Complex Chord Changes Usually Don’t Work – Predictable is Better

Written by Gary Ewer
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When all is said and done, if you want people to really get into your song, you have to make sure that by the end of it, they really understood what was going on in it. If your song uses complex chords that don’t move forward in mostly predictable ways, they’ll turn away. Kings of Leon’s Use Somebody is a good example of simple progressions that really work.

kolWhen students show me the songs or other compositions they’re working on, one of the most common problems I see is the use of complex chord progressions that don’t work. The use of complexity comes from a fear they have that they’re going to accidentally use a progression that’s already been used before. As a songwriter, you must get over this fear, because it’s really not important. Chord progressions are not protected by copyright, and it’s that way for a reason: they’ve all been used, many, many times before.

Use Somebody is a perfect example:

C  C/E  F  C  C/E  F  Am  C  F  Am  C  F

You know that the writers didn’t spend a lot of time figuring those chords out, and for good reason. A more complicated progression would have gotten in the way of the basic, guttural emotion. They allow themselves a short instrumental break that veers away from that progression (giving us D  F#m), but other than that small diversion, it uses a very simple progression in a very simple way.

The lyrical message of Use Somebody is also simple: I’m looking for someone like you. The repetitive nature of the chords helps to drive this message home.

A complex progression is possible in songs that describe complex emotions or events, or for songs that take us on a longer journey. But if your aim is to write a 3 – 5 minute song that really captures a listener’s heart and mind, stick with progressions that make sense.


6 Songwriting E-books“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how to write great songs. It’s just one of a suite of 6 songwriting e-books written by Gary Ewer. (His newest e-book, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- Chord Progression Formulas” is being offered for free when you purchase any other of his songwriting e-books.) Let these six e-books show you every aspect of how to write great songs! Read more..

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12 Comments

  1. Special Song For You

    “Umbrella”

    [Jay-Z]
    Ahuh Ahuh (Yea Rihanna)
    Ahuh Ahuh (Good girl gone bad)
    Ahuh Ahuh (Take three… Action)
    Ahuh Ahuh

    No clouds in my storms
    Let it rain, I hydroplane in the bank
    Coming down with the Dow Jones
    When the clouds come we gone, we Rocafella
    We fly higher than weather
    And G5’s are better, You know me,
    an anticipation, for precipitation. Stacked chips for the rainy day
    Jay, Rain Man is back with little Ms. Sunshine
    Rihanna where you at?

    [Rihanna]
    You have my heart
    And we’ll never be worlds apart
    May be in magazines
    But you’ll still be my star
    Baby cause in the dark
    You can’t see shiny cars
    And that’s when you need me there
    With you I’ll always share
    Because

    [Chorus]
    When the sun shines, we’ll shine together
    Told you I’ll be here forever
    Said I’ll always be a friend
    Took an oath I’ma stick it out till the end
    Now that it’s raining more than ever
    Know that we’ll still have each other
    You can stand under my umbrella
    You can stand under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh eh eh eh)

    These fancy things, will never come in between
    You’re part of my entity, here for Infinity
    When the war has took it’s part
    When the world has dealt it’s cards
    If the hand is hard, together we’ll mend your heart
    Because

    [Chorus]
    When the sun shines, we’ll shine together
    Told you I’ll be here forever
    Said I’ll always be a friend
    Took an oath I’ma stick it out till the end
    Now that it’s raining more than ever
    Know that we’ll still have each other
    You can stand under my umbrella
    You can stand under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh eh eh eh)

    You can run into my arms
    It’s OK don’t be alarmed
    Come here to me
    There’s no distance in between our love
    So go on and let the rain pour
    I’ll be all you need and more
    Because

    [Chorus]
    When the sun shines, we’ll shine together
    Told you I’ll be here forever
    Said I’ll always be a friend
    Took an oath I’ma stick it out till the end
    Now that it’s raining more than ever
    Know that we’ll still have each other
    You can stand under my umbrella
    You can stand under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh)
    Under my umbrella
    (Ella ella eh eh eh eh eh eh)

    It’s raining
    Ooh baby it’s raining
    Baby come here to me
    Come here to me
    It’s raining
    Oh baby it’s raining

    Reply
  2. idiot

     /  February 23, 2010

    Explain why the most talented songwriters use very complex chords and make it work. Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Elliott Smith, the list goes on

    Reply
    • Actually, I’d argue that Wilson and McCartney don’t usually use complex progressions at all. But more to the point, I was talking about complex progressions “that don’t move forward in mostly predictable ways,” the key word being “mostly.” Every songwriter will, from time to time, use progressions that pull the ear in unexpected ways. But I would argue that if you fill your song with unpredictable chords, you’ll wind up frustrating your listeners. The better approach is a balance between the unpredictable and predictable, with predictable winning out.

      Thanks for writing.
      -Gary

      Reply
  3. Michael Jones

     /  March 22, 2010

    I have to say that the use of complex progressions can be useful when building an unsettling emotion is a song. Just like the use of dissonace, unusual chord progressions can dramatize the progression into a predictable one giving a very dramatic cadence that without the unsettling part would not have seemed all that meaningful. I think when you stray away from the “normal” in the progression, the listener feels the same way, so that should be the intention if it is used. I think a lot of young songwriters try to be the next McCartney but striving to be different. But McCartney just wrote what he felt and that’s why it worked. KISS

    Reply
    • Yes Michael, and actually, I’m a bit regretting that I used the word “complex” because it’s inadvertently caused a bit of confusion. In my attempt to not be too rude to writers that don’t really know how to build a proper progression, I used the word “complex” to mean any progression that doesn’t really work. I was trying to give such writers the benefit of the doubt.

      But you (and several other responders to this article) are right, that sometimes a complex progression can be exactly what is needed to musically describe a certain emotion, lyric or situation.

      As I mentioned in a previous reply, every writer will (and perhaps should) use progressions that pull the ear in unpredictable directions. But even such progressions need some sort of organization or structure to really make them work.

      By “complex” I was more talking about progressions that seem to meander without a goal, or just plain don’t work.

      Many thanks for your thoughts on this.
      -G

      Reply
  4. Richard

     /  April 11, 2010

    Then how does an artist such as John Mayer manage to use complex chord progressions (not on all songs, but MANY) and still have a huge fanbase of people who can understand and relate to his music?

    I’m trying to get into songwriting myself and don’t want to use the typical power chords or basic major/minor.

    Reply
    • Hi Richard – As I mentioned in the comment directly above your comment, “complex” in this context is actually meant to mean chord progressions that don’t really work. I was being kind when I called such progressions “complex.” The kind of progressions you are talking about are “complex” in the best sense of that word. Mayer doesn’t really (in my opinion) use many progressions that I’d describe as complex, but they do stray interestingly from the standard I-IV-V-I progressions that can bore listeners.

      If you’re trying to get into songwriting using progressions that are more than standard diatonic chords we find in major/minor tonalities, or at least use those chords in more interesting ways, I’d recommend listening to some great songwriters like Imogen Heap, Sia Furler, maybe some Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor, and the Shins.

      I think your comment is quite fair, because I inadvertently conveyed the wrong concept in my article, and I made it sound that complex progressions (ones that stray from the expected) are wrong, and of course I didn’t mean to convey that.

      I’m working on a post now, and hope to have it finished soon, that takes some of these interesting writers I mentioned, and provide some of their progressions, because they write complex progressions that really do work.

      Many thanks for taking the time to write.
      -Gary

      Reply
      • Richard

         /  April 11, 2010

        Do you have suggestions yourself on how to actually compose more complex (by that i mean, more “colourful”) chord progressions and have them work? I’m very interested.

  5. I think Mr.Ewer is talking about mainstream pop/rock music and not beethovens 5th symphony. The worst thing you can do in such songs is
    using complex chord progression. This is a fact. But this doesnt mean that you cannot use complex exotic chords to build your progressions.
    Because ppl want to dance and not discuss how the composer did the mode change.

    Reply
  6. Jeremy

     /  July 4, 2012

    I think for a pop song, anything other than diatonic major is ‘complex’. John Mayer’s chord progressions are complex for pop music, however simple for jazz. He only modulates in ways that we expect, hence making his music quite easy on the ears. By moving in chromatic intervals to change key, or flattening the 7th, or using the b7 chord as a lead in to the dominant, they are all easy ways to only add 1 sharp or flat to the key signature and not totally disturb the ‘musical peace’.

    Reply
    • Yes, to a large degree I think you’re right. In this article I probably should have said “confusing” rather than “complex”. I think your observation about pop songs and the simplicity of chord progressions is quite true. The thing is, in pop songs, simplicity of all aspects is considered to be the basic hallmark.

      Reply

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