Of all the various elements that go together to make a song, you’ll find that a boring chord progression will almost never be a problem. A boring melody can be a problem (not always, though), and a boring lyric might spell a song’s demise.
But the chords? They can be as stunningly boring as a constantly repeating I-IV-V, and the song can still succeed, even become a hit (“La Bamba” – Mexican folk song made famous by Ritchie Valens).
But what do you do if that I-IV-V is just a little too mind-numbing for you? How do you create chord progressions that are more creative?
Targeting the Tonic Chord
Practically all chord progressions in pop music target the tonic chord — the I-chord. It’s hard to name a song where the tonic chord doesn’t feature as the primary target:
- “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson) – (F#m minor) i – VII – i – VII – i -VII – i – VII – VI – iv – i
- “Rumour Has It” (Adele Adkins, Ryan Tedder) (D minor) i….. (isus4 – i)
- “Let It Be” (Lennon & McCartney) – (C major) I – V – vi – IV – I – V – IV – I
For each of those songs, and practically any other you can name, chords play supporting role. In that sense, their role is structural; they reinforce the melody above it. And most importantly, in practically all songs, the chord progressions represent a journey away from and back to the tonic chord.
Longer chord progressions might use more chords, but when all is said and done, they still represent this all-important tonic chord journey. “Beth”, written by Peter Criss, Stan Penridge and Bob Ezrin, and recorded by Kiss (1976), uses this long progression:
C C/F C Am F G/F Em E7 | Am G F Em D7 F G Am… F F/G C
It’s long, and it takes its time. It starts on the tonic chord (C), takes a brief sideline visit to the key of A minor before it eventually returns to C major. That’s a long journey, but C major is the important starting and ending point.
No matter how creative you decide to get with your progressions, that tonic target is still crucial. When chord progressions fail, it’s almost always because you’ve lost the sense of where the tonic is. It’s why it’s so much easier to make a short progression work than a long one.
So if you’re tired of the same old I-IV-V progression, what can you do to make a progression longer and more interesting? Here are 7 tips to keep in mind:
- Let the progression target one particular chord as being the tonic — the key chord. When you play through your progression, one chord in particular should stand out as sounding like “home”: I IV V/V V vi IV V I (C F D G Am F G C).
- Make a progression more interesting by starting with a shorter, more predictable progression and then adding to it. Simply wandering around, trying to create interesting moments in long progressions, can have disastrous consequences. Start with something short and strong, then make it longer.
- Find new key areas to insert in the middle of a longer progression. Here’s what I mean. Look above at that progression from “Beth.” It’s a long progression, but in the middle it moves from E7 to Am. That moment in the progression is crucial, because it gives the listener a temporary “rest” from the wandering progression. It sounds, temporarily at least, as though the song has moved to the key of A minor. Then it begins a long walk back to the original tonic chord: C. That new key area in the middle allows the listener to perceive the progression in two sections, and that’s a lot easier to digest than one 19-chord-long progression.
- Keep your chord choices from being too weird. Most songs will use diatonic choices, which means that they use chords that come from one particular key. If you want to get creative and venture beyond those choices, try chords that are easier to make sense of. For example, you might try inserting:
- bVII, bVI, or bIII (example: C Bb Ab Bb C)
- V/V (a D chord in C major, like this: I IV V/V V I (C F D G C)
- V/vi (an E chord in C major, like this: I IV V/vi vi (C F E Am)
- Try others… use your imagination, but once you’ve used a non-diatonic chord, find a way to get back to common diatonic chords as quickly as possible.
- Work the melody and chords together. If you’re using a chords-first process, work out the melody as you go. That helps to keep your melody from getting too weird.
- When chord choices sound odd, it usually comes down to how they’re approached. If you throw an odd chord into the mix and it doesn’t sound right, your audience will also react negatively. If you’re determined to make the odd chord work, look at the chord immediately before it, and see if you can change it to help the strange chord sound a bit more palatable.
Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks. They’ll clean up your songwriting process, and help you to be a much more creative writer. Comes with a Study Guide, tons of chord progressions, and information covering every aspect of how to write good music.