Most songs in the pop genres use simple chord progressions. “Simple” means that they target the tonic chord — the chord that represents the song’s key — and make that tonic chord sound like “home.”
These sorts of progressions:
- C-F-G7-C (I-IV-V7-I)
- C-Am-Dm-G-C (I-vi-ii-V-I)
- C-Dm-G-C (I-ii-V-I)
These are all in the key of C major, and when you play them, you can hear that C sounds like home base. Nothing in these progressions sound weird or unpredictable.
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Before you pass them off as boring, you need to know that most songs will work quite well using these kinds of very basic progressions. Audiences don’t typically judge them harshly for being mundane. In most songwriting, if your lyrics and melodies are interesting, creative and imaginative, they’ll subconsciously hear the chord progressions underneath them as simply being supportive.
But let’s say that you want more from your progressions. If you want to branch out and create chord progressions that are more inspired or unconventional, you can run into problems.
The problems happen because audiences take “musical confidence” from progressions that have an element of predictability. If chords seem too haphazard, they feel lost, confused, and may abandon the song.
Let’s start simple… Let’s say that you’ve created a chord progression like this one:
C Db G E7 F C G (click below to listen)
The main culprit is that Db chord. Everything else fits nicely into C major, including the E7 chord which is a kind of chord called a secondary dominant. When a listener hears that first C chord, they think C major, then their ears get wrenched a bit when Db happens, because now they don’t know which way things are going.
And let’s say that though you like the Db chord, the fact that it jumps out a bit and pulls you out of C major is bothering you. There are 2 things you can do to make that chord behave a little better with the other chords in that progression, and they both involve manipulating the bass note:
- Try a bass pedal point. A bass pedal point means that you’re going to hang onto the C bass note that comes with the C chord, and then when the Db happens, keep the C. And in fact, you can keep holding onto it through the G chord as well. The pedal point helps “anchor” the listener to C major, and makes Db sound a bit more like it belongs.
C Db/C G/C E7 F C G
- Try a chord inversion on the Db (a “slash chord”). The Db chord uses the notes Db-F-Ab. By putting the F (the 3rd of the chord) in the bass, you give it an easier transition from the Db chord to G, and that helps make it sound less intrusive.
C Db/F G E7 F C G
This chord progression just has one chord that’s a bit odd. The progression you’re planning might have more chords that are hard to explain in terms of key, but these two solutions can still work.
- See if a bass pedal will work, and if the tonic bass isn’t doing the job, try a dominant pedal, which means to play the 5th note of the key (the note G, in our example).
- Try the inversion idea, and if putting the 3rd in the bass isn’t working, try the 5th.
And of course, both ideas can work together. All you’re really looking for is a way for audiences to understand what the weird chords are doing in your progression, and manipulating the bass note is the best way forward.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
Excellence happens when you practice your technique. Gary’s 9-Lesson Course takes you through the fundamentals of writing good lyrics, melodies and chords, and helps you understand the concepts of great songwriting structure. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
The second suggestion about the inversion is interesting. Using what classicists would call a ‘6’ position does tend to soften the impact of a chord somewhat. I also wonder if it works because ‘F’ is the only tone of the Db chord that is in the C scale.