Spicing up Chord Progressions
In this lesson, I shall be showing you simple ways to making chord progressions more interesting and diverse using simple tricks. We musicians are often confronted with writer’s block: we wish to compose something meaningful, something that makes sense. Sometimes we are left with one single, simple idea that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. I firmly believe that music theory can help us out to get back on track and be creative.
If you’re a beginner, some of the chord names might seem daunting to you. I recommend installing Uberchord (click for download) Chord Trainer on your iOS device so as to have a quick, practical reference guide at the tip of your fingers. You will see how one simple idea can be used to create material that is fresh and interesting.
The Chord Theory
Chords are best viewed as numeric structures.
A major chord can be seen as 1-M3-5 (or 1-3-5)
A minor one would be simply 1-m3-5 (or 1-b3-5)
You can easily remember more complex, dissonant chords by viewing them as collection of numbers. A dominant ninth chord with a raised eleventh is basically 1-3-5 b7 #11. What seems like basic, simple knowledge (intervallic formulae) can greatly demystify almost any kind of chord.
As long as a chord isn’t framed in a chord progression, any given chord lacks meaning and purpose. The easiest way to lend a chord a function is to frame it within the context of a key
If you strum C major, you may end up using it to start a song in C major, or as the submediant in the key of E minor, or the dominant chord in the key of F major.
Generally, the more tension notes are contained within the chord, the more clear its function shall be. Being merely a triad, C major has only three notes in it, and as such it may lead anywhere, but a A7b9 will make your ears wait for that resolution towards a Dmaj7 or a Dmin. In that sense, this chord is more likely to show you a path to follow. This exact principle is the foundation for the ideas offered to you in this article.
More Chord Theory
One of the best things you can do for yourself as a songwriter is to get acquainted with chord progressions that are popular within certain genres of music. Just like numbers can help you learn and memorize chord formulas, you will be using numbers again to learn and differentiate between chord progressions. This time, however, Roman numerals will be used.
You probably know by now that I-IV-V is quite common in blues, while ii-V-I is very popular amongst Jazz musicians.
i-VII-VI-V is a common staple of flamenco (specially Rumba) and some Latin music.
The i-V-i turnaround is quite common in Cuban salsa and other genres of Latin music, as well as folk. A variation thereof is simpy i-iv-V-i.
A common trope of classical music until the 19th century was the progression characterized by i-iv-VII-III-VI-ii-V. Pop music producers swear by the I-V-vi-IV progression.
In electronic music you often have i-VI-iv-i…
Putting it all together
So the first step to get out of your rut is to identify what kind of progression you’ve got. You probably have a cool sequence of chords going on already. Write the chords down, and then figure out what scale degrees they can be assigned to using Roman numerals. Now we can start “decorating” or “enriching” said progression. We may do this either by substituting certain chords, or by adding color to the chords you already have.
Say you’ve got the following chord progression
Gmaj – Emin – Amin – Dmaj
This turnaround (sometimes called “harmonic circle”) is basically a I-vi-ii-V in the key of G major. It’s the basis for such hits such as Paul Anka’s “Diana” and Pearl Jam’s “Last kiss”.
Its popularity implies that this chord progression for sure works, and you can even see how it’s structure is vaguely explained by the circle of fifths. Since it works so well, perhaps too many people before you have used it, and you probably to give it your own personal touch. Here are some simple modifications you can do with it:
-Add more color to the chords by adding notes to them and changing their character:
Gmaj7 Emin7 Amin7 D9
Gmaj7 Emin9 Amin7/11 D7b9
Nothing special, for now. Another thing you can do is simply replace some of the chords. This will obviously turn our I-vi-ii-V into something else, but we’ll still have four chords that will still fit to any melody you wrote for the original chord progression.
Gmaj9 Bmin7 Amin(add9) D7 (I iii ii V )
Notice how Bmin7 (B D F# A) shares two common notes with the original Emin7 from a previous example (E G B D). This similarity justifies the replacement of one chord by another. Let’s see where chord replacement can take us:
Gmaj(add9) Cmaj6 Emin7/11 D9 (I IV vi V)
G B D A
C E G A → replaced Emin (E G B)
E G B D A → replaced Amin7 and shares three notes in common (A C E G)
D F# A C E
Also notice how all chords happen share common notes. This gives the progression cohesion and lets it flow nicely.
If you’re a beginner, some of the chord names might seem daunting to you. I recommend installing Uberchord on your mobile device so as to have a quick, practical reference guide at the tip of your fingers. I hope this lesson offered some new insight to you. I’m looking forward to share more of my ideas with you. See you next time.