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Chords Don’t Work? Five Tips to Help Fix Them

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The reasons that chords work in pop songs (when they do) relate to a song’s key. For most songs in the popular genres, songs sit solidly in one key or another. And even if they drift around and change key, most progressions will still relate strongly to whichever key is being used at any one time.

This means that if you have a good enough understanding of music theory, coming up with chord progressions that work shouldn’t be too difficult.

If you don’t have that strong working knowledge, you likely come up with progressions by a “try-it-and-see” method: you search for chords that work well together. Since your ear is always going to be your guide no matter what method you use to choose chords, random searching will eventually work for you, even if it takes a bit longer.

So if coming up with a chord progression means improvising until you find a progression you like, here are some tips that will help you in the search:

  1. Identify the tonic and dominant chords. Yes, you can do this even if you don’t know what key you’re in: Play a major chord, then play a major chord whose root is a 5th higher. So if you play a D, follow that with an A, and you’ve got the tonic and dominant. That can serve as a good foundation for most progressions. Do it in minor as well: Play Dm, then follow it with either Am or A, and you’ve played the tonic and dominant in the key of D minor. Using those two chords as a starting point, you can then build something a bit longer.
  2. For progressions that sound random, try including more root movements of 4ths and 5ths. Let’s say that you’ve got this progression: C  Eb  Dm  F  Am  Em  C. From one chord to the next, there’s not much of a problem. But taken together, that progression lacks a sense of direction: it’s hard to hear C as the tonic chord. The main culprit is that there is only one spot where adjacent chord roots are a 4th apart: Am to Em. You’ll find that if you can include 4ths between adjacent roots, the progression tightens up. Even if all you do is change the F to a G, you’ve made an improvement. Changing the Em to a G chord would give you a dominant chord, which further improves things.
  3. Keep progressions from getting too long. A long progression can lose a sense of direction, and listeners get bored. A shorter, more concise progression is usually all most pop songs need. So this might be a bit too long, particularly for a chorus: C  Em  Am  Bb  F  G  Esus  E  A  D  Bm  E  F  Dm  Gsus G (though it really depends on the rest of the song.) To create the kind of chorus groove that really connects, try something shorter: C  Em  Am  G.
  4. Beg, borrow & steal. Copyright protection does not extend to chord progressions. So if you’ve got a favourite song, try taking that progression, changing the tempo and playing style, and you’ve got the chords for your next song.
  5. Create “answering progressions” by playing short progressions backwards. Let’s say you’ve got a short progression like this one: C  F  G  C. Play it 8 times and you’ve got a chorus or a verse. But that’s a bit mundane. So try this: play it frontwards (C  F  G  C), then immediately “answer” it by playing it backwards: C  G  F  C. That gives you an 8-chord progression that sounds quite nice:  C  F  G  C| C  G  F  C. Not all progressions will sound good when played backwards, so you have to use your musical judgement on this one.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Creative Chord ProgressionsAre you looking for ways to make your progressions more creative? Tired of the same-old, same-old? This eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions“, is being offered free with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle. Read more.

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