There are many ways to categorize chord progressions, but the best way system for songwriters is to classify them as being either fragile or strong.
These two words, fragile and strong, pertain to the key of your song, and specifically refer to whether a progression makes the key very obvious or somewhat ambiguous.
So for example, the progression I-vi-ii-V-I (C-Am-Dm-G-C) makes the C chord sound very obviously like the tonic chord: the one that represents the key. That progression is a very strong one in that regard.
But what about progressions where the key is less obvious… a bit more ambiguous? For example, you might play: ii-iii-bIII-IV-I (Dm-Em-Eb-F-C). As the progression starts, you get the feeling from the Dm that perhaps we’re in the key of D minor. But following that with Em makes that less likely. Then suddenly we hear Eb, and we don’t know what to make of the progression now.
And then the Eb is followed by F and then G — three adjacent major chords — and now we’re not sure what’s going on. When the progression ends on C, we get a sense of musical relaxation. So perhaps this progression is from the key of C major, and the Eb is just a momentary diversion.
So that progression is definitely what we’d call a fragile one: the key is ambiguous. But in many ways, it’s a much more interesting progression than that basic C-Am-Dm-G-C progression. The twists and turns that it makes offer a lot of mood and personality. If you’re describing a situation or circumstance in your lyric, the fragile progressions are great progressions to use, because they’re so impressionistic.
That’s why fragile progressions work so well in verses and song bridges. In both those sections, the lyrics tend to be the kind that describe situations and lay down a story. Fragile, creative chords work so well in helping us to imagine a story.
For your song’s chorus, strong progressions are the ones you want to use. Because a chorus is typically the section that has the song’s most important hook, a strong progression will work very well.
So if you find that in the songs you write, the chorus doesn’t seem to hit the mark, it might be due to the fact that the chords you’ve chosen are a bit too musically ambiguous — too fragile.
Strong progressions will work well in both a verse and a chorus, but if you plan to use more creative progressions, make sure that you use them in your verse or bridge.
Give the instrumental bridge section in Van Halen’s “Jump” a listen, and you’ll hear that the chords take us on a bit of a journey. The verse and chorus both use chords that are tonally very strongly in the key of C major. But the bridge suddenly jumps to using chords from Db major before sliding back into C major, but still giving us chords like Bb before landing back solidly in C.
So using fragile progressions in verses and bridges allow the chorus — which usually dictates the key of the song — to sound like a clear and strong musical target.
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