Moving Beyond Chord Progressions in Songwriting

This lesson is about how to move beyond simple chord progressions when writing music. I focus on individual chords and how they affect the overall song and a good mindset to approach a more liberating form of songwriting.

Ultimate Guitar

Chord progressions are nice, and a lot of good songs have been made using them, but to move on to more complex patterns (or make your own progressions) you really need to learn the personalities of the different chords as well as some common transitions between chords.

I'll use the word "suspense" a lot, and I hope you'll catch what I mean. It is really everything in music because people expect for the sound to go to a certain place and there are ways create different levels of expectation. You can then be nice and give that to them (play it safe at the risk of sounding boring) or shatter their expectations and bring them to a new place (which can add a lot of beauty and soul to the song at the risk of just sounding gawd awful).

For my examples I'll do everything in C, but you can convert it to G or B or 1 or I or anything you want (other then a minor key, which will have a different sound).

In music there is your base chord (the key) and then there is every other chord that each have different feels from safe and soothing, to expected, to sad, to romantic, to exciting. It's all pretty subjective and it depends a lot on the context of the song, but that's music.

The base chord is "home" for most music. You can think of it as the place that the listener is always longing to return to (most songs end on the base chord) and it is the standard that the listener judges every other chord by. This chord has a very safe feeling and its nice to come back to, but starts to get dull if you stay on it too long. Who wants to just sit at home all day?

So in C you have your 4th and 5th chords - F and G. These are by far the two most commonly used chords (other than the base chord). They both have almost an expected sound to them - as in people expect to hear these chords and they are very safe (I hope this makes sense). G has a slightly harder sound to it then F does, and G creates a little more of a suspenseful feel leading into the C.

The next most commonly used chords are the three big minor chords - Am, Dm, and Em - as a slight aside, you should probably put in the back of your mind (even if you don't understand this yet) that Am, Dm and Em are the relative minors of C, F and G respectively.

The most used of the three minor chords is Am because it does not challenge the ear at all. It has very little suspense to it, it sounds like a "home" chord (which is no accident!). It just breaks up the song and adds that minory feel to the song without going overboard. The next two, Dm and Em are stronger then the Am. I don't know how to describe the difference in their sounds. You'll just have to try them out.

Now you have the more interesting chords. These chords are used far less often because they are just more powerful. They tend to take the song in new, and often specific, directions and require more finesse to use them (I mean that you really need to know where you are going to go next because the ear will be like "Hey! This is nice but you better go somewhere with it." So here they are in no particular order:

E - This is my personal favorite. It is the closest a major chord can get to sounding like a minor. (It's the fifth of C's relative minor, Am, which gives it a lot of its sound - a little off topic but worth pointing out). It adds a lot of, well, romance to the song. Think "Georgia on my Mind" or that chord that John Lennon plays right after the line "You May Say I'm a Dreamer" that adds so much suspense. It is common (the listener almost expects it) to follow the E with F or Am.

D and A - The super major chords. They take everything you like about major chords, and crank it up five more notches. Think "What a Day for a Daydream" or that "She F--king Hates Me" song.

Fm - If D and A are the super major chords, Fm is the super minor chord. It is not often used because it is so powerful. It brings the song to a whole new ("I want to cry") place. Think "Desperado" during that "Come to you senses" line or the fourth chord in "Creep." It is very commonly used after F major because F somewhat prepares the listener for the big shock to come.

I hope that made at least a little sense. Of course there is a lot that I left out, most notably the minor key, but it should at least give you a start about how to think about this stuff.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I'm not sure why this lesson is named such it is, as there was really no information about songwriting nor chord progressions, and definitely nothing about going beyond chord progressions. Please, correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't seem like you know that much about music theory yourself? You left out some fairly basic and useful information, like explaining the roles of the chords. I and vi both work as the home chord because the leading tone resolves to them, and IV and ii have the same role of a subdominant chord, meaning that they both sound good before a dominant chord. For some reason you treated major and minor chords in their own groups, while it would make more sense to group them by their function, with labels like subdominant, dominant and embellishing. Also, the E chord isn't the fifth degree of Am. Em is the fifth degree of Am, while E is the fifth for A harmonic minor. Just thought I'd clear that up.
    The idea behind this post is to give beginning songwriters a place to begin thinking about chords beyond choosing a standard three or four chord progression and writing around that. Using labels like subdominant, dominant and embellishing chords would not be useful to beginning songwriters. They would leave more confused than they were and could easily fall into a pattern of this chord is supposed to be used here without paying attention to what it actually sounds like. I know that there is a whole lot that I left out. I just didn't want to put too much information into my first post. I wanted to wait and see if people liked it and maybe I would post more.
    Besides. Thinking about music in the way your suggesting is just a terrible approach. It's like trying to learn a language without ever listening to it or speaking it.
    What am I suggesting? If you ask me, the proper way to learn and write music is to trust your ears. Learn as much music as you can by ear, and write music that sounds good to you. That is exactly why grouping chords by function makes sense, it gives you a lot of options to consider from and it also tells you what chords not to play if you're looking for something different. You said in the article that you can't really describe the differwnce between Am, Dm and Em, which is weird from a songwriting standpoint given that Dm has nothing to do with Em and Am harmonically. There's no other reason to group them together apart from them being minor chords, which is just nonsensical.
    If you were talking about learning to play by listening to what you were playing then I apologize for my previous post. I didn't pick up on that in your original post. As far as the minors go, Em and Dm both have unique sounds. Why are you singling out Dm?
    No problem. I'm singling out Dm because Am and Em are both embellishing chords that can act as a substitute for the tonic. While Dm is a subdominant chord, and it can have the same function as F.
    The fifth degree of a minor scale is a minor chord. Fifth chord on Am is Em, not E major.
    To be fair, it can be both. Natural minor is a v, harmonic minor is a V.
    In a minor key, even though technically speaking the V chord would be minor, it is more commonly replaced with a major chord, or a V7. This tends to give more suspense and make the music really pull back towards the tonic, as the 3rd of the chord would be ti instead of te. If this still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to you, play a typical i-iv-v-i progression, and then play it as i-iv-V-i, or i-iv-V7-i. You'll almost certainly prefer the latter two.
    I really like this. It explains chords and progressions in a more subjective yet concrete way, which is very helpful. Keep it up!