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One common complaint I hear from songwriters is that when trying to come up with a unique or creative chord progression, it starts to sound like aimless wandering — a confusing mess.
I have some tips listed below that I hope will help, but before getting to that list, consider this: Don’t try so hard to create a completely unique or creative progression. There really is no progression that hasn’t been used before.
This means that any good progression has already been used. This is not a problem, of course. The uniqueness or creative aspect of your song should come from your lyrics and melodies, as well as your musical arrangement and production. Those are the elements that should be captivating and unique, and many great songs have become huge hits, built on very benign or otherwise standard progressions.
These tips below are not tips to help you make creative, unique progressions. The tips are meant to give you something that sounds strong, and something that you know works. So if your chords do, in fact, sound aimless or confusing, here are some tips to help you troubleshoot them:
- Stick mainly to chords that come from your song’s key. If your song is in C major, for example, each note of a C major scale will serve as the root of a chord that naturally occurs in that key. Building 3-note chords above the notes of that scale will give you: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim.
- When a chord sounds weird, follow it with a chord whose root is a 4th or 5th away. To simplify this, let’s say that your progression starts with C – Dm – Em… but you don’t know what you should do next. It’s almost always going to work to move up a 4th or down a 5th, so your next chord could be: Am.
- Keep chord progressions from getting too long. Long progressions that use lots of different chords will lose their connection to the tonic chord, and that makes a progression sound aimless.
- Use chord inversions (“slash” chords) if your progression sounds too predictable for your tastes. Inverting chords — placing a note other than the root at the bottom — can breathe life into an otherwise mundane progression.
- Complex or aimless chords can actually sound interesting in a verse or bridge, but choruses should feature mainly strong progressions. In this context, strong means solidly pointing to one chord as the tonic. So if your song is in C major, the chorus progression should be short and repetitive, making C sound like the tonic. But your verse can sometimes benefit from some tonal ambiguity. Just remember, if you’ve deliberately written a verse to be musically ambiguous, use the chorus to tighten everything up and strengthen the sense of key.
If you’ve got a melody, but you struggle with how to add chords that work, you need to read “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It will show you using an easy step-by-step method, including sound files to help with the process. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”