Chords and songwriting

Chord Progressions: Moving From Fragile to Strong

When you listen to songs, you’re likely unaware of the concepts of fragile and strong being played out, but it’s actually a very important aspect of good songwriting.

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In music, fragile refers to aspects of the music that are in some way ambiguous, even in just a small degree. That might mean:

  • Lyrics where it’s not crystal clear what’s being sung about.
  • Melodies that don’t clearly indicate a key, or perhaps use complex rhythms.
  • Phrasing that doesn’t conform to expected 4-bar phrasing, or maybe jumping into unexpected time signatures.
  • Chord progressions where the key might be unclear.

And it could mean a great many other things as well. Focusing in on chord progressions, a fragile progression can mean several possible scenarios:

  • The progressions don’t clearly point to one chord as the tonic. So while C-F-G7-C is very clearly in C major, a progression like Dm-Em-Dm-G is a little less clear, because though they all come from the key of C major, the actual tonic chord (C) doesn’t appear.
  • The progressions make great use of inversions (slash chords) especially in moments when a strong, root position chord would make things clearer. So C/E-F-G7/D-E (where the note after each slash is the bass note that should be played) would add a sense of “fragility” to the progression.
  • The progressions make great use of non-diatonic chords. A non-diatonic chord is one that doesn’t normally belong to the key you’re working in. So F-Dm-E7-Am in the middle of a song that’s supposed to be in C major will be a good example of a fragile progression.

There are no rules about using fragile and strong progressions, but when you look at the past 6 or 7 decades of pop music, you’ll see that it’s very common for songs to move from fragile to strong, not typically the other way around.

In other words, it’s normal for song verses to use fragile progressions, switching to tonally strong ones in the chorus. That moving from fragile to strong applies to all other aspects of music, like the ones I listed near the start of this post.

Not all songs make use of fragile elements, by the way. If you like 12-bar-blues, for example, you’ll notice that most of the elements in a standard blues are all pretty strong, and so a blues tune won’t show much contrast between strong and fragile elements.

So there’s no need for any of the songs you write to use fragile bits. But fragile moving to strong, particularly as it applies to chord progressions, provides your music with a nice sense of contrast. And the important point is that in most cases, that contrast typically starts with fragile first (verse), moving to strong progressions as a kind of answer (chorus).

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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