Knowing why some chord progressions your’e coming up with sound good while others just don’t work at all is an entire area of study in music schools. For many of you, though, a good chord progression is something you can come up with by improvising and by borrowing ideas from other existing progressions.
In this blog I often list the qualities of good chord progressions, but I wonder if it helps, from time to time, to simply list the things that weaken progressions. With that in mind, here are 5 characteristics of chord progressions that make them more of a hindrance than a help in your songwriting:
1. Try to mostly avoid moving chord roots to adjacent letter names.
This is what I mean: C G F Em Dm C. That progression starts with a leap downward of a 4th (C-G), which is good. But then proceeds after that by step: G-F-Em-Dm-C. The problem with that is that it forces most of the notes of those chords to move parallel to the bass, and that’s something that’s a bit too distinctive.
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There’s nothing wrong with moving a bass line step-by-step, though, as long as you mix in some chord inversions (slash chords). By using inversions, you can have the chord roots moving more by 4ths and 5ths, which makes a more satisfying progression.
So that progression above — C G F Em Dm C — might sound better by changing one of the chords to give you this: C G F C/E Dm C. The bass line is the same, but the chords are stronger. Even just that one change makes all the difference. Occasional movement to adjacent letter names is fine, but avoid more than 2 or 3 in a row.
2. Try to avoid moving the bass by an augmented 4th.
It can work, but its first affect is to startle: C Am G A/C# Dm. The bass note on the 4th chord is G, and the one that follows is C#. That means your bass is moving up by the interval of an augmented 4th. For that progression (assuming you’re not trying musically to startle the listener), it’s better to put that A/C# in root position: C Am G A Dm.
3. Mostly avoid progressions that make the key difficult to hear.
To be clear, I’m not talking about progressions that wander from key to key, or where the key could be debatable; those kinds of progressions can be fascinating and very useful in verses and bridges (These are called fragile progressions… See point #5 below). I’m talking about progressions in which the tonic — any tonic — is nonexistent. Here’s a progression that’s just too weird for most songs in the pop genres: C F#m Gm E A Bb C.
To be creative in your music, I recommend targeting the lyrics and melodies as elements that work really well when stretched and manipulated. With your chords, offer a way for the listener to hear a hint of key, and leave musical weirdness to other elements.
4. Don’t keep using the same key and/or progressions.
If you’ve put an EP together where all the songs are in the same key, the audience can experience a kind of musical fatigue without knowing why. For each song you do, try switching key to keep the audience from feeling the numbness that comes from a never-changing key.
If one or two of your songs use the same or very similar progressions, find ways to use chord substitutions. You’ll also find that reworking the song to be in a different tempo and/or time signature can help divert attention away from a similar progression.
5. Don’t use fragile and strong progressions randomly.
A strong progression is one for which the key of the music is clear and obvious. C Am Dm G C is an example of a strong progression. A fragile progression, on the other hand, has a wandering quality, and it is usually less clear what the actual key is. Those can be fascinating and pleasantly creative when used well: Em F Dm Am.. Is it A minor? Is it C major with a missing tonic? The vagueness is very evocative.
The problem is when they’re used randomly throughout a song. Fragile progressions belong mainly in song verses and bridge sections. Strong progressions work anywhere, but especially are needed in a song’s chorus.
That allows the song to move back and forth between fragile and strong, and that kind of contrast makes a song enticing to listen to.
There are always exceptions.
For each one of the problems listed above, you can find songs that actually do them, and do them successfully. Bill Wither’s “Lean On Me,” for example, famously starts with a progression where the chord roots move to adjacent letter names. But that’s an effect, and not something he’d necessarily do in any other song.
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