There are very few songs on the Rolling Stones List of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time that made it to the list because of their stunning chord progressions. Chord progressions, when they work well, should almost disappear into the background of your song.
Occasionally it’s nice to throw a chord in there that grabs attention, but most of the time, it serves as the landscape for the rest of the components of your song.
But you can destroy a song by having a problem with your chords. There are some common blunders that you see time and again, and so here’s a list of 4 frequent problems and what you can do about them:
- Your chords are wandering aimlessly. Chord progressions need to have a target. Most of the time, that target is the tonic (key) chord, also called the I-chord. In verses, chords can wander about, pleasantly avoiding that tonic chord. But you’ll find that choruses should feature chords that make the tonic sound like a musical version of “home.” So if your chords sound like they’ve been randomly chosen, read this article to get them working.
- Your progressions are variously strong or fragile, with no sense of design. A fragile progression is one that has that pleasant sense of aimlessness that avoids the tonic chord, maybe like this one: Dm Em Dm Am Bb Am G. Strong progressions are ones that make the key obvious, like: C Dm F G C. But you need to be careful where to use them. A fragile progression works best in verses and bridges, while strong ones work best in choruses. Watch this video to learn more:
- Your progressions don’t use enough chords whose roots are a 4th or 5th apart. The root of a chord is the letter name. In chord progressions, listeners like it when they hear the bass moving by 4th or 5ths. So this sounds great: C Am Dm G Em Am Bb G, because a good number of adjacent chords have roots that are a 4th or 5th apart. If your progressions sound random, that’s usually the cause. Rework troublemaking progressions to include a few moments where the bass notes are moving by 4th or 5ths.
- There’s not enough contrast in your chord progressions. These days, it’s becoming more common to use the same progression in the chorus that you used in the verse. If you’re going to do that, you need to do something else to create that important quality of contrast that turns music into interesting musical journeys. You can create that contrast, however, with chorus and verse progressions that contrast each other. For example, try a verse progression that’s mainly minor (Am G C E…) and then switch to one that’s mainly major for the chorus (C G Am F…).
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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