I use the word “fragile” when talking about certain kinds of chord progressions. “Fragile” usually means that the tonic chord less than obvious. In that context, here’s a list of chord progression characteristics that might result in a “fragile” progression:
- “Fragile” may mean that it uses a lot of chords that don’t exist naturally in the song’s key. For example, in the progression C Fm/Ab Ddim G C, the Fm/Ab chord (an F-minor chord with an Ab in the bass) doesn’t naturally exist in C major, and causes a progression to sound more fragile.
- “Fragile” may mean that it uses lots of inverted chords. An inverted chord puts a note other than the root as the lowest sounding note of a chord.
- “Fragile” may mean that many of the chords use lots of added tones. An added tone means a note that’s added to the 3-note triad version of a chord (C add9 uses the note D as an added tone.)
- “Fragile” may mean that it uses bass pedal point as a main feature. A pedal point means that one bass note is played constantly while the chords above it change. For example, you’re using a bass pedal point if your bassist plays the note C all the way through this progression: C F Dm G C.
- “Fragile” may mean that the tonic chord is never heard. So even though most or all of the chords you play might come from C major, deliberately avoiding the C chord could make the key less than obvious.
Most songs will use any combination of the above characteristics, and so the concept of “fragility” is a kind of spectrum: some progressions are less or more fragile than others. And some progressions can start fragile and become stronger as they proceed.
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That concept of fragility also applies to other aspects of music. You’ll find that in many songs, the music toggles back and forth between being fragile, to being strong. That has a way of keeping audiences wanting to keep listening.
Here’s a list of some important musical components, and how the concept of fragile/strong applies:
- LYRICS. A fragile lyrical quality may mean that lyrics that ask lots of questions, but make you wait for the answer. It may use lots of analogies, metaphors, descriptions, etc., all usually meant to pique your interest.
- RHYTHMS. Fragile rhythms are ones that may deliberately obscure the beat. That means you’ll hear lots of syncopation, changing time signatures or other forms of rhythmic complexities.
- INSTRUMENTATION. A fragile instrumental quality might be sudden changes in use of instruments, generally when instruments are dropped from the mix. We consider it fragile because since most songs will end with a full instrumentation, dropping certain instruments makes us want to wait to hear them added back in. Like lyrics that ask questions, that feeling of waiting is an important part of musical fragility.
Notice how often I use the words “may” and “might” in these descriptions. That’s because good songwriters use a combination of these fragile qualities, adding them in and then removing them, to give the result they’re seeking.
Using fragile musical components isn’t done haphazardly. Let’s look at it in a slightly different way: rather than looking at fragile elements, let’s examine a map of how strong elements (the opposite of fragile) are used:
As you can see, in most songs it’s a back and forth situation, where music moves constantly from being mainly fragile to being mainly strong.
So it’s not just chord progressions that can be described as being fragile or strong. It’s everything… the chords, lyrics, rhythms, even the way instruments are used.
This is an important concept to understand, because moving back and forth from fragile to strong is an important part of the contrast principle in music. Fragile elements causes listeners to want to hear something stronger, and so it keeps people listening.
It’s also why we advise getting to the chorus before the 1-minute mark in a song. If your verse is too long, the listener gets subconsciously frustrated with the wait, and will turn their attention elsewhere.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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