Writing Unusual and Original Chord Progressions

author: RainDog date: 12/08/2003 category: music theory
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Before reading this article, I should say that some knowledge of music theory is needed. You should know how to construct chords, the major scale and its chords. It would also be beneficial to know the chords pertaining to the specific modes, but I will show some of these later in the article. I major, III minor, III minor, IV major, V Major, VI minor and VII diminished. As you know these as the basic chords contained in the major scale. Starting from the VI chord we have the chords for a minor key song. The majority of music is written using these sets of chords, or extended (sevenths, ninths add2's), suspended, or powerchord versions of them. Understandably, as more and more music is made, writing a chord progression using these that sounds original and dynamic, while still sounding good, becomes a more and more difficult task. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood once said "There are only 12 power chords, and I think we've had about 20 years of them, so maybe it's time to move on." He even went as far as to issue a message (half-jokingly) to the bands fans to send him in any unusual chord progressions they could write. In this article, I will demonstrate techniques for writing interesting chord progressions, using examples from Radiohead, Weezer, The Beatles, The White Stripes, Jimi Hendrix and others. First, I will show one of the simplest (and most common) way that a songs chord vocabulary is extended, is simply by adding the major chords from the keys parallel minor scale (adding the minor chords from minor key can also be, used, but the result is often pretty weak sounding, but we'll go into some instances of this later). This is called modal interchange. These chords are the IIIbmaj, VIIbmaj and IVbmaj. For example, if we are in the key of A, we would add C major, G major, and F major. This gives songs a hard edge. Examples can be heard in many hard rock songs, below are some examples. The White Stripes - Dead leaves and the Dirty Ground: Amaj - Gmaj - Cmaj - Dmaj - Amaj Amaj - Gmaj - Cmaj - Dmaj - Amaj Fmaj - Gmaj - Amaj Imaj - VIIbmaj - IIIbmaj - IVmaj - Imaj Imaj - VIIbmaj - IIIbmaj - IVmaj - Imaj VIbmaj - VIIbmaj - Imaj This is a good example, using all the major chords from the parallel minor key. The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter: Intro C#maj - Bmaj - A Maj Imaj Chorus C#maj - Bmaj - Amaj - Emaj - Amaj - Emaj - Amaj - Emaj - Bmaj - Emaj -Bmaj Imaj - VIIbmaj - Vibmaj - IIIbmaj - VIbmaj - IIIbmaj - VIbmaj - IIIbmaj - VIIbmaj - IIIbmaj - VIIbmaj Another good example. Another way to borrow from minor keys is the use of a minor fourth chord, which is simple using the minor version of the IV chord in a major key. It can be done on its own in a chord progression, or preceded by the major IV chord. The romantic feeling from this chord comes from the fact that it has a VIb tone in relation to the key. Other chords that can be used in major keys that have this tone are the ii diminished chord and the VIbmaj (akin to the method above). Here are some examples. The Beatles - She Loves You: Chorus (Key of G) Emin - Cmin - Dmaj- Gmaj VImin - IVmin - Vmaj - Imaj Radiohead - Creep: Gmaj - Bmaj - Cmaj - Cmin Imaj - IIImaj - IVmaj - IVmin This example shows the use of the minor IV chord, and also the IIImaj chord, which I will explain in the next section. The IIImaj is also a popular chord. Since it is not included in any of the diatonic modes, we must look elsewhere for where it comes from. Its chord tones ( in respect to its parent key), are the major third, the minor sixth and the major seventh. This leaves the harmonic major scale (a major scale with a flat sixth), or some kind of augmented scale (most likely a Lydian mode with a raised fifth, the Lydian augmented mode, a mode of the melodic minor scale). This is a beautiful, but quite odd sounding chord. Here is an example. Weezer - Say It Ain't So: Intro and Verse C#min - G#maj - Amaj - Emaj VIm - IIImaj - VImaj - Imaj So far we've only used three modes. There are many other ways to make an unusual chord progression by modal interchange. Try using all the modes from the major scale. Then find the chords corresponding to the modes of the melodic minor (a major scale with a minor third) and harmonic minor scale(a natural minor scale with a major seventh) . Beyond that, there are still many places to go, try using the whole tone scale (a scale consisting of 6 tones each a half step apart), the diminished half step whole step scale (made of alternating half and whole steps), or the whole step half step scale (the same as the scale before, but starting on the whole step). And all this is before we start changing the chords, extending and suspending them. And we haven't even got into changing keys. There seems like an infinite number of new, provoking and interesting chord progressions just waiting for us to go out and find them. If want some more songs for examples of modal interchange, check out Pyramid Song, by Radiohead, (which starts out with a major chords, before going into the Phrygian mode, then replaces the I chord with a minor, and moving into a more natural minor chords), try Jimi Hendrix's version of Hey Joe, or God Put A Smile On Your Face by Coldplay (which moves from major to minor to Lydian to Phrygian) to see some more examples.
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