | // // // // // // // // // // // // // // // //
The problem is that it’s a tad boring, simply repeating the 4-chord progression over and over. So let’s use our knowledge of chord categories as we did yesterday and make some chord substitutions. When we’re done, we’ll have taken the original C G F C progression, and repeated it 3 more times. But by making chord substitutions, it will sound fresh and interesting.
First, let’s look at the solution, then we’ll look at why I made the specific choices. Here’s how I modified the progression.
C G F C |Am G F C |Am Em Dm Am |C G F C |
As you can see, the first 4-chord progression and the last one are my original choice: C G F C: A tonic chord followed by a dominant chord followed by a subdominant chord, ending back on the tonic.
(By the way, just because dominant chords “like to” move to tonic chords doesn’t mean they must. So the dominant (G) chord, which can move smoothly to the tonic (C) chord, will also move nicely to the subdominant (F) chord.)
To extend the 4-chord progression into something longer while avoiding the potential boredom that might come from simply repeating it over and over, I used the chord categories from yesterday’s post:
TONIC: C (I), Am (vi)
SUBDOMINANT: F (IV), Dm (ii)
DOMINANT: G (V), Em (iii), Bdim (vii)
But I didn’t just switch chords around, making random choices. I decided to think about another aspect of music: major versus minor. The 4-chord progression uses major chords. I decided that for contrast, I’d move the progression into an area that was mostly minor, before returning to the original progression comprised of major chords:
So when I made my chord substitutions, I made only one change in the 2nd run-through: I changed the C chord at the start of the sequence to an Am, just for variety.
Then I decided to make the 3rd run-through of the progression focus mainly on minor chord substitutions. Play through the progression, and you’ll see how refreshing it can be to hear the progression move into a minor area before finally returning to major.
So I’ve been able to create an entire progression for a full chorus by taking a simple, short, 4-chord progression, create some interesting substitutions, and tag one onto the end of the previous one.
The benefit to creating long, extended progressions by taking a short one and repeating with substitutions is that if the short, 4-chord progression works, you know the longer, 16-chord version will work as well.
In my eBooks “Essential Chord Progressions”, “More Essential Chord Progressions”, and “Chord Progression Formulas”, you can experiment with extending short progressions in this way. They are collections of mainly tonally strong progressions that can be elongated easily by making substitutions in much the same way as we’ve done here.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter