Helping an Audience Understand Your Weird Chord Progressions

Here’s a quick tip for you if you like complex chord progressions: keep the weirdness toward the middle of your progression, and make the beginning and ending of it tonally strong.

Here’s what that means: Most songs in the pop genres are going to be in one key or another, and so if you want that key to be at least somewhat clear to your audience, you’re going to have to end it by giving them something predictable and strong.

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So no matter how complex your progression is, you’ll probably want to end it on a tonic chord (I), approached by something predictable (V-I, or IV -I, or ii-I, or even bVII-I, for example).

The same goes for the beginning. Keep the start of your progression relatively strong and unsurprising. So I-IV, I-V, I-ii… these are all great ways to start.

So far, you have this:

Chord Progression Line Drawing

Once you’ve set up a tonally strong beginning, you’ve gained the trust of your audience that you know what you’re doing, and also makes them more willing to hear something a bit more challenging to their ears.

So that middle section might do any of several things (sample keys and fragments of progressions shown in brackets):

  1. It might move briefly into a new key area. (Beginning: C minor // Middle: Eb major // End: C minor)
  2. It might introduce non-diatonic chords (chords that don’t belong to your chosen key. (Beginning: C major // Middle: Fm – Ddim – G___Ab – Dbmaj7 – Ebsus4 – Eb //End: C major)
  3. It might simple wander around, being tonally ambiguous, pulling back into the original key as the melody comes to an end (Beginning: C major // Middle: Gb/Ab – F/G – Bb/C – A/B, etc… End: C/D  F/G  Cmaj7)

The point is, there’s a lot of strength that comes from keeping chord weirdness to the middle part of a song section, and moving back into something much more predictable and tonally strong by the end.

So if you find that your own songs sound a bit too aimless for your liking, where you find that your listeners are getting lost in your creative approach to chords, the problem may be that you haven’t given them enough to understand clearly before moving into something more ambiguous.

And keep in mind that if you want to strengthen a tonally ambiguous moment in your chords, try modifying what you’ve come up with in such a way that adjacent chords have roots that are a 4th or 5th away from each other. Even just one change can help.

An example:

C  Db  Bb  A  Ab  G  C.

It’s creative, and it can be made to work, especially in slower tempos. But if you’re finding it a bit too random for your audience, try changing that Ab chord to a Dm. Dm is good for several reasons: it’s in the key of C major, it’s a 4th up from A before it and a 4th below the G that comes after. So it really works well to strengthen the end of that progression.

One final thought: Chord progressions are hard to evaluate out of context. Some progressions can be aimless almost from beginning to end and still come across as fine and workable. So determining if or how to fix a progression really depends on your ears, and your assessment of how it’s working.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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