A song that we love can seem to have a really enticing chord progression, but when you really dig into the song to find out what they’ve done regarding chords, you often find that they’re very ordinary, and that it’s other things — syncopated rhythms, chord inversions, and melodic shapes above the chords — that make the progression seem more complex.
I’ve always believed that we worry too much about chords. The best ones are usually very ordinary, the kind that sit in the background and are quite repetitive. Those are qualities that songwriters instinctively avoid. We don’t like associating our music with words like “ordinary”, “background”, or “repetitive”.
But with chords, you’ll find that if you can keep chords relatively simple, and look for ways to add complexity to the melodies that sit above them, or to the lyrics, that your music will be more successful.
But there are times when you wish that your chords would sparkle just a bit more. In the following examples I’m going to use a simple progression as a suggestion: F C Dm Bb F. Here are five things you can do to an ordinary progression that will fool the audience into thinking you’ve done something a lot more intricate:
- Add a bass pedal point. A bass pedal point is a note that gets held in the bass while the chords above it are changing. Tonic pedals are common. Dominant pedals — the bass sitting on the 5th note of the song’s key — can build a lot of energy. Listen to Peter Cetera’s masterful bass playing in this excerpt from “Hollywood“. The bass dances all over, but essentially keeps hitting the dominant note – F – as the main downbeat note, and it builds considerable musical excitement. In our example progression, you’d wind up with this for a tonic pedal: F C/F Dm/F Bb/F F. A dominant pedal gives you: F/C C Dm/C Bb/C F/C.
- Add a bass pedal point that isn’t the tonic or dominant note. These are rarer in pop songwriting, because they can obscure the functionality of the chords. But if a bit of complexity is what you’re looking for, give it a try. Keep D (the submediant note) in the bass. Or try it with the supertonic note, G. All sense of normal chord function seems to get tossed out the window, but the results are fascinating, and may be what you’re looking for.
- Invert the chords to create what amounts to a bass countermelody. Here’s how that works. If you look at just the bass notes of our sample progression, you get a line that bounces around a bit. You can create what is almost a descending scale by using an inversion (slash chords), like this: F C/E Dm Bb. You can create an ascending bass line by trying these inversions: F C/G Dm/A Bb. You’ll want to check the results carefully to be sure you’re getting the effect you want.
- Try polytonality. Polytonality means that you’re exploring two (or more!) keys at the same time. It’s not as difficult to do as it might seem. Simply have your guitarist play the example progression (F C Dm Bb F), while the keyboard transposes those chords to a new key, let’s say, a whole tone higher: G D Em C G. You might get better results if you separate the two instruments by having them play in different octaves. I did up a quick midi file that has piano and guitar playing in F major and G major respectively, then reverses keys halfway through. Listen.
- Add rhythmic complexity to a chord progression. Sometimes you think it’s the chords that are sounding pleasantly weird, but it’s often the rhythmic treatment that’s making it seem that way. Rhythmic complexity may be the way the drums sound, the playing around with lengths of musical phrases, and melodic complexity above a simple progression. A great recent example of instrumental prowess making chords sound more complicated than they really are can be heard in “11”, by British instrumental noise-rock band Three Trapped Tigers. You can hear in that recording that they make great use of bass non-chord tones, complex time signatures and melodic intricacies.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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Very good article. Sometimes, as you say, there seems to be more going on in a song than in reality there is. The combination of the things you mention are important no doubt and these can be further enhanced by the choice and timbre of the instruments used. With synthesis and the manipulation of samples, the sound of a song can generate excitement far beyond the actual chords that underlie it. Production techniques further enhance the sound. A great example of what you talk about in this article together with the importance of timbres and production is Dua Lipa’s song “Be the one”. 2 chords, a variety of rhythms and timbres in a tightly produced song.