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Avoiding the Constant Return to the I-Chord

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If you’re looking for ways to make your progressions a bit more interesting without being too weird, there’s a simple modification you should consider: simply avoid overusing the I-chord.

In a standard I-IV-V-I progression (C-F-G-C) the I-chord is the tonic chord. It’s the one that represents your song’s key. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with its use, and will give you many songs with a pleasant sense of predictability:

  • C  F  Dm  G  C
  • C  G/B  Am  G  C
  • C  F  Am  G  C
  • C  Am  F  Dm  C
  • C  Bb  F  G  C

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But let’s say that for your verse you use the following progression:

C  F  G  C| C  F  G  C| C  F  G  C| C  F  G  C|

As you can see, it’s the same I-IV-V-I progression over and over again. Each 4-chord segment of the progression starts on the I-chord and ends on the I-chord. Each time you return to the I-chord, the audience gets the feeling that they’ve heard it before.

So here’s a simple little change. In the first and third group of C-F-G-C, change that final C to an Am. Now you get this (change is in bold):

C  F  G  Am| C  F  G  C| C  F  G Am| C  F  G  C

Now you’ve got a progression that still starts on the I-chord each time, but alternately ends on the vi-chord: Am.

It’s a tiny change, but it’s amazing how much that small change can add a sense of freshness to the progression. In the larger scheme of what can be done to make a progression unique, it’s a very small change. But enough to be very effective.

Replacing the I-chord with a vi-chord will only work if the notes of the melody at that moment can be found in the vi-chord. And if that’s not the case, you might try experimenting a bit with other possible chords:

  1. C  F  G  F| C  F  G  C…
  2. C  F  G  Bb| C  F  G  C…
  3. C  F  G  Dm| C  F  G  C…

This advice gets to an important principle of chord progressions in pop genres, which is that chords should (at least most of the time) target the tonic chord and make it relatively obvious.

Another way of saying that is that simplicity beats complexity almost all the time, particularly with chord progressions. By occasionally replacing the tonic with something else, like the vi-, IV- or ii-chord, the listener feels subconsciously compelled to keep listening for the eventual occurrence of that I-chord.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter.

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