How to write convincing progressions is a question that often comes up with my students. 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 with non diatonic chords, modal interchange, modulations or just buck conventional trends in harmony.

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 article I’m going to use the same bassline to underpin the chords – a simple syncopated C minor pentatonic loop. Here’s two bars of it with a metronome to enforce the meter:

It’s also worth familiarising 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 convoluted. As with all music theory, these are just a quicker way of communicating with other musicians, you don’t have to be able to read chord charts to write good songs, but it can help when trying to understand what it is you like about a progression and taking it a step further.

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. You can construct your own minor chords taking a given note and adding intervals of three semitones and seven semitones above it.

Throughout I’m going to be using sheet music along with guitar chord boxes and the piano roll, so hopefully no-one gets left behind. Here’s our first example:

There’s nothing is particularly wrong with this, but it wouldn’t be out of place in an exercise book. It lacks anything original about it. Visually, you can see how each chord just moves up in a step-wise motion. For me it’s fine, but could lack sophistication.

Just like Inversion

Although there is nothing technically wrong with the above it also sounds jumpy to me, with each chord in its root position. The top notes (often the easiest to pick out) range from G to C to D – this could be a little smoother.

Inversions are different ways of spelling the same chord, or changing the order in which the notes appear. Taking just the example of C minor (C-, for short), we could play it three different ways:

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

The root position chord you should be familiar with by now. The 1st inversion is the same notes but starting on the Eb and ending on the C and 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 sound smoother. A neat example of this is Justin Bieber, Skrillex and Diplo’s Where Are Ü Now, which has just four chords: C, E-, D and G. However the C (1st inversion) and G (2nd inversion) bookend the sequence, making it flow much more smoothly:

Buy the sheet music here.

Additionally, we can add additional notes to each chord to add different colours to their sound. These auxiliary notes are named by their context to the chord, for example if we add the seventh note in the C minor scale (Bb) to a C minor chord, we get C minor 7 (C Eb G Bb). These are sometimes called chord extensions.

Below I’ve re-voiced all the chords with different inversions and extensions, paying careful attention to common tones each chords share, and the motion of the top note. I’ve added a Bb, making it a C-7 and used an inversion with the G note at the top of the chord. I’ve also 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 makes the chords feel a little more sophisticated and unique:

N.B G is 2nd degree of an F minor scale and A is a the 2nd degree of the G minor scale, so why do we call the 9ths? If you count past the first octave (8th note) the 2nd degree in the next octave would be the 9th degree – often these extensions appear in that octave, rather than so close to the root and third.

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’. I would go a step further and say that passing chords can be diatonic, but let’s not get swept up in terminology. There are numerous ways we can do this, but let’s look at three basic options:

Let’s take a simple two chord example, Eb major to G minor. Passing chords can be as simple as filling the gap between two chords with the next chord in the scale. So Eb major F minor G minor. F minor is the next chord in the scale of Eb major, so all of the notes in the Eb chord just move up a diatonic step to F minor and then again to G minor.

Alternatively you can prepare the next chord with a V (borrowed from the proceeding chords scale), for example Eb major D7 G minor. In the key of G minor, D7 is the V chord (fifth chord). This has the strongest harmonic movement to the root chord. D7 isn’t in the key of Eb major but because it has such a strong pull to G minor it nicely sets it up. This is what’s called a secondary dominant.

Lastly we can use chromatic chords as passing tones. This works much more efficiently when we have a gap of just a tone. So from F minor to G minor we could slip in an F# minor. Much like our diatonic passing chord example, each note is moving up a step, in this case it’s chromatic, not diatonic, but the pull is similar.

Here’s some Joey Dosick to demonstrate this technique with his song Game Winner in the key of Bb. The main chords are F7, to Bb to Eb6 (Eb with the sixth degree, C, added). Joey uses a run of C-7 and Bb/D move between the Bb and Eb6, with the roots of each chord moving diatonically: Bb, C, D, Eb:

It could be argued that all the chords are intrinsic to the progression but it but I think you could make a buskers version with just the F7, Bb and Eb6. Just my two cents.

There are lots more options available to use, which perhaps I’ll write about in a future article, but for now let’s return to our chord sequence:

Above I’m using a C7 to prepare the F-, as C7 is the V in the scale of F minor (secondary dominant). 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).

In case you haven’t followed our definition of extensions, let’s break down what Db7(b9) means. This is a Db7 chord: Db F Ab B with a flattened 9th degree added. The 9th degree would be Eb, so to flatten that we add a D.

[Yes the B is enharmonically a Cb but I want to keep it simple.]

These sorts of altered harmonies work nicely in place of dominant chords and add just enough tension to make the resolution to the root chord feel that much sweeter, particularly in minor keys. Additionally, the Db7(b9) chord 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 intended to add interest and colour to a simpler progression and is common practice in jazz and many other styles of music.

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. It’s quite a big topic in of itself, so read more about chord substitutions here. Here’s a seasonal example from pianist Richard Michael. He taking a simple Christmas carol and reharmonizes it in the style of Bill Evans:

So what can we do with our exercise? Let’s swap out some of the chords we’ve been looking at to give a different mood to the progression:

In the above 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. The G-7 shares some similar notes (G and Bb) and the other notes (D and F) have can be contextualised differently in C minor: in G minor they are the 5th and 7th, but in C minor they are the 9th and 11th.

In bar 3 we do the same with the Ab∆7/C in place of the F- chord. Again these share many similar notes, in fact Ab is the relative major of F minor.

The symbol ∆ is just shorthand for major 7. This is different from a minor 7 (the 7th degree in a minor scale) and plain-old 7 (the flattened 7th degree placed on top of a major chord).

At the end of the 4 bars there’s another passing chord, this time a B∆ with a C# in the bass. 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

It’s rare that all of the chords will always fall bang on the bar lines as this might sound clinical to our ears. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a little rhythmically sterile. We sometimes naturally displace chords to add interest to our accompaniment.

A really clear example of this is Deadmau5’s I Remember (featuring Kaskade). Count one – and – two – and – three – and – four – and throughout this to hear which chords appear on the strong beats and which appear before them. I’ve embedded from where the chords come in but if you need to rewind it a little to get the meter into your head be my guest:

So how can we use this in the context of our chord sequence?

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.

It’s a little overdone but this is just an exercise and hopefully it’s shed some light on just some of the techniques you can use to breathe life into your chord progressions.

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 hereLastly, I’ll leave you with this video from musician and YouTube educator Ben Levin that I discovered today: