In most songs of the pop music genres, chord progressions can be used to identify the song’s key. This happens whether the songwriter who created the progression is aware of it or not. They may like E C#m B as a progression to build a chorus on, not knowing (or caring!) that those 3 chords belong to the key of E major.
There’s something musically satisfying (and, some might argue, a little boring) about a progression where most of the chords belong to a key. Having said that, I’d also say that a majority of songwriters don’t know the theory behind why chords work together.
Most of the time, that’s not a problem. Painters, for example, may not be able to name the specific shade of blue they’re using on a canvas, but they’d be silly to stop using it simply because they don’t know it’s cerulean blue.
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Generally, you’ll find that the more complex (“weirder”) a chord progression sounds, the more it happens that songwriters want to know the reason it works. When progressions sound weird, it’s almost always the case that it includes chords that don’t belong to the key that’s implied by the first few.
Here’s an example:
C F Bb Eb Ebm7 F Gsus4 G C
The progression starts very commonly, in such a way that we either hear the C or the F as a tonic chord. Then we hear the Bb chord, and that solidifies F as the tonic. (That’s because the key of F major includes the chords F, Bb and C).
But then we hear Eb, and we’re not sure where that came from. Then Eb changes to Ebm7, and our ears really start to wonder where we are. Then we hear F moving to Gsus4 and then G, and we feel confident that we’re now in C major.
As you can see, most of those changes in key can be explained by shifting key centres. But that chord progression would have the same charm to a listener (or songwriter for that matter) who has no knowledge of music theory. In other words, theory explains what’s going on, but doesn’t make the progression any better or worse. As always, your ears are your guide.
And so what if you come up with a chord progression that you can’t explain? You like it, but you’re either confused as to why it sounds good, or you’re intrigued: you believe that there must be a theoretical reason for its ability to exist.
It’s fine to be curious, but even if you can’t come up with a good reason for why it sounds good, don’t let that stop you. With chords, as with pretty much any and all musical elements within a song, if it sounds good, it’s good.
Theory will likely explain it, and theory can help you use it in other keys and situations. But theory only seeks to explain, not validate.
So go ahead and experiment with chords, and don’t worry so much if you can’t figure out why it’s sounding the way it does.
And if you’re looking for chord progressions that might bend your ear a little, and don’t care why they do, check out (and feel free to use) the following.
For chords that use a slash, the letter name to the left of the slash is the chord; the letter to the right of the slash is the bass note. The progressions should work in any song style, tempo, time signature, etc. Hold each chord as long as you wish before moving on:
- C Bb Am7 F#dim7 C/G E/G# A
- C Eb F D/F# Eb/G Adim Bb
- C F Cm Fm Eb Db C
- C G/B Gm/Bb A F F7/Eb Bb/D G
- C F D F Ab Eb Bb
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