There are probably lots of ways to categorize chord progressions, but for songwriters, the most helpful way would be to think of them as either being fragile or strong.
Those terms, fragile and strong, pertain to how clearly identifiable the key is. For progressions that wander about, with lots of interesting twists and turns, you’re probably looking at a fragile progression: the tonic chord is not overly obvious, and so the sense of key is a bit ambiguous. (Fragile is good, by the way.)
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A good example of a mainly fragile progression is: Dm Em Am Fm C F G Am. It starts on Dm, then goes through some chords that seem to indicate the key of A minor. But then you get a short bit that sounds like C major before ending on Am. It’s a great progression; it’s just that the key isn’t laid out in plain sight.
Strong progressions are ones that tend to be shorter, and more clearly identify one chord as being the tonic (or key) chord. They work well as chords to accompany a short catchy hook, so they make the key fairly clear: C F G C. Playing that progression, you can hear that C is the tonic chord.
Strong progressions are important to pop songwriting. There’s nothing ambiguous about them, and a strong progression still allows you a lot of flexibility to create an imaginative melody.
When you talk about the standard 3-chord song, you’re usually talking about I-IV-V (C-F-G), or perhaps I-ii-V (C-Dm-G). But is there a way to create a short, strong chord progression that doesn’t use something quite so predictable as those chords?
Yes, there are other options for creating a 3-chord song with a bit more creativity. What makes a chord progression strong is the preponderance of root movements of 4ths or 5ths: From C to F is a 5th, and from G back to C is also a 5th. That interval of the fifth (or fourth, which is an inverted fifth) adds structural strength to a progression.
So you simply need to create other progressions with at least one or two occurrences of root movements of fifths.
One great example is The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (Pete Townshend), most of which is based on these three chords:
What makes the progression creative is that there’s no V-chord, and makes use of a flat-VII. The distance between A and D is a fifth (or inverted fourth), and same for the distance between D and G. That fifth provides a strength that works brilliantly in this song.
If you’re looking for other examples of these kind of 3-chord progressions, try the following (with examples in C major). You can create longer progressions by simply repeating small sections of the progressions:
- I-bVII-bIII (C-Bb-Eb)
- I-bIII-IV (C-Eb-F)
- I-V-V/V-V (C-G-D-G)
- I-iii-vi (C-Em-Am)
- I-IV-iii (C-F-Em)
Even in that last progression, where there’s only one instance of the root movement of a fifth (C to F), that’s enough to provide the tonal direction and strength that’s needed to make a progression sound organized and strong.
All of these chord progressions can be combined to make longer ones. Or as I mentioned earlier, you can create longer progressions by simply moving back and forth between two chords of a 3-chord sequence.
As always, your ears will be your guide as to whether or not you’re creating something that’s strong and useful for your own songs. The great thing about using these kinds of 3-chord progressions is that they’re unique enough that your song will sound innovative, but strong enough to add musical strength to your song’s structure.
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