Guitar - altered chords

Creating Quick Mood Swings Using Chord Surprises

One of the reasons many songwriters like the chords-first songwriting process is that chords do a great job of setting up a mood. Once you’ve got the mood, you’ll find that lyrics happen a bit easier, and then many things fall into place: melody, rhythmic feel, tempo, and so on.

One way to get even more out of a chord progression is to use altered chords. An altered chord is one that takes a chord you’d normally find in a key and changing it somehow. One example of the changes you’d see would be to change major to minor (or vice versa), using what are called borrowed chords.

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Altered chords have the property of deepening and enhancing the mood of your song, so they can be powerful additions to the kinds of chords you’d use in a typical pop song. So let’s take a closer look.

Altered Chords and Borrowed Chords

A great song to demonstrate the benefit of using these types of chords is Lennon & McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son” (written primarily by McCartney). The main progression sits nicely in D major:

D  D/G  D  |Bm  Bm7/A  E/G#  E

A  D/A  A  D/A  A7 | D  Dm7  G/D  D

The Dm7 is a lovely chord choice — an altered chord. It slightly but immediately darkens the mood, adding a kind of seriousness to the music that you might not pick up from the lyric.

In the mainly instrumental chorus, the chords give us a good example of a borrowed chord, also called a modal mixture. Borrowed chords simply give us a version of the chord you might find in the opposite mode.

The chords of the chorus:

D  G/D  D| D  G/D  |D  Dmaj7  D7| G  Gm  D

That Gm chord is the surprise, since we don’t typically expect Gm in the key of D. It’s been “borrowed” from the key of D minor.

Fitting the Surprise Into the End of a Progression

Using altered or borrowed chords in the middle of a progression can be tricky if you aren’t used to using them, so one great way to do it is to toss them in at the end of a progression. When they’re at the end, the task of “fitting them in” is easier since they exist a bit apart from the main progression. Here’s an example of a chorus progression, with some borrowed chords at the end:

C  Am  Dm  G |C  Am  Dm  G | C  Bb/C  C  Bb/C| C

As you can hear, the C-Bb/C at the end of this progression adds a more serious or pensive tone to what is a simple, lighthearted circle-of-fifths progression, and very useful for songs for which you want a more intense or reflective mood.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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