There are lots of ways to categorize chord progressions, but the one way that will be most useful for pop songwriters is to think of them as being either fragile or strong.
A fragile progression is one where the key is not necessarily clear and obvious. These can be very beautiful progressions, and are the kind that easily create a mood. Take a look at this one:
Dm Em F Bb
Try playing that one a few times at a moderately slow tempo, and you see right away that it conjures up a kind of melancholy mood. If you look at it closely, you’ll notice that the key of that progression isn’t immediately obvious. It keeps starting on Dm… perhaps it’s from the key of D minor? But no, the Em chord doesn’t come from D minor, but it could be a ii-chord from C major.
C major seems to work, but then the Bb chord doesn’t naturally exist in C major.
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It’s a perfect example of a fragile progression… the key isn’t immediately obvious because we’d need more evidence that it belongs to one key or another. I’d argue that the key that this progression comes from isn’t all that important. What is important is that it creates a mood that is easily perceived by a listener.
We know from analyzing thousands of songs that fragile progressions work best in verses and bridge sections of songs. Fragile progressions usually have what we call a “wandering” quality, nudging the mood this way and that, usually as determined by the mood of the lyric. This progression is short, but it’s not unusual for verse progressions to be long, and wander around quite a bit.
Watch this video if you want to learn more about fragile and strong progressions: “What Are Strong and Fragile Chord Progressions, and How Do I Use Them?“
By the time you get to the chorus of a song, though, we usually need something stronger in a chord progression. By stronger, we usually mean:
- The key of the song becomes more easily identifiable.
- The progression is usually short and repetitive.
- From one chord to the next, the progression is quite predictable.
The fact that a chorus progression shows the key rather easily is what makes it strong.
You can see strong progressions in verses, and that’s an important thing to remember: some songs are comprised entirely of strong progressions where the key is obvious from beginning to end, like “Man in the Mirror” (Ballard/Garrett) or “My Brave Face” (Paul McCartney/Elvis Costello).
But if you’re looking to be creative with chord progressions, keep the creative, imaginative writing for the verse, and then opt for something stronger and more predictable in the chorus. You’ll find that a stronger, shorter chorus progression usually partners up well with a chorus hook, and makes for a song that’s more memorable and more easily singable.
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