All of the chords we’ve looked at earlier in this series have been diatonic: they only use the notes belonging naturally to the key they’re in, without adding any sharps or flats to bring in notes outside of the natural key.
In music we use the term chromatic to refer to notes – or the harmonies that include them – that are altered with sharps and flats. And as every theory textbook will clichédly tell you, the word chromatic comes from the Greek word for color, ‘chroma’, which is exactly what chromatic chords add to any progression.
There are tons of different ways you can use chromatic chords effectively, but I’m going to divide them into two neat categories – chords with sharpened notes and chords with flattened notes – because they typically work in two different ways.
Adding sharpened notes, as you might expect, gives a chord a brighter, more vibrant, more optimistic quality. That might just mean adding a sharpened note to one or more chords just for the color it creates:
If you play this example you’ll hear how the D major chord (with an F# instead of the diatonic F natural) makes the progression sound brighter than it does with an F natural. In fact, this is an example of a modal chord progression, which uses a chromatically altered, more unusual kind of scale called a mode. (Get the full rundown on modes here.)
(As an aside, you might be wondering why I’m not talking about how the E major chord (chord V) is also altered chromatically. For various reasons, it’s common to use the major V chord in a minor key, over the ‘natural’, minor chord – though in songwriting and other genres of popular music you often find the natural, minor chord too.)
Chromatic alterations are also really useful in progressions based on something called the Cycle of Fifths (or Circle of Fifths), which is basically a big idea that says progressions made up of chords where the roots fall in successive fifths (five-note intervals) tend to work really well. Like in this natural, non-chromatic version of a circle of fifths progression:
If you count the diatonic notes between the chords in this progression, you’ll find each note is five pitches (including the start and end pitch) below the previous one. (Or four pitches above, which amounts to the same letter note, up an octave.)
One common way to alter a progression that uses the cycle of fifths like this is to alter the minor chords to make them major chords, which gives a different color and a stronger sense of momentum, where the progression starts with sharper, brighter chords and gradually finds its way back to the home key:
If you play this example, you’ll hear what I mean: the A and D chords push onto the next chord more strongly than Am and Dm do. If you’re interested, these altered chords are called secondary dominants, because they essentially become the dominant chord (chord V) of a temporarily sharper key as they pass.
Adding flattened notes in a progression is a different game with different effects. As you might expect, chords with flattened notes in them sound darker, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they sound more gloomy or miserable. In fact, these kinds of chord are really common in pop and rock music because they can make a progression sound less square and clean, like most classical music does.
A good example of this is the chord on the flattened seventh degree of the scale. The chord on the regular, natural seventh of the scale is what’s called a diminished chord –– which is a more unusual chord we’ll talk more about later. But by flattening the root of that chord, it becomes a major chord that’s pretty straightforward to use:
You can also use the major chord on the flattened third of the scale in a similar way:
Another common flat-altered chord is the minor chord on the fourth degree of the scale – like F minor in C major. This chord is used so much it can sound like a bit of a cliché, but used carefully it can be really effective, either straight after the regular (major) IV chord before it:
Of course, these aren’t the only kinds of chromatic chords you can use – there are tons of other ways you can alter the basic diatonic chords. But if you’re just getting to grips with chromatic alterations, these techniques are definitely a great place to start.
And when you do, you’ll probably start to notice something really interesting: the more interesting and unusual chords you try to include in a progression, the harder you have to work to make it work. In other words, while you can pretty much use the primary triads – I, IV and V – in any order or combination you like and it’ll sound great, you can’t just throw in any old chromatically altered chords and hope for the best. This is another important idea I talk about in my book The Art of Songwriting: it’s great to be original as a songwriter, but it takes work.
All that means for creating chord progressions is that coming up with something extra interesting is going to take a bit more trial and error. But that’s cool. When you eventually crack the code, you’ll be so glad you gave it a shot.
Be sure to check back next month for Ed Bell’s next tip: How to Write Interesting Chord Progressions: Chord Extensions.