There are songwriters that like to use complex progressions that really take us on an intricate musical journey. But the fact is that most of the time, particularly in popular music genres (pop, country, folk, etc.), chord progressions are largely predictable.
No songwriter I know likes to use the word “predictable” in describing any aspect of their music, but in the case of chord progressions, predictability is a virtue. Melodies, phrasing, lyrics — those can and should be somewhat creative, but chords should most of the time give us what we’re expecting from them.
Looking for lists of progressions you can use in your own songs? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle has 2 main collections, plus eBooks on how to harmonize your own melodies, and more.
If you’re hoping to use progressions that are a little bit surprising, it’s best to start with something strong and predictable, and then find opportunities to insert creative moments within them.
Here’s more about what I mean. Let’s look at a longish progression that might work well in a pop song verse, something like the following progression in C major:
C Am F Dm E7 Am D7 G C…
There are moments in that progression that are predictable, but other moments where you could have gone in several different directions:
- The opening chords (C Am F Dm) are predictable in the sense that, even though you might have done things differently, that part of the progression has been done in enough songs that it gives us little surprise at all.
- The E7 is a surprise. There aren’t many songs we can list that throw an E7 into a progression in C major. Once you reached that Dm chord, there were several possible chords you could have more predictably followed it with (F, G, Am, for example). E7 is definitely a departure.
- The Am is predictable. The musically logical choice to follow that E7 is an Am chord.
- The D7 is a bit of a surprise. It would have been more common to follow the Am with a Dm chord. Why? Because Dm naturally exists in the key of C major and D7 does not.
- The G and C are very predictable choices. Particularly because you’ll want the progression to end on a C chord (it is in C major, after all), G and C are very common, predictable ways to do that.
Overall, I’d call this a mainly strong progression. Even with the E7 which might amount to a musical surprise, it behaves very predictably.
There are lots of ways a song can go wrong, but here are 7 of the most common problems, along with solutions for you to try: “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” Buy the eBOok separately, or get it as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
These days in the pop music world, both verse and chorus progressions tend to be predictable in this way, and I want to emphasize that this is usually not a bad thing. Creative chords that take us on unpredictable journeys can be interesting, but aren’t necessary to the success of a song. Being creative with melody, lyrics, instrumentation and phrasing is far more important.
Inserting Surprises In a Chord Progression
To create a progression that’s a little less predictable, you might find that it’s best to start with one that’s largely strong and predictable, and then look for opportunities to create innovative moments, like this:
C Dm G C
C Dm Bb F G C
I experimented with a chord that might follow the Dm by first trying out “non-diatonic” chords — ones that don’t normally exist in the key of C major. The Bb is a flat-VII — not that uncommon — and I liked the sound of it.
I then followed that Bb with an F chord, knowing that chords that have roots that are a 4th or 5th away usually work fine. That got me from Bb to F. And since F is a chord we naturally find in C major, I knew that would work.
From there, I can also insert other moments:
C Em Dm Bb F Bb Am G C…
Each time, I take the progression as is, and then find chords to insert in and around the ones that I know will work. By doing it that way, I am making a progression that’s a bit more creative, and takes us on more of a journey, but the original, strong, predictable part is still there: C Dm G C.
One other bit of advice: As you try to assemble more creative progressions, let your ears always be your guide. You don’t necessarily need to know why something works, but it needs to sound musically sensible to you. You’ll find that keeping the beginning and end of your progressions predictable, saving the more creative bits for the middle, almost always works.
Even if you don’t have a background in music theory, there’s a lot about chord theory you can discover and use! Several eBooks in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle (plus the free “Creative Chord Progressions”) show you exactly why chords work the way they do, and then show you how to use them in your own songs.