If you’ve got a melody, but don’t know how to add chords to it, you need to read “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It will show you, with sound samples, a clear step-by-step for adding chords that will make your melody sound great.
In most pop songs, the chord progressions you’ll find yourself using will target the tonic chord. The tonic chord is the one that represents the key; for example, C is the tonic chord of C major.
We use that term “target the tonic chord” to mean that it makes the tonic sound like a good start and a good finishing point of the progression. So when you look at the chords for Adele’s “Someone Like You” (key of A major, making A the tonic chord), you can see this targeting clearly:
A E F#m D (5 times)
Each time you play through that progression, you hear the chord A as sounding like “home.” The progression starts on that chord, and it can end nicely on that chord as well. Think of A as being your house, and E, F#m and D as being other houses in your neighbourhood; you start in your house, travel around your neighbourhood, and return home each time you’ve finished your visit.
That makes this progression strong, and most choruses in pop music use this kind of unambiguous progression.
By contrast, a fragile progression is one that makes that tonic chord a little less obvious. To use our “neighbourhood” analogy, imagine if, while walking around your neighbourhood, you walk through some hidden alleys, through someone else’s back garden, and so on, instead of sticking to the main street to get back home.
By walking on those less obvious paths, it may not be immediately obvious where you are, to someone watching a video of your walk. True, you’re still in your neighbourhood, but you’ve taken some interesting twists and turns that make it less clear.
Most of the time, that’s what a fragile progression does. It wanders around a bit, and avoids using the tonic chord too much. Just like wandering through your neighbour’s back garden to get home, a fragile progression can actually be quite beautiful and interesting.
Avoiding the tonic chord is just one way that a progression becomes more fragile. There are other ways, too:
- Possibly using more chord inversions (i.e., placing a note other than the root as the lowest-sounding note of a chord: C/E)
- Possibly doing short key changes to some closely related key: C F G E/G# Am F C, where the E/G# to Am represents a quick key change to A minor before returning to C major)
- Maybe using altered chords. An altered chord is one which has been changed from the form you’d normally see in the key you’ve chosen. For example, using Fm instead of F for a song in C major.
- Maybe using non-diatonic chords. These are chords that don’t naturally occur in your song’s key: Eb in the key of C major, for example.
A fragile progression might be better thought of as being on a spectrum, in the sense that parts of a progression might be strong, other parts fragile, and so as a songwriter you can assess the entire progression to make an evaluation as to how fragile it might be.
In Lennon & McCartney’s “Penny Lane” for example (key of B major), the verse progression has strong moments (the start of the verse), and then some fragile moments (Bm7 G#ø Gmaj7) before becoming strong again.
The Balance Between Fragile and Strong
Regarding “Penny Lane,” how strong or fragile is that entire verse progression? It actually doesn’t really matter, since it won’t affect your writing in any material way. It’s more important to point out this fact:
- Fragile progressions, or at least progressions that have fragile moments, occur more often in song verses and bridges.
- Strong progressions, or at least progressions that are mostly strong, occur more often in song choruses.
It’s important not to become obsessed with this concept. The concept of fragile and strong becomes important when you find that your song chorus just doesn’t seem to have much excitement. That can happen if the chorus uses a progression that doesn’t strongly target the tonic chord. A chorus really pops when the tonic chord plays an important role, as it does in strong progressions.
The chords in the chorus of “Penny Lane” are very strong when compared to the verse. Strong progressions are also typically shorter and more “to the point” than fragile ones:
VERSE: B G#m E F# B G#m Bm7 G#ø Gmaj7 F#sus F# (A)
CHORUS: A A/C# D A A/C# D
One more important bit of information regarding fragile and strong progressions: though you’re more likely to find primarily fragile progressions in a verse and bridge, no song needs fragile progressions. A song can exist quite nicely with exclusively strong progressions. And in fact, “Someone Like You” uses all strong progressions.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Learn how to write great songs by starting with the chords, and then avoiding all the potential pitfalls of the chords-first songwriting process.