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By far, the most common type of question I receive from songwriters concerns chord progressions. Why don’t my chords seem to work? What chords go with this key? How do I choose chords? There’s a reason why people get hung up on chords: in order for a progression to work well, it needs to be (for most genres, anyway) inherently predictable. So here we are, trying to be creative, imaginative and inventive, and I’m telling you that your chords need to be conventional and predictable. Why?
The very word “progression” implies a kind of common sense. To use the word “progression” means that one chord doesn’t simply follow another. It means that each chord is predicted by the one that precedes it.
That certainly does not mean that you’ve got no choices to make once a progression gets going. Because for every chord, there are several directions it can take from there. But there is a logic at work here, and your choices need to make sense to a listener, or you’ve simply got a succession of chords that ultimately frustrate your audience.
There are 5 things to keep in mind:
- The roots (i.e., the letter names) of the chords in your progression should show lots of movement by 4ths and 5ths. In other words, your chord progressions, especially in choruses, should be primarily strong. This is particularly true at the ends of phrases (i.e., at the ends of your progressions).
- The faster your song, the simpler your chord progression should be. Complex chord progressions (i.e, ones that take unpredictable turns) will work better in slower tempos. (This has been a basic tenet of chord progressions for hundreds of years!)
- To create a nice sense of line in your bass, try using chord inversions (slash chords) in at least one section of your song. In pop songs, creating smooth bass lines is almost the only reason you should be inverting chords.
- Pedal point (i.e., keeping the same note in the bass regardless of the chord above it) work well in complex and unpredictable chord progressions. The pedal point, particularly if it’s a tonic pedal, adds “glue” to the progression and makes the whole thing feel more predictable.
- Establish a predictable harmonic rhythm in your song. This means to have chords change at more-or-less regular intervals, with just a few exceptions. For example, if your song feels right with a chord changing every 8 beats, keep that pattern and make it work for you. Once in a while, change things up, but use that 8-beat (or whatever you choose) pattern as a norm in your song.
It’s amazing how creative you can be with your song melody and lyrics while still relying on a predictable chord progression. Once in a while, having a progression doing something unpredictable can be exciting and can work well. But once you’ve done something unpredictable, you’ll have better success keeping your listeners if you get back to something predictable.
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