Peter Gabriel - Car

3 Big Tips For Making More Interesting Chord Progressions.

Every once in a while I take a look at the visitor stats for my blog, and especially take note of which pages — and in particular the topics — are the most popular. Typically it’s been articles about chords that get the most attention – usually 6 out of the 7 top posts.

So imagine my surprise today to find that of the 7 most popular posts, only 3 of them pertain to chord progressions. Two of the others were posts I wrote about melodies (“5 Most Important Qualities of Good Song Melodies“, and “A 10-Step Process For Adding Melody To Your Lyrics.” The other two were “8 Tips For Writing a Song Bridge,” as well as my home page itself.

How to Harmonize a MelodyOnce you’ve got a melody, how do you know which chords will work with it? “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to do exactly that. Shows the secrets of harmonic rhythmidentifying the key of your melody, chord function, and more. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

Those stats may be an anomaly; from everything I see online, many or most songwriters feel that chords merit the most attention. I think it’s because we hear chords as being a kind of landscape upon which other musical elements are placed: melodies and lyrics in particular.

And because of this, we give chords the same kind of attention that we’d give a true landscape if we were buying a piece of property upon which to build a house.

The thing is, in music, chords don’t need to be anything dramatic or head-turning. I love creative chords, but I’d far rather have innovative lyrics and melodies than innovative chords. That’s because as chords get weirder and less predictable, they leave us out in the cold, musically speaking. There is a fine line between chords that are pleasantly creative and chords that don’t work.

So if you’re trying to create better chord progressions for your songs, improvising is going to help you find some interesting solutions. But as you search for those new and exciting chord solutions, I think you should consider the following 3 big tips to guide you in that search:

  1. Make complexity out of simplicity. In other words, if you want a progression that sounds innovative, start with something that’s tried, true & predictable, and manipulate that. That leaves a core progression that’s still going to work. Example: Take this “boring” progression: C  F  G  C, and freshen it up by adding a tonic pedal (the note C) under each chord. The progression is the same, but now sounds more creative.
  2. Don’t abandon the theory behind why chord progressions work in the first place. I’m simply saying here that you shouldn’t ignore what people are ultimately looking for: some journey, however simple or complex, away from and back to the tonic chord. Example: C  F#  Ebm  Am… There’s no denying the creative nature of this kind of progression, but all you’ve done is confuse your audience. Moments of oddness are fine, but help your audience find their way through the oddness to something they can understand.
  3. Remember that no one hums chord progressions. If you really want something that audiences are going to remember, concentrate on crafting beautiful melodies and stimulating lyrics. No song has ever made it to a best-songs-ever list because of its chord progression.

The music of Peter Gabriel is a favourite example of mine to show how subtle the straying from basic progressions needs to be. In his song “Moribund the Burgermeister” (from his 1977 “Car” album), the opening progression, used also in the verse, is: Eb7  Ab  Eb7  Ab  |Bb7  Eb  Bb7 Eb, all over a pedal dominant (Eb).

That progression isn’t overly inventive; it’s the instrumentation, melodic ideas, vocal style and rhythmic treatment that gives the song its unique sound.

So if you’re looking to make your music more imaginative, don’t focus too much on chords. Work instead to add a touch of originality to your melodies, lyrics and rhythmic treatments.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Essential Secrets of Songwriting Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs.

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  1. Hi Gary … I’ve found this to be particularly true when I compose songs in DADGAD. Six or seven of my originals are in DADGAD and since I’m a relative neophyte to the tuning, by necessity, there is a lot of duplication of chords and chord progressions. Actually almost every song centers around the I, IV, V chords, but through creative lyrics and particularly through interesting melodies each song has a personality all it’s own.

    • Hi Judson:

      Thanks very much for your comment. I certainly agree with you that the unique personality of each song will happen because of the lyrics and melody, more so than the progressions themselves. I think for songwriters who want to find even more uniqueness, they should look to other elements such as tempo, playing technique, and other production-related innovations. Listeners want something predictable in music that they can anchor themselves to, and I think solid chords are the answer.

      Thanks again!

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