Brian Wilson

Creating Musical Surprises In Your Chord Progressions

Chord progressions, even in music that sounds innovative or novel, are usually the most predictable part of a song’s design. A song might have lyrics that are hard to understand, and use odd instruments, time signatures or unpredictable melodic ideas, but chords are usually the most easily understood part.

That’s why I often use landscape as an analogy for a good progression. You might build a weirdly innovative house with bizarre design elements, but most of the time that house will need smooth land to sit on. In that sense, the land is simply supporting the house, and isn’t meant to steal the limelight.


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That’s often the way it is with chords in a song. You want those chords to move usually (but not necessarily always) in predictable ways. I love the progression Brian Wilson uses for “God Only Knows”, but I think most of what makes that progression sound innovative is his use of inversions, and not so much the chord choices themselves. The chords move quite predictably.

So when you’ve worked out a chord progression for your song, but you find that there’s something unsettling about it — a moment in that progression, perhaps, that just doesn’t seem to work well — how do you fix it?

If you’ve played your progression over and over, and can’t identify why it’s not working, try this idea: work backwards.

No, I don’t mean play the progression backwards, but it can be useful to play the end of the progression, and then keep adding chords from earlier in the sequence. Here’s a simple example of what I mean:

Let’s say you’ve come up with this progression from the key of C major:

C  Am  Eb  G  C.

You like the innovative quality — the surprise aspect — but something about it sounds structurally weak. How do you fix it?

Try working backwards:

  1. Play the final two chords. No problem: G to C will always work fine.
  2. Add the Eb to the front end. Now you’re noticing the problem: Eb to G to C sounds a bit too abrupt. Specifically, it’s the Eb to G that sounds like a stretch.

You’ve got two solutions to a chord that doesn’t work:

  1. Change the Eb to something else; or
  2. Follow it with something that moves more smoothly to the G chord.

This will take some experimenting, but you’ll find, for example, that Eb moving to F works quite well, giving you:

C  Am  Eb  F  C

You might opt to change the G to a Dm, giving you:

C  Am  Eb  Dm  C

You’ll notice that we accept that Eb as a curious musical surprise when it happens, but it’s what happens afterward that determines if that Eb works or not.

Musical Surprises: It’s All About How You Get Out Of Them

Musical surprises, like the Eb (it’s a surprise because it’s not a chord from the key of C major) are an important part of good musical composition. But as I say, it’s what happens after it that usually determines whether it works or not.

Most of the time, particularly with regard to chord progressions, something surprising should be followed by something predictable. With chords, a non-diatonic chord (i.e., a chord that doesn’t belong to the key of choice) should be followed with something that helps to pull the music back into the key. In our example the Eb to G sounded odd — too much of a jump, perhaps — but Eb to F, or Eb to Dm, was a little easier on the ears.

This principle doesn’t just apply to chords, by the way. Most audiences will readily accept a certain measure of music surprise in your songs, but it’s all about how you come out of that surprise. And in most cases, moving smoothly to something predictable and unsurprising is often the best way forward.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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