Songwriting - Piano and guitar

Tips and Tricks for Making Chord Progressions Better

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For most chord progressions, it’s often the case that the chord you start and end on is the tonic chord:

  • C  F  G  C
  • C  Am  G  C
  • C  F  Dm  G  Am  Em  F  G  C

But the starting or ending chord is not really what puts a progression in a key. Think of it this way: The fact that you leave a certain house every day and come back to it at night may indicate that you own the house. But that’s only the evidence for ownership. Proof of ownership is the name on the deed.

Proof of Key

So what’s the proof of key? It’s not so much where the progression starts or ends up, but the relationship between all the chords. The easiest way to determine key is:

  1. Know which chords belong to which key. You can find a couple of charts on this page, one for major keys and one for minor. (Opens in a new browser window/tab)
  2. Find the key which accommodates all or most of the chords.
  3. Use the final chord as strong evidence for your choice of key.

So let’s say that you’ve got a progression that uses these chords:

Am  G  C  F  Dm  G  C

It starts on Am, and you’ll notice that all the chords can be found in the key of A minor. But the fact that the progression ends on C, and is preceded by a nice ii-V-I cadence that comes right from C major, is your evidence that it’s in C major. You could make a case that it starts in A minor and quickly changes to C, but that might be being too fussy: for all intents and purposes, this is a C major progression.

Tips & Tricks

If you find chord progressions to be the stage of songwriting where you get stuck, here are some basic tips that will hopefully get them working for you:

  1. Most songs in the pop genres are strongly in one key or another. A bit of ambiguity is a nice thing, particularly in verses and bridges, but most of the time, chords should be arranged so that the key is clearly evident.
  2. If you’d like to add a bit of ambiguity to your chord progressions, try starting your progression on a non-tonic chord. That means starting on a chord that isn’t the I-chord. Here are a few to get you started. They’ll work in any key, though C major is given):
    1. Am  G  C  G/B [vi  V  I  V6] (repeat)
    2. F  G  C  Am  Dm  G  C [IV  V  I  vi  ii  V  I]
    3. Em  F  C  Dm  Em  F  Am  G [iii  IV  I  ii  iii  IV  vi  V] (repeat)
  3. Ending a progression with a deceptive cadence is a nice way to use a musical “surprise.” Using a deceptive cadence means ending the progression with a chord you’re not necessarily expecting. Some progressions make it clear that you’re ending on the tonic chord. So instead of ending there, you can add a musical surprise by ending somewhere else:
    1. C  G/B  Am  G  F  G  Ab
    2. C  C/E  F  G  Am
    3. C  F  Am  Ab7  C/G  G  F
  4. Try to avoid too many chords where the roots are adjacent letter names. A few adjacent roots in a row are fine, but more than 3 or so, and you’ve got a progression that sounds lame, like this one:  C  Dm  Em  F  G  Am  G  C. The bass line is nice, but all the tones of each chord move parallel to each other. If you want an ascending bass line, try this: C  G/D  C/E  F  C/G  Am  G  C. The bass line still ascends (C-D-E-F etc.), but the chord roots jump around (C G C F C Am etc), and it’s more musically satisfying.
  5. A shorter progression that repeats is often better than a long progression that doesn’t. That’s not a rule, you should know. But because songs in popular genres often relies on a groove of some sort, a short repeating progression helps to establish that groove.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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