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.
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.
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