Write better chord progressions: if you feel like your chord progressions are boring or aren’t expressing exactly what you want them to, try approaching harmonies from different perspectives. Often, the most helpful creative tool is just coming at a problem from a different angle. Here are 4 different ways to help you write better chord progressions.
Write Better Chord Progressions by Focusing on the Mood
Although chord progressions aren’t the only aspect of that expresses emotion, choosing a mood or emotion to focus on can help you craft chord progressions that fit your song.
You could make an entire career of studying how chords convey emotion, but an easy way to think about music and emotion is by first categorizing emotions based on how we express them (or how we tend to act when we’re feeling them). We can organize them according to two parameters: activity level and whether the feeling is pleasant or unpleasant.
If we sort the most common emotions into a chart, we’ll get something that looks like this:
You’ll see that a happy or excited emotion is active and pleasant. That means that when expressing those emotions in music, it’s helpful to have music that “moves” a lot. For chord progressions, that would mean having faster chord changes, like 2 chords per measure. The pleasant part would involve brighter harmonies, which would mean you’d use more major chords (which can be characterized as brighter than minor chords) and possibly augmented.
On the other side, angry or frustrated is also active but unpleasant. You still might have faster chord changes, but instead you’d use more minor and diminished chords.
For sad or grieving, your chord changes would be slower—chords last full measures or multiple measures—and more unpleasant or darker chords (minor/diminished).
And in the last quadrant, serene or peaceful would also have chords that last full measures, but the chords could be brighter: you might use more major and augmented chords than minor ones.
For all of these, you can of course use minor chords in “pleasant” emotion chord progressions and vice versa with major in “unpleasant” ones, but you’ll want the majority of the chords in your progression to reflect that pleasant or unpleasant nature.
“I Got Rhythm” by George and Ira Gershwin is a good example of a happy song. Not only are the lyrics happy—“who could ask for anything more?”—the chords change multiple times in every measure, and the most important chords are major (most of the minor chords in this song are the result of a passing tone between structural chords).
Write Better Chord Progressions with Chromatic Harmony
If you’ve written chord progressions at all, you might be bored with the diatonic tonic – pre-dominant – dominant – tonic, I IV V I basic phrase. To spice up your chord progressions, you can use chords from outside of the key you’re in, which is called using chromatic harmony.
There are a couple of ways to do this.
First, you could pick random chords that you just like and try to melt them together. Changing the quality (major/minor) of a chord that’s in the key you’re in is an easy way to do this. If you’re in C major, try using F minor instead of F major.
You could also learn about how chromatic harmony has been used for hundreds of years (including in film scores and in pop music today) and imitate that usage. Using F minor in the key of C major (minor iv in a major key) is part of a common practice called modal mixture, where you borrow chords from the parallel major or minor.
Chromatic harmony also involves tonicizing diatonic chords (making chords from the key sound stronger than they normally would) by using what’s called secondary dominant chords.
“I Don’t Know Why” by Jesse Harris (and famously covered by Norah Jones) uses multiple secondary dominant chords to strengthen the chords that come after them and create forward momentum.
If you want to read about other songs that use chromatic harmony, check out these articles:
- Secondary Dominant Chords: Don’t Know Why by Jesse Harris
- Common-Tone Modulation in “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams
- Neapolitan Chord in “Enterprising Young Men” from Star Trek 2009
And check out this Chromatic Harmony ebook ($19).
Focus on a New Chord to Write Better Chord Progressions
Whether you’re exploring chromatic harmony or even just diatonic harmony, there’s always at least one chord that you don’t have as much practice using, like the vii°. To write better chord progressions, you’ll want to expand your chord vocabulary.
Like learning new words, learning through usage is so much more helpful than just memorizing the concept of the word (or chord). Pick a new chord every so often and write a few chord progressions using that chord.
If you haven’t practiced with every chord in a diatonic key, start there.
Then, as you’re learning more about chromatic harmony, start adding chromatic chords into your chord progressions one at a time. This ensures that you know what to expect when you add specific chords into your chord progressions.
Start with Tried-and-True Chord Progressions
One of the best ways to learn how to write better chord progressions is to start with a chord progression you know works and then tweak it.
For example, the most commonly used chord progression in pop music is I V vi IV. It’s found in Livin’ on a Prayer (Bon Jovi), Call Me Maybe (Carly Rae Jepsen), Jar of Hearts (Christina Perri), Time After Time (Cyndi Lauper), I’m Yours (Jason Mraz), and hundreds of other songs. And there are many ways you can slightly adjust the progression to make it a new one.
You could add a chord to it, bonus points if it’s a borrowed chromatic chord: I V vi ♭III IV
Or you could put some of the chords in inversion: I6 V6 vi IV or I6/4 V4/3 vi6 IV
Or you could repeat some of the chords back and forth before moving on: I V vi V vi IV or I V vi IV vi IV.
Slight adjustments turn it into a whole new progression and gives you experience working with chord progressions that have a long history provides you with an internalized sense of how chord progressions work.
Write Better Chord Progressions
All in all, we’re always getting better at what we do. We learn in baby steps, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know how to write the most chromatically complex chord progression that’s ever existed. Chances are that it wouldn’t sound that great anyway.
Oftentimes, simple is better.
As long as you stay honest in your music-making, people will connect with it. And that’s the whole point to music, right? To connect us together.