One of the simplest but most effective ways of mixing up your chord progressions is to break out of the four-bar, four-chord rut we’ve sort of found ourselves in.
OK, hold up. Before you draft that angry email, that’s not a dig at anyone. I get it: a lot of music today is made with samples, loop stations and on computers in general, four-bar, four-chord progressions have become the norm.
But like I said right at the top of this article, that’s fine. Really, it is. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes you want to mix things up with an 8-bar or even 16-bar progression. Or even something more unusual like a 6-bar or 10-bar progression.
And sometimes, the harmonic rhythm – the rate that the chord changes – isn’t always one chord per bar. In fact, throwing in a few bars with more than one chord makes the harmonic rhythm more unpredictable and therefore interesting. Changing your chords more frequently also creates a stronger sense of forward momentum – which can be useful in places like the last few bars of your verse as you create anticipation for your chorus.
The deal with creating longer or more irregular chord progressions is that they take more skill and more work than sticking with simple, four-chord progressions. You have to try out more different versions – and reject more chord progressions that don’t quite work – to come up with something that’s really effective. But on the flip side, a more adventurous chord progression, when done well, can take you places a simpler one can’t.
So when it comes to creating longer chord progressions – or with any of the techniques we’ve looked at – here’s the most important tip: try things out. See what works. See what doesn’t work. Learn from the things you like. Learn from the things you don’t.
At the same time – try and take us on a journey. That’s essentially what a great chord progression is: a trip through a handful of different sounds that feel like different degrees of home. In longer chord progressions this usually means starting really simply and getting progressively more interesting and inventive as the progression, well, progresses.
To put it another way: not every bar in an 8- or 16-bar progression needs a different chord. That’s another big idea in my book, The Art of Songwriting: structure, whether it’s the structure of an entire song, sixteen bars of a chord progression, or just the microstructure of one bar of melody, is about balancing variety (things that are different) with unity (things that repeat).
That means a great way to construct a 16-bar progression is to start with a four-bar progression, repeat it identically, then start to repeat it again but let it lead somewhere new, like this:
Of course, there are other ways to make use of small-scale repetition within a chord progression – and you should look out for them in your favourite songs – but as usual, if you’re looking for a specific way to help you build a longer progression, this is a great one to try.
So that’s it. Seven techniques you can use to write more interesting chord progressions. And as I say over and over again in The Art of Songwriting, the key to mastering these techniques is to try them out. If you want to. When you want to. When your next song calls for them.
Because the key to mastering any technique as a songwriter is not just knowing about them, but about understanding them first hand – using them enough times that you get an instinctive feel for what types of chords work where and what you have to do to make them work well.
So over to you, compadre. Go exploring. Be adventurous. Try something crazy. And you might be surprised where your new harmonic palette takes you.
If you are interested in viewing some of Ed’s other articles in this series, please click one of the following links: inversions, pedal notes, chromatic alterations, chord extensions, suspended fourth chords, half-diminished seventh chords.