It might surprise you to know that most chord progressions, regardless of the genre of the song you’re looking at, are relatively short. Comparing verse to chorus, you’ll find that verse progressions tend to be a bit longer on average, involving more chords, but even so, progressions that use more than 6 or 7 chords are not that common.
The one advantage of using a long chord progression is that you give your song a more obvious feeling of journey. Long progressions can manipulate mood a bit more, and in that regard can partner well with the ups and downs of the emotions of the lyric.
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But the main disadvantage of a long progression, if it’s not done carefully, is that the listener can feel a little lost. The fact that a song in most of the pop genres (pop, rock, folk, country, etc.) is short — between 3 and 4 minutes — means that the tonic chord (the I-chord) acts as an important anchor. Long progressions tend to lose that sense of tonic, and that’s when audiences start to feel lost.
But let’s assume that you’re looking for the creative edge that comes from a longer progression. When it comes to long progressions that really work, Elton John would be a good example to study. The music of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” uses a long, wandering progression that really works well:
Gm C F Bb Eb C F | (repeat)
Bbm Eb Ab Db Bbm C
F A7 Bb F D7 Gm C F Dm A Bb Db Eb F C/E Dm Dm7/C Bbm Eb Ab Db Bbm C
Why This Progression Works
With this song, Elton goes against conventional wisdom, creating a relatively short verse progression, followed by a very long chorus progression that ends with a restatement of the pre-chorus progression.
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But it works beautifully. And if you do what he does, you’ll find that you can create long progressions that keep the listener from feeling lost. But what is that? What does he do that helps the listener to understand and enjoy this long progression?
He continually taps into and uses the circle of fifths.
The Circle of Fifths
The most important feature, of course, of a circle of fifths progression is that the roots of the chords (the letter names) move up by 4ths (or down by 5ths… the same thing). Circle of fifths is a way of giving a progression a strong sense of direction.
By using the circle of fifths, Elton is able to move away from his chosen key (F major), and pull us into other not-so-closely related keys. He does this by first leaping abruptly into a new key at the start of the pre-chorus (Ab major), and making that key feel solid by doing a circle of fifths (Bbm-Eb-Ab-Db). By placing a C at the end, he’s able to get us back to the original key (F major) for the start of the chorus.
In the chorus, he makes use of the circle of fifths again to make odd key visitations sound acceptable. Root movements of 4ths and 5ths are all over the place: …Bb-F, then D7-Gm-C-F. Chords like A7 and D7 are secondary dominants in F major, and so we accept those readily. The progression Db-Eb-F is a bVI-bVII-I cadential progression that we also accept easily. He then ends the chorus with that pre-chorus progression based on the circle of fifths: Bbm-Eb-Ab-Db…
How Temporarily Changing Key Benefits Long Progressions
If you’re looking to create long progressions that use many different chords, you will need to do what Elton has done: move your music into new keys. In this song, he usually does that abruptly, but then makes us feel comfortable by moving the chords through a circle of fifths.
Root movements of 4ths and 5ths have a way of making the music sound pleasantly predictable, but also has the added benefit, depending on how you use the circle, of allowing the music to explore beyond the typical 4 or 5 chords you might find in any standard pop song.
If you’ve created a long progression, but it sounds too confusing or lacking in focus, look at adjacent chords and see if you have opportunities to include more root movements of 4ths and 5ths. That’s your best way of giving a progression the important sense of direction it needs to make sense to listeners.
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