In music, the tonic chord is the one that represents the key. So for a song in C major, C is the tonic. To use a metaphor, it’s home. Progressions may meander around seemingly aimlessly, but once you play the tonic chord, you sense relaxation: you’re home.
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When you examine the chords used in pop songs, you’ll find that the tonic often appears at the start of many progressions, and almost always at the end. In old-time rock and roll, this would have been typical: the intro chords from “Young Love” (Ric Cartey, Carole Joyner)
C Am F G C I vi IV V I
It starts on the tonic, takes a little trip “around the neighbourhood”, and then winds up back on the tonic.
As it starts out, you can sense the “looking for the tonic” in that progression. With each chord, the pull back to the tonic gets ever stronger. When it finally returns after the G chord, you feel the sense of arrival – home.
These days, songwriters are often looking for more creative ways to eventually return to the tonic. If you’re trying to find a progression that is a little more creative than the simple I-vi-IV-V-I of “Young Love”, here is something to try.
Take a look at the following progressions. The first two are in C major, and the third one is in A minor. They’re long, but if you start somewhere in the middle and work your way to the end of each progression, you’ve got a shorter one that will work every time. In fact, you can pretty much start anywhere:
So for example, in Progression 1, you could choose to start on chord no. 9 (Am) and work your way to the end. Or you might opt to try starting on chord no. 7 (G), and you’ve still got one that works.
Also, these progressions will all work if you play chord no. 1, then jump to any spot in the progression and proceed through the chords to the end from that point.
So with these 3 long progressions, you’ve got many smaller progressions you can experiment with.
The reason they work is that they all do what any good pop progression does: eventually get you back to the tonic chord.
Never worry about the predictability of shorter progressions. We don’t like predictability with melody or lyrics, but predictable chords are not often a problem. So even though the examples above are long, consider the shorter 3- or 4-chord possibilities from the end of each progression. They may sound predictable, but they’ll work well.
You might try experimenting with short cells of chords from the middle of each progression. They won’t all work, so you’ll have to use your ear and determine their usefulness for yourself. But just as a few examples from Progression 3, you might try chords 3-5 (Am Dm Am), 5-8 (Am F Gsus4 G), or 8-11 (G Am Em F).