How to write convincing progressions is a question that often comes up. With a basic grasp of music composition, it’s possible to string together coherent chords that sit nicely within a key and support the main melody or motifs. But how to take that to the next step and compose sophisticated sequences without sounding contrived or trite is easier said than done.

We discussed in an earlier post how chords from certain keys work together, and these are certainly the first steps I would take when harmonising a melody. However this can lead to some fairly ordinary sounding harmonies and there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Things to Consider

Most songs and progressions have a natural resting place and this is known as the key or tonal centre. It might be completely obvious, for instance all the chords might be from the C major scale and the song starts and ends on a C major chord, or it may be far less obvious.

Either way, it’s important to know the key and the important chords in that key. For me, this makes it far easier to borrow chords from other keys without being led too far astray.

Throughout this example I’m going to use the same bassline to underpin the chords: a simple syncopated C minor pentatonic loop. Here it is:

Also, please familiarise yourself with the chord naming conventions I’m going to be using. They’re not necessarily what everyone uses, but they’re the ones I’ve found most useful and least diluted.

Into Practise

The example music I’m using is a short disco ditty in C minor at 103 bpm with the chord progression C minor (C Eb G), F minor (F Ab C) and G minor (G Bb D). These chords are in what’s called root position. This is the simplest way of playing a chord: the root note at the bottom, followed by the 3rd and 5th:

(If you’re unfamiliar with chord composition, please read this).

Nothing is particularly wrong with this, but it wouldn’t be out of place in an exercise book. It lacks anything original about it.

Voicings/Inversions

Although there is nothing technically wrong with the above, it also sounds jumpy to me, with each chord in its root position, the top note ranges from G to C to D, and could be a lot smoother.

Using inversions is the process of changing the order of how the notes appear in each chord. Taking just the example of C- (C minor), we could play it:

C  Eb G (root position)
Eb G  C (1st inversion)
G  Eb C (2nd inversion)

The root position chord you should be familiar with, the 1st inversion is the same notes but starting on the Eb and ending on the C, the 2nd inversion is the same concept again but starting on the G and ending on the Eb.

Mixing inversions of each chords means we not only have to move less fingers when playing these progressions but makes the transitions smoother.

Below, I’ve revoiced the C- chord to transition more easily to the F- and added a Bb, making it a C-7; I’ve added an Eb and G to the F- chord and an F and A to the G- chord making those F-9 and G-9, respectively.

This adds some colour to the chords and makes them feel a little more sophisticated:

The A isn’t part of of the C minor scale (hence the natural  sign next to it) but it is part of the G minor scale; that’s totally fine as long as it doesn’t clash with something in the melody. This is an acceptable time to borrow a note from another scale to add flavour to our chords.

Passing Chords

To move the progression along, we can prepare the next chord in the sequence with a passing chord. Wikipedia describes this as a ‘non-diatonic chord that connects, or passes between, the notes of two diatonic chords’. Let’s take a simple two chord example, C major to E minor.

Passing chords can be as simple as filling the gap between two chords with the next chord in the scale, for example. C D- E-. Or, you can prepare the next chord with a V (borrowed from the proceeding chords scale), for example C A7 E-. Also, you can use a chromatic passing chord, for example C Eb E-.

In the same example, I’m using a C7 to prepare the F-, as C7 is the V in the scale of F minor. I’m also using a Db7(b9) chord at the end of the loop that adds some nice dissonance and is also a substitution for a G7 chord, which is the V in C minor (we’ll cover substitutions properly next).

The Db7(b9) could also be seen as a B diminished chord (B D F Ab) with a Db added to it. The Db is one semitone above C so creates a nice chromatic movement.

Borrowed Chords/Substitutions

Substituting chords is quite literally what is sounds like: using alternatives in the place of what’s written to add interest and color to a bland progression. It’s common practice in jazz (and many other styles of music) but probably happens more that you might imagine.

It can be as simple as swapping a major chord for its relative minor or for chords that share similar notes, or something more advanced like tritone substitutions. Below, I’m going to swap out some of the chords from the same example we’ve been looking at to give a different mood to the loop:

In this example, I’m anchoring each chord on a pedal tone of C; this gives a nice feeling of ascension and movement to the otherwise quite bland chords. Bar 2 sees us swap our C- chord for a G-7/C and bar 3 sees us do the same with the Ab∆7/C in place of the F- chord.

At the end of the 4 bars there’s another passing chord, this time a B∆ (major 7) with a C# in the bass, which I felt led nicely back to the C minor without being too repetitive.

Chords with a root note not from the chord (like the B∆/C#) are known as slash chords. I’ll be publishing something more on these soon.

Push/Pull

In jazz or popular music it’s rare that all of the harmonies will always fall bang on the bar lines as this might sound clinical to our ears. We naturally displace chords to add interest to our accompaniment:

Here, I’ve pushed the F- chord an 1/8th note early and pulled the G- an 1/8th note late, rather than the chords falling drably on the beat. Pushing chords to anticipate the beat generally catches us by surprise and adds a sense of urgency while pulling them later tends to sounds more laid back and lazier.

There doesn’t seem to be an agreed nomenclature on this – I’ve seen as many articles claiming pushing and pulling is one thing and as many claiming it to be the opposite way around – so take my terms with a pinch of salt as it’s more important to understand the concept.

Putting it all Together

Using a combination of all the above techniques, I’ve managed to inject some life into the original example:

In bar 1 we throw in a G-7/C slash chord ahead of the beat, and then in bar 2 use the V of F minor (C7) to anticipate the F- chord in bar 3. In bar 4, we’re using a simple passing chord to resolve back to the C-7 as the progression would be a loop.

Post Script

When quizzed by XLR8R about production and composition, Dusky had this interesting titbit to say on the subject:

…A successful and interesting rhythmic pattern has a combination of symmetry and asymmetry, or predictability and unpredictability. On top of that, swing and pushing and pulling of timing can be used to loosen or tighten a groove. All melodic contours contain rhythmic patterns too, but additional considerations to the rhythmic elements can also be made when approaching the melodic shape…

They are of course talking about drum programming and riffs, but the concept fits nicely into this discussion. Chords are there to support the main melody or riff, not distract from them, but spicing them up with a few of the aforementioned concepts can go some way to you sounding less predictable and banal.

If you want to download the Logic project of these examples, you can do so here.