When a song is working well, it means that all its separate components don’t just sound good on their own, but they also partner up well with all (or most) of the song’s other components. In that sense, a good song is typically better than the sum of its parts.
Some songwriters find chords to be their Achilles’ heel — they can come up with a pretty good lyric, and might be able to generate a melody that works well, but the chords are the part they find hard.
If this describes you, I’ve put a list of tips below that I hope will help you. I love long, complex chord progressions, but frankly, I’d rather hear something simpler that doesn’t get in the way of the other elements of a song. So simplicity can definitely be your friend in the songwriting world. Simplicity, and these tips:
- Did I mention simplicity? You might think simplicity will just make a song boring, but that’s almost never the case. A simple chord progression underneath a melody that has good contour and a lyric that makes you think is often the best way to go. Example: C Am Dm G (I-vi-ii-V), or C Eb F C (I-bIII-IV-I).
- Try chord inversions as a way to make a progression more interesting. So if you like C Am Dm G from the previous tip, but worry that it’s too simple, try creating slash chords (putting a note other than the root of the chord) at the bottom. So C Am Dm G could become C Am/C Dm/A G. Or perhaps C Am/E Dm/F G. Inversions have the benefit of allowing you to change the sound of your progression without changing the progression itself.
- Try tonic or dominant pedal point. This means, in the case of tonic pedal point, keeping the bass note of your first chord through the entire progression, so it becomes C Am/C Dm/C G/C. In the case of a dominant pedal, it means keeping the dominant note — G — as your bottom note: C/G Am/G Dm/G G.
- Make sure your progression uses occasional root movement of 4ths or 5ths. This is a good bit of advice if you’re trying a longer progression where the chords stray away from the expected. So let’s say you’ve been trying something a little strange, like C Ab Bb Gb F G C. It’s a weird one, but if you take that Bb chord and replace it with Db, you’ve now got a root movement of Ab to Db — a 4th –, which then drops to Gb (a 5th), and the progression starts to sound a bit more secure. Most of the time, when you create chord progressions that sound odd or unsatisfying, it often just needs a few moments of root movements of fourths and/or fifths.
- Favour short progressions over long ones. Long progressions work better in ballads, so definitely if you’re doing a song where the BPM is 108 or faster, work out progressions that are shorter and stay strongly connected to the tonic (key) chord.
Many songwriters find progressions for a song’s bridge to be tricky. If you’ve found bridge chords to be the part that you struggle with, here’s an article I wrote quite a number of years ago that I hope will help you: 5 Chord Progression Suggestions for a Song’s Bridge.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”, along with an all-important Study Guide!