By creative chords, I mean any progressions that stray from the typical 3- or 4-chord changes that strongly reinforce the key your song is in. Standard progressions are the most common ones you’ll find in most of the pop genres, like:
- I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C)
- I-ii-V-I (C-Dm-G-C)
- I-vi-IV-I (C-Am-F-C)
- I-vi-V-I (C-Am-G-C)
There are more to add to this list, but you get the idea: they’re common enough that they sit in the background and play nice with practically any attempt you’ll make at a melody. And you’ll find them in any and all genres of music.
I’m a fan of simple chord progressions like these ones, because most of the time when people try to come up with progressions that are uncommon or complex, something usually goes wrong. Problems will arise if you think that chord progressions are simply one nice chord following another one. In fact, there is a kind of musical logic that exists in all good progressions.
That logic is otherwise known as chord function. Those progressions listed above are all constructed a very common set of functions that we find in practically all simple progressions:
Understanding chord function happens on two levels:
- We hear chord function instinctively. When we hear a tonic chord move to a pre-dominant chord, that sounds common and natural. When it moves on to the dominant chord, it sounds like it “wants” to return to the tonic chord. Even non-musicians understand and hear these functions, even if they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it.
- We can study chord theory. If you really want to fully understand what’s going on within a progression, the study of musical rudiments and theory will give you the fuller picture.
The good news is that even if you don’t have a comprehensive understanding of music theory, you will still be able to come up with something creative simply by using your ears, listening with your instincts. Lennon & McCartney did not study theory formally, and did not even read musical notation, yet much of the music of The Beatles was written using creative, complex chords for their day.
Why Creative, Complex Chords Can Be Important
There is a kind of power that can come from using creative chord progressions: the power to project a mood. Along with playing style, tempo, and vocal performance style, the chords you choose can pull the mood of the music in any direction you want.
You can hear the subtle difference between C-F-G-C, and C-Am-G-C. There’s only one chord that’s different: The F in the first example becomes Am in the second one. That simple switch to including a minor chord will have an affect on the mood we pick up from that progression.
The more complex your progressions become, the more opportunities you have to create nuances in the mood of your music. Like a painter with the three primary colours on their palette, they’re able to create many shades that will make their artwork more powerful and effective.
Most of the time you can use your improvisatory skills that will take your progressions in interesting directions, but the important thing is, as always with music, you must your use ears as your guide.
If you’d like to learn more about chord function, please read this post I wrote a while back: Creating Good Progressions: It’s All About Chord Function.
And if you’d like to try your hand at something more creative, try the ideas here: How to Make Stronger, More Creative Chord Progressions.
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