What Do We Mean When We Say That a Chord Progression “Works”

I’ve written a fair bit about chord progressions lately, because it’s the most popular topic on my blog. When I take a look at the stats, it’s normal to see that 8 out of the 10 most popular posts deal with some aspect of chords.

Recently I received an email from someone who asked me what is meant by the term “a chord progression that works.” Chord theory can be complicated, dealing with lots of specific information about how tones within chords move. So it would seem that describing a chord progression as something that “works” is a bit vague.

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Generally (and particularly in songs within the many sub-genres of rock, country, folk and jazz), chord progressions are all about the tonic chord. Most of them can be simplified by describing them as a series of chords that move away from, and then back to, the tonic chord.

Sometimes that journey is a relatively simple one, as in Adele’s “Someone Like You“:

Someone Like You - Verse chords

As you can see, the verse progression starts on the tonic chord (i.e., the chord that represents the key of the song). It then ventures away from the tonic (C#m/G# – F#m – D) before returning to the tonic. That sequence happens a few times, and then moves on to a new progression.

The progression might be longer, traveling through several temporary key centres, as in The Eagle’s “Hotel California“:

Hotel California Opening Chords

Some songs will use the same progression over and over again, some will use many progressions, and some are even nothing much more than the famed “one-chord song”, such as The Guess Who’s “American Woman.”

That’s really all that’s meant by a progression that “works”. To describe a progression as one that works makes no comment on whether or not it’s a creative one, a complex one, a simple one, or any other type. It mainly refers to the fact that we can hear the tonic chord as being an important anchor. The progression will move away from the tonic, but eventually needs to come back.

You can look at this issue from the other side: to think of ways to fix a progression that “doesn’t work.” When a progression doesn’t work, we usually mean that the tonic chord is not acting as a strong enough anchor to give the listener a sense of satisfaction, and the listener tends to feel a bit lost. If you feel that your progressions sound unpleasantly random, or not offering enough of a sense of structure, remember the following:

  1. You can strengthen a progression by making sure that some adjacent chords are a 4th or 5th away from each other. In Adele’s “Someone Like You”, she achieves this with C#m moving to F#m, and then again from D back to A.
  2. Keep progressions from getting too long before the tonic chord reappears.
  3. When you venture away from the tonic, be looking almost right away for a way to get the progression back to the tonic.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer.

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