Keyboard player - songwriter - chord inversions

Ideas for Experimenting With a Chord Progression

Do you find that your fingers keep moving to the same chord progressions every time you sit down to improvise ideas for your next song? One of the easiest ways of dealing with this is to use a collection of chord progressions and start playing through them. (Check out the collections in my eBook Bundle package.)

But even before you move on to other progressions, there are some things you can do to that over-used progression your subconscious mind insists on using. Let’s say that you like the sound of this circle-of-fifths-based progression in  major:

C-Am-Dm-G7-C… (I-vi-ii-V-I…)

There are things you can do to that progression that make it sound fresh and interesting, while keeping a lot of it intact. Here are some ideas to try:

1. Extend the progression by moving into the relative minor.

In music theory terms, the relative minor is going to be a minor 3rd below the relative major. So take that C-major progression, change the final chord to Am, and then do the same thing that the original progression did: change C-Am to the minor equivalent: Am-F.

Then keep going in a circle-of-fifths, like this: Am-F-Bdim-E7-Am. Then, if you want, replace that final Am with a C to jump back to C major. (You can use Em instead of E7, for a slightly different sound.)

That gives you this:


2. Try it backwards.

Not every progression will sound good when played backwards because the forward direction is an important part of what makes many progressions work. But progressions that are circle-of-fifth-based will still sound strong, and may only require a change or two:


3. Try bits before moving on.

Just because a progression might be, let’s say, 7 chords long doesn’t mean you must use all 7 every time. Try this: play the progression by moving back and forth between the first two chords before then proceeding through the progression. For our sample progression, that means:

C-Am-C-Am|C-Am-C-Am|Dm-G7-Dm-G7|Dm-G7… etc

4. Try changing key upward.

There’s a nice relationship between the sound of C major and Eb major. So try this:

C-Am-Dm-G7|Eb-Cm-Fm-Bb7|C… etc.

The won’t work for every genre, but it’s a nice alternative to staying constantly in C major.

5. Use modal mixtures.

A modal mixture is a chord that comes from the opposite mode of your song. In other words, if your song is in C major, a modal mixture would be a chord that comes from the set that comes from the key of C minor. For example, using Fm instead of F if your song is in C major. In our sample progression, you have at least a couple of choices:



The great thing about modifying an existing (but boring or overused) progression is that you’re starting out with one that you know works. The little changes you make will surprise you for what — and how much — they will add to your music.

When it comes to chords, small changes make a big difference.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “How to Harmonize a Melody”. Discover the secrets to adding chords to that melody you’ve come up with. A step-by-step process, with sound samples to guide you.

How to Harmonize a Melody


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