7 Ways Chord Progressions Affect the Mood of Your Music

If you’re like many songwriters, coming up with a solid progression that supports the mood of your song is an important first step in the songwriting process. The process usually looks bit like this:

  1. Improvise (either on guitar or keyboard) some chords that work well together.
  2. Find a catchy rhythm that makes those chords sound fresh and unique.
  3. Add a bit of melody and possibly lyric that gives those chords some life.

At that point, you’ve either got the makings of a chorus hook, or you’ve just worked out the intro and beginning of the verse for a new song.

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Chords and Mood

You’ll notice that the chords you choose have an important role right from the start: they indicate the mood of your song. Once you hear those chords, you’ll find that the tempo you choose, as well as the playing style, will support the mood that the chords create.

That notion, of one thing (chords) being supported by the next things (tempo, style, melodic choice, etc.) is how most songwriting processes work. Nothing is in isolation; everything needs to support everything else, or you don’t have a very good song.

Of all the elements that go together to make a song, chords will probably affect the mood of your music more than any other. So it’s not unusual for a chords-first songwriter to get those chords working first before they even know what the song is going to be about.

How do chords create mood? The affect is subjective, so different chords will have a different effect depending on past musical and cultural experience, but here’s a general guideline:

  1. Major chords tend to be perceived as brightening a mood, while minor ones will darken a mood.
  2. Chord progressions that produce rising bass lines will often add a feeling of positivity and empowerment to music.
  3. Chord progressions that produce descending bass lines will often add a feeling of melancholy or introspection to music.
  4. Switching major chords to minor substitutions will often darken the mood of the music. Example: C  F  G  C |C  F  G  Am (I IV V I|I IV V vi). That’s a repeating progression that uses Am the second go-through, and that Am has a darkening effect.
  5. Changing key to something higher will often raise and brighten the mood of music. Example: C  F G  C  Ab7  |Db  Gb…
  6. Mixing major and minor chords within the same progression is the best way to control the mood of your music, particularly since it allows you to choose chords that work with the lyric of the moment.
  7. Adding non-diatonic chords to a progression, particularly flat-III and flat-VII, will add a darker edge to music. Example: using C  F  Bb  C (I IV  bVII I) instead of C  F  G  C (I IV V I)

It’s important to remember that nothing works in isolation in songwriting. So it’s not enough to simply choose chords that hopefully support the mood you’re going for. At every moment within your song, melodic shape, lyric, and instrumental effects are going to be important partners.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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