The Predictable Nature of Chord Progressions is a Good Thing

A strong progression is any one which clearly points to one note as the tonic. They’re necessary in most songs, and here’s how they’re created.

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A strong chord progression sets up one note – the tonic note – as being more important than the others. The tonic note is the one that represents the key of your song. So if you’re singing in G major, G is the tonic note. Many newbie songwriters think that there is a “killer chord progression” out there that’s going to give their song that sought-after mark of distinction, but the truth is that a strong progression, which is usually a highly predictable one, will be a better contributor to your song’s success than most unique progressions you can come up with.

In the pop song genres (pop, rock, country, mass, folk, etc.), chord progressions are either going to be strong (i.e., the key of the song is clearly indicated) or fragile (the key isn’t so clearly indicated).

Here are a couple of examples:

STRONG: G  C  Am  D7  G

FRAGILE: Am  C  Bm  Em  C  F  Bb  D7  G

You’ll notice that in the strong example, several of the chord roots are a 4th or 5th away from the chord that follows. From G to C is a 4th, then from Am to D7 and D7 to G, the chord roots are a 4th away from each other. This strengthens a progression, and makes the chord G feel very much like the tonic chord, and clearly a “resting place”, so to speak.

The fragile example is also from the key of G major, but as you will hear, the key is less clear. It starts on an Am chord, and most of the time when we see a root movement of a 4th (C to F, for example), it’s doing more to make F sound like a tonic than G. We only get a strong sense of G major at the end, with the D7 to G. So the second progression is mainly fragile for that reason. Keep in mind that fragile is not bad, and you can use fragile progressions to great effect in your songs.

But most pop songs will make greatest use of strong progressions, and the predictability of those kinds of progressions should not scare you off from using them. Chord progressions are supposed to be, to a large degree, predictable, with only a few moments of fragility.

Fragile progressions have their greatest use in verses and middle-8 sections, where we like to see a bit of tonal ambiguity. But many songs thrive nicely by using all strong and almost no fragile progressions. Many of the biggest hits by The Beatles, The Eagles, Katy Perry, Michael Jackson, Adele, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, etc., have made their mark by performing songs that use entirely strong progressions.

Here’s a simple and quick way to construct strong progressions. This chart is in G major, but of course will transpose to any key:

G – D – Am – Em – Bm – F#dim – C#m

To use this chart, play a G chord. Then jump ahead to any chord in the list, and work your way back toward the left (moving right is less successful), chord by chord, until you reach the G chord again. It’s the circle of fifths progression, and it’s the strongest progression you can create.

So here are some examples of progressions that are created by using that method:

  • G  D  G
  • G  Am  D  G
  • G  Em Am  D  G
The very word “progression” indicates something that’s predictable. The predictable nature of chord progressions should not scare you off from using them. Progressions that are mainly unpredictable are tricky to use, and in most pop song genres they’re unnecessary. If you do want to use fragile progressions, limit their use to your verse and/or song bridge.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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