Here’s how to make your chord progressions more interesting. One of the most freeing things you can learn as a musician is how to create your own chord progressions. This knowledge allows you to compose or improvise your own music or to interpret what’s going on in an already-existing piece of music.
Of course, to make any chord progressions, you first need to know what chords are and how to build them. If you don’t, you can learn all about them here.
Using chords all in one key is a great way to start, but eventually, you might want to experiment with borrowing chords from other keys or chromatically altering (adding notes that aren’t part of the key you’re in) chords. To understand how to do this on your own, it helps to have even a basic understanding of how functional harmony operates.
You can also watch a shortened version of this post in this video from my TikTok:
Crash Course in Functional Harmony
Functional harmony is the culmination of a bunch of theories of harmony in which one chord in a piece of music is perceived as the most important. We can say that a piece of music is “in the key of A major,” which means that the A major chord is the most important chord in the piece. That piece uses the A major scale, which goes A B C♯ D E F♯ G♯ A.
Building chords from every step of a scale gives us every chord that can occur within the scope of that key. In A major, this would look like this:
Notice that underneath every note is a Roman numeral. Roman numeral notation is a common way of discussing tonal harmony, as it can be used as a tool for noticing patterns across different keys, based on the harmonies built from each scale step. Each numeral communicates the scale step that serves as the root of the chord as well as the quality of the chord. Capital numerals (I, IV, V) show that the [appropriate, correlated] chord is major. Lowercase numerals (ii, iii, vi) show that the chord is minor. Lowercase numerals with a degree symbol or with a slashed degree symbol (viiø) show that the chord is diminished.
Because every major scale is built from the same interval pattern of W W H W W W H, the pattern of chord qualities is always the same: I ii iii IV V vi viiø I.
“Functional” harmony is a theory of harmony that categorizes each of these chords into roles, based on patterns that have historically been repeated in hundreds of years of music. These functions are: Tonic, Dominant, and Pre-Dominant.
The tonic function in functional harmony is the tonal center of the key. Its role is one of rest or completeness, which means that when we hear it at the ends of songs or phrases, we don’t have an expectation that more music will come after.
I or minor I are the tonic functions.
The dominant function is the second-most important role in functional harmony. Dominant chords (V or viiø) have a tendency toward motion, specifically toward the tonic. Because of the presence of the leading tone (the 7th step of a major scale, which is a half-step from scale step 1) as the 3rd of the V chord, the shared scale step 5 between V and I, and that the 5th of the V chord is also only a step away from the 3rd of I, V is drawn toward I.
It’s this relationship of V to I that defines a key.
Most chord progressions that convey a sense of finality end with a V to I motion.
For similar reason, viiø is also considered to be a type of dominant chord.
All the other chords in the key fall under pre-dominant. They convey a slight sense of motion but not specifically toward I. Pre-dominant chords serve more of a connective role between I and V, so a “basic phrase” or basic chord progression goes Tonic Pre-Dominant Dominant then back to Tonic (T PD D T)
A couple of examples are:
How to Make Chord Progressions More Interesting With Borrowed Chords
Because a simple I IV V I can get boring really quickly, or even just staying in the same key, you can add some color to your chord progressions using chords from the parallel minor.
Parallel keys are ones that share the same tonic note (like A major and A minor). A major has 3 sharps, and A minor has none.
Borrowing chords from the parallel key is called modal mixture and is most often achieved by lowering scale step 6 of the major key to create 2 more pre-dominants for the major key.
The reason why adjusting scale step 6 is the most common way for a major key to borrow from its parallel minor is that it doesn’t undermine the major-ness of the major key. It doesn’t make the listener question where the tonal center is, and it doesn’t change the tonic triad itself.
In this example of A major as the key we’re working in, that means turning F♯ into F♮.
Taking the simple examples above and just changing that scale step 6, we get this:
The IV turns into a minor iv, which adds a little color and sounds perhaps a little unexpected.
The ii turns into a half-diminished iiø, which actually makes the V sound even stronger. The F♮ is only a half-step away from the root of V, E, so there’s a strong pull toward V, which helps propel the entire phrase forward more.
It looks and sounds like this:
How to Make Chord Progressions More Interesting
Adjusting one single note might feel like a small thing, but as you heard in the examples above, it can make a big difference. Another common adjustment in functional harmony is to lower scale step 3 by half a step. What chords do you think work best with that chromatic alteration?
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.