As you know, I spend a lot of time telling songwriters that their chords don’t need to be complex or even innovative in order for a song to succeed. They just need to support the melody, and as long as that melody is catchy, and assuming the lyrics you come up with are engaging, you’ve done what you need to do.
But there is something to be said for a song that goes beyond a typical three-chord offering. The specific chords you choose are tied, at least somewhat, to your song’s genre, but in practically any genre you can name there is something to be said for progressions that are creative and at least a little inventive.
If you’re not sure how to add chords to the melody you’ve just come up with, here’s an ebook that shows you how to do that: “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step, the best way to add chords and make the most of that melody.
I love Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” from his 1973 “Innervisions” album, mainly for the groove and feel, but you have to acknowledge the role that that creative chord progression plays in the song’s success. No three-chord progression here — Stevie uses up to twenty different chords to create the progressions in this song.
So let’s say that you’re tired of basic, predictable progressions, but don’t feel that you’ve got Stevie’s prowess for creating something more imaginative. There are things you can do to your own chords that don’t require you to know a lot more than you already do.
Here are five ideas you can try to make your chords sound more creative. Let’s take an example of a good, but less than innovative, progression, and see what these ideas do to it. Our example progression is from the key of C major:
C – Am – Dm – G7 – C
1. Try modal mixture (or “borrowed”) chords.
A modal mixture is a chord that’s “borrowed”, as the terminology goes, from the opposite mode. So if you’ve written a song in C major, you imagine instead that you’re using chords from the key of C minor.
In C minor, your seven naturally-occuring chords are: Cm, Ddim, Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, and Bb. This take a bit of experimenting to decide which chord you could or should replace, but I would right away try replacing the Dm in the example progression with Ddim. That gives you: C – Am – Ddim – G7 – C
Another common replacement that uses a modal mixture is to replace a IV chord with a minor version of that chord. So if you create a progression in C major that uses an F chord, switch that F for Fm, and you’ll have used a modal mixture.
2. Try adding some non-chord-tones.
A non-chord-tone is a note that’s added to a chord that doesn’t normally belong there. These can be any notes, but let’s look at the C chord that starts and finishes our sample progression. You could add the note “D” to that chord, and it gives you Cadd9. So your progression is: Cadd9 – Am – Ddim – G7 – Cadd9.
Theoretically you can add any note you want to a chord, as long as you like it. Adding 9ths and 6ths are probably the most common, though they happen more often in some genres than others.
3. Try using a bass pedal point
This is a chord effect that’s extremely easy to use, and you’ll love the fresh, creative effect it provides. Simply keep the same note in the bass (or left hand of your keyboard) while the chords change above it.
The most common pedal points you’ll hear in music are the tonic pedal (keeping the note C as your lowest sounding note), or the dominant pedal (keeping the note G as your lowest sounding note.)
It’s easiest to hear this effect at a keyboard, where you play, let’s say, the note C in the left hand while you cycle through the chords. You’ll love the delicious dissonance created when you play the Dm and the G7 against C in the bass.
4. Try using chord inversions.
Most of the time you’ll play chords in root position, which means that the letter name of the chord being played is also the lowest sounding note. But you also have the option of placing any of the other notes in the chord at the bottom, and for each choice you can make, the result is different.
If you’re not sure what chord inversions are, or how you might use them, read this article that I wrote this past spring: “Getting Creative with Chord Inversions.” Inversions give direction to your bass line and are a powerful but easy way to keep your standard progression the same, but have it sound more creative.
So you might try this: C – Am – Dm/F – G7 – C. The Dm/F is simply a Dm where the lowest sounding note is an F. You should be careful how many inverted chords you use in a row, however. Too many, and they can make your progression sound a bit unstable. But putting them in once in a while is often a great, simple modification.
5. Try using secondary dominant chords.
This is another chord effect that might require a bit of reading if you’ve not used them before. (Try reading “How to Add a Secondary Dominant to Your Chord Progressions“.) They’re used all the time in good music, so you’ve definitely heard them before. The easy method is simply to do this: take any minor chord you see and change it to being major, and you’ve just created a secondary dominant chord if it’s followed by a chord whose root is a 4th higher.
So in our sample progression, you could turn both the Am and the Dm to major chords, giving you this: C – A – D – G7 – C. You can hear this effect in the opening chord sequence of “Deep Purple” (1923) as performed by Nino Tempo & April Stevens.
My main point with this article is this: if you’re looking for a more creative approach to chord progressions, you can get that more creative result by first considering things you might do to the original progression you thought up. These five adjustments to your progression might give you what you’re looking for.
And all of these modifications have the positive quality of keeping the basic structure of your progression intact. So if your simple progression works, the modifications should work as well.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes the all-important Study Guide. It shows you the best way to work your way through the materials and helps you get the most of the eBook collection.