You may think that a good chord progression is the end result of a random process, but it rarely is. If you spend your time playing one random chord after another, you’ll be looking for a long time before you find something that works.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t have the time to randomly play through all the chords I know. There’s a much better way, and it involves focusing your attention on tonally strong chords.
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A progression that is tonally strong is one that clearly points to one particular chord as the tonic chord — the one representing the key of your song. So if your song is in C major, a tonally strong progression will make C sound like the “home” chord in a clear and unambiguous way.
The easiest way to create progressions that are tonally strong is to identify the seven chords that naturally exist in your chosen key. You do this by playing a major scale from the key of your song, then building triads (3-note chords) on top of each note of the scale.
The notes of a C major scale are: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. If you build chords on top of each of those notes, you get these chords:
So instead of randomly playing through all the chords you know, start simple: create progressions that use just those chords:
There are many ways to put those chord together into a progression. But as I say, that’s just the start. If you want to create progressions that are more creative, take one of these simple progressions and add other chords:
- Experiment with secondary dominant chords. The easiest way to do this is to take a chord that’s normally minor, and if it is followed by a chord whose root is a fourth higher, switch that minor chord for a major one that uses the same root. For example, the second progression above has a Dm that is followed by G. Switch Dm to a major D chord, and you get:
- Experiment with modal mixture chords. A modal mixture does sort of the opposite of that: you take a chord that’s normally major, and turn it into minor (F becomes Fm, for example). Or switch a minor chord to become diminished:
- Add non-chord tones to triads. Take any of the chords in a progression, and experiment with adding a note that you wouldn’t normally find in that chord. There are some standard choices here: you could add a 9th (add9 or add2) to a chord, or a 7th, as a common option:
There are lots of ways to make a progression sound more creative. But as you can see, what you’re really doing is creating a simple, tonally strong progression as a starting point, and then finding ways to add something creative without destroying that all-important sense of tonal strength that comes with the original progression.