Innovative, unique chord progressions are tricky, because in most pop songs the chords have an important function: provide a simple way — a musical path or road, so to speak — to move away from the tonic chord and then back again. It really is that simple.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Learn how to write great songs by starting with the chords, and then avoiding all the potential pitfalls of the chords-first songwriting process.
Sometimes the path is short, as in a typical blues progression:
Heartbreak Hotel (Mae Boren Axton, Thomas Durden, Elvis Presley)
Or it could be long and involved, like Beth, performed by KISS (Peter Criss, Stan Penridge, Bob Ezrin)
C F/C Cmaj7 Am F G7/F C/E Esus E ||Am G F Em D7 F Am F G C
Most songs these days are in between the two with regard to length. But in most cases, even the progressions that throw in some interesting moments will have one all-important function: to take the listener on a coherent journey away from the tonic chord and back again.
If you find that your progression has weak moments, or just doesn’t work, it’s usually that some basic foundational characteristic of good chord progressions has been neglected or otherwise violated.
And that could be one of any number of problems. If you find that chord progressions are the trickiest part of getting your songs to work, here are five problems that are likely to be the most common ones:
- A lack of root movement of 4ths or 5ths between adjacent chords. In most good progressions, you’re likely to see a good number of adjacent chords that have roots that are a 4th or 5th away from each other. You see it above in the progression for “Heartbreak Hotel”
- Too many non-diatonic chords. A non-diatonic chord is one which does not naturally exist in a song’s key. A few of them can be great, and can add a lot of musical interest. In the progression for “Beth”, you see an E chord in the middle, a type of secondary dominant chord that moves the key briefly away from C major and toward A minor. But if you have too many of these chords, your progression runs the risk of sounding too chaotic — too meandering.
- Chord inversions that don’t have a reason for existing. A chord inversion, also called a “slash chord”, usually exists to smooth out a jumpy bass line, or to add musical interest when one particular chord is being held for a long time. But if you simply toss them in for no good reason, it makes a progression sound a bit unstable. In “Beth”, the second chord — F/C — has the purpose of creating a so-called tonic pedal at the beginning of the progression; it has a purpose.
- A lack of good harmonic rhythm. When we talk about harmonic rhythm, we mean how frequently the chords change, especially with regard to how many melody notes happen between chord changes. There should be a noticeable pattern, though it doesn’t need to be set in cement. In “Heartbreak Hotel”, as with most other blues progressions, the chords change every 2 or 4 bars. In “Beth”, it’s mainly every 2 beats. People love noticeable patterns in music, and they work well in chord progressions.
- A lack of predictability. If you want innovation and surprises in your songs, you have to be particularly careful with chords. Think of chords as being like a road upon which other musical elements in your song travel. Surprises in a real road might keep your mind on the road itself, not allowing you to notice the scenery around you. You’d rather have a good road that has some gentle turns that allow you the freedom to notice the parts of your drive you really want to see — the landscape, the sky, the rolling hills, etc.
One of the best solutions for songwriters who find chords hard is to use progressions from already-existing songs. Remember, chords by themselves are not protected by copyright, so you can go ahead and use them. But there is a line which you might cross if you’re not careful. If you take the chords from a song, but also take the rhythms, the tempo, the instrumentation, the feel, etc., you might be crossing the plagiarism line. Take the chords, but be sure to give the progression your own treatment.