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How to Make Stronger, More Creative Chord Progressions

Let’s face it, it’s not that hard to come up with chord progressions, because when all else fails, you can simply grab a book of progressions and steal them, guilt free. But if you’re the kind of songwriter that wants to make their mark on the music world, simply taking a progression sitting in a book may not be the way to go.

You may want something more creative than a basic I-IV-V-I progression. Something with teeth. Something that grabs attention, yet still sounds musically strong and supportive of everything else in your song.

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That’s when you’re likely going to start randomly improvising chord progressions with your keyboard or guitar. And that’s when you will start to waste a lot of time, because of this important fact:

There’s nothing random about a chord progression that works.

When a chord progression works, it’s because of one simple fact:

Good chord progressions target one chord as the main, tonal focus of the progression.

In other words, a good chord progression sets up one particular chord as the one where the progression often begins and usually ends. For example, that basic I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C) progression I mentioned earlier works for exactly that reason: it starts on I and ends on I.

And not only does it start and end on I, it moves from I to IV. Why is that so good? The interval of a 4th upward (or 5th downward) is one of those jumps in the bass line that sounds satisfying to our musical ears. Chord progressions sound stronger when they create bass lines that use lots of 4th and 5ths.

Predictability: The Good and the Bad

Because the I-IV-V-I progression gets used a lot, it’s a very predictable one. Just play that C chord and follow it with F, and you can practically already hear the G chord, even before you reach it. And once you hear G, you know that the C-chord is about to happen.

That kind of predictability with chords is often good, because it means you’re using a chord progression that doesn’t draw undue attention to itself. It acts as a nice bit of musical landscape upon which you can layer other, more interesting elements, such as interesting melodies and lyrics.

But what if you want something more creative? The problem with “creative” in chord progressions is that creative often means “surprising” or “complex”, and that often results in progressions that don’t sound right. They draw the wrong kind of attention to themselves.

It’s like you want the benefits that predictability give you, but at the same time you want the positive qualities of something more creative and innovative.

So what can you do to create your own chord progressions that are interesting, creative, but also strong and predictable? Here are some important tips:

  1. Try starting and ending a progression in a strong way, and leave the complexities to the middle. Example: Key of A major: A  D  Bm  E  F  C  D  E  A. As you can see, the beginning and ending of this progression is solidly in A major. It’s that bit in the middle (in italics) that strays away from A major, briefly visiting C major, that’s the complex bit.
  2. When progressions sound confusing, there are too few moments where the bass line moves by 4th or 5ths. Take playing through this one: A  C#m  E  F#m  E  D  C#m  Bm  C#m  A. As you can hear, there’s not a lot wrong with this, except that it doesn’t have a strong sense of tonal direction. You can tighten things up by changing a few of the chord choices:  A  C#m  F#m  E  D  A  Bm  E  A. Now you can hear that with the bass line forming a few 4th and 5ths, especially at the end (E A), there’s a good sense of structure. It sounds better.
  3. Keep progressions from getting too long. A long progression has the danger of losing the listener. It’s far better to use a short progression that gets repeated than a longer one that wanders too much.
  4. Often, innovation with melody or lyrics is better than innovation with chords. An audience will be more accepting of a lyric they don’t understand than a chord progression they don’t understand.
  5. Use a chord progression even if you don’t understand it. Don’t let the fact that 3 or 4 chords in the middle are confusing as you why they sound good be a reason to not use it. Some chord progressions defy explanation. So what!?

Regarding point #4 above, you can create powerfully abstract lyrics that defy immediate explanation, and as long as the audience hears a melody with a progression that works well underneath, they’re fine with it. Leonard Cohen’s music is a perfect example of this. You can discuss for ages what his lyrics might mean, but you’ll never be confused as to why the chords or melodies are working.

You may like or dislike that reasoning, and that’s fine of course. But it all comes down to this: when chords are too complex, it’s like trying to build a house on a craggy mountaintop. The mountain may look great on its own, but doesn’t support anything being built.

So get creative if you want, but always remember, chords need to make tonal sense on some level. Keep complexity to a controlled minimum, and when things get complicated, at least end them strongly in a key.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” ebook BundleHave you seen Gary’s chord progression collections? They’re part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages. Purchasers of the Deluxe bundle will get a copy of his recent eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions”READ MORE.

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  1. I am not sure if some readers have heard of DON CARLO GESUALDO ( a very chromatic composer from the Renaissance period).
    Try improvising on this chord progression: Emajor7-Cminor7-Gmajor7-Efalt minor7 etc…
    I composed my own jazz song using this idea (JUNE IN STRANGEVILLIE).

  2. Hi Gary. Love reading this one. #4 especially. However, while im not worries why i dont understand a certain chord progression, would you please shed light on it. Why in the world does C7-Fmin work so well. I am so puzzled by dom 7 chords and these alternating ones in particular. Is it in a key? Does this sound like two chords that fit together for any good reason? Thank you. Charlie

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