Guitar and keyboard

Making Strange Chord Progressions Work a Little Better

The first piece of advice I always give to songwriters who are contemplating using a complex, strange chord progression in their songs is this: Make sure the progression actually works, and isn’t just needlessly convoluted.

The best chord progressions — even complex ones — are the ones that stay out of the way and support the melody directly, and in an indirect way, the lyrics. A complex progression — one that doesn’t particularly target the tonic chord, but wanders in interesting ways — can add excitement and enhance the mood of the music, so long as it doesn’t simply distract from enjoyment of the song.

How to Harmonize a MelodyThe best way to create complex, creative progressions is to establish the fundamentals of how harmony actually works. “How to Harmonize a Melody” will give you those fundamentals. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

So while a typical progression might look like this: I-vi-ii-V-I (C-Am-Dm-G-C), a complex one might look like this:

I-III-IV-bIIIdim-v7-V7/vi-vi (C-E-F-Ebdim-Gm7-E7/G#-Am)

And it can be gorgeous if used in the right way. But let’s say that you really like this progression, but it’s just not sitting well in the song. Here are some troubleshooting ideas that can help the progression work a little better:

  1. Try slowing the song down a bit. Slower songs can tolerate more complex chords than faster ones.
  2. Try using a bass pedal point. This means keeping the same note in the bass as the progression advances. Often a tonic pedal works well. So in our sample complex progression above, keeping a C in the bass, at least for a while, while the chords change above it, can help act as a kind of musical glue which holds it all together. (And actually, I love that sample progression with a constant ‘C’ in the bass!)
  3. Limit the use of a complex progression to use in a verse or bridge, and not the chorus. A chorus usually uses the song’s most important hook, and trying to support a hook with a complex chord progression often doesn’t work well. These complex progressions will sound better and more supportive in the verse or bridge.
  4. Try to make the beginning and end of a progression work well in your song’s key, and leave complexity for the middle. Complexity that moves to simplicity is always a good idea.

Some genres of music will accept complicated chord progressions better than others: you’ll hear trickier progressions in progressive rock than you will in country-folk. So sometimes the decision of how complex your progressions could or should be comes down to your target audience and what they’re expecting to hear.

But there’s nothing wrong with giving audiences something they’re weren’t expecting once in a while, no matter what genre you write in. The overall guideline is that a chord progression shouldn’t distract from the purpose and meaning of the song, but should always support and enhance it.

And sometimes, a musical surprise is just what a song needs.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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