Chord progressions are the one aspect of songwriting where random improvisation can give you something amazing, but unfortunately you’ll often need to wait a very long time before that amazing thing happens, wading through a lot of garbage in the meantime.
That’s because there is a logic to chords and the way they move from one to the next. That logic is called chord theory. Even the progressions that we think of as surprising, innovative or unpredictable are the result of some aspect of theory.
If you like the chords-first process, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will show you how to avoid many of the pitfalls you can encounter with this popular songwriting process. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle
If you’re sitting at a keyboard or strumming a guitar, moving randomly from one chord to the next to see what happens, you’re wasting a lot of time. Why? Because most progressions in most songs use chords that come from a rather small set of choices.
In other words, there are hundreds of chords, and most of them sound horrible next to each other. When all is said and done, you’ll finally choose anywhere from 4 to 8 chords that all seem to work nicely together.
And the thing is, those 4 to 8 chords could have been found within seconds with a minimal bit of knowledge of how chords work.
So here’s my suggestion: use the following steps to find the 7 chords that all come from the same key. Once you’ve done that, improvise on those chords. Once you’ve got something that sounds acceptable, then it’s time to make subtle changes that give your progression a sense of innovation, and perhaps include chords that come from outside the key, or are altered in some interesting way.
I’m going to show you these steps using Roman numerals, with examples in C major. Everything is transposable to whatever key you ultimately choose. (That key choice will depend on your song’s melody, and whether the key needs to be moved up or down to make the melody more easily singable.)
There are many ways to do this, but to simplify things for your first attempts, grab your instrument and a pencil, and try this:
- Write the 7 chords across your sheet of paper that come from C major. (If you don’t know how these are derived, you need to read this article.) So across the top you will have written C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim (I ii iii IV V vi viiº)
- Limit your improvisations to only those 7 chords to begin with. Because they all come from the same key, they’ll work well together. There’ll be time to add others later.
- To further simplify: if you find that improvising on those 7 is still resulting in progressions that seem directionless, try this: Choose any 2 chords, and follow them with a tonic chord — the C chord. Example:
F Dm C; or Am F C; or G F C, etc.
So now you’ve got a framework within which you can find progressions that at least work! Make longer progressions if you like, but keep in mind that most songs do not use more than 5 or 6 chords in different combinations.
You’ll also find that most progressions will use I, ii, IV, V and vi, and use iii and viiº less frequently.
Expanding On Your Progressions
Now that you’ve got progressions that work, it’s time to make them more interesting. Try the following:
- Using inversions (slash chords). Placing a note from the chord other than the letter name of the chord means you’re inverting the chord. So C/E means to play a C major chord, but have E as the lowest-sounding note in the chord. More about chord inversions: “How to Use Chord Inversions (“Slash Chords”) – Plus 6 Examples“. So let’s ay that you came up with the following progression that you like: C G Am G. If you put a B in the bass of the first G chord, you end up with a bass line that moves downward, which can work nicely in a song: C G/B Am G.
- Using altered chords. An altered chord means changing a note in a chord to wind up with something slightly different. For example, turning an F chord into Fm is a great way to add a bit of variety to your progression. So this progression, C F C, could become C F Fm C. Read “When and How to Use Altered Chords in Your Progressions” to get some ideas of others.
- Try chords from outside your chosen key. Do this: take a 4- or 5-chord sequence, perhaps something like: C F Dm G C. Now focus on the Dm, and change it randomly to something — anything — else. Some of your choices won’t sound great, but some will add an interesting flavour. So C F F# G C won’t likely work for you, but perhaps C F Bb G C will be more to your liking.
The benefit to going with step 3 above is that you’ve already got a progression that works, and you’re simply targeting one chord to change. That is a lot better than randomly meandering all over the place trying to find an entire progression that works.
Remember, it doesn’t take much to come up with a chord progression that sounds innovative. Usually all it takes is one chord out of 4 or 5 that is creative or surprising, and when you use it, the entire progression sounds innovative.
Hopefully this set of steps will give you a solid direction to work in, and make the chords-first process a little more efficient and tonally solid for you.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas”. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas.