11 Ways To Make Your Chord Progressions More Interesting
Writing chord progressions can be fun, but do you ever get stuck coming up with the same four chords? Breaking out of your old chord progression habits can be tricky, so here are 11 great ways to spice up your harmonies!
If you don’t already have a chord progression in mind that you want to improve, go ahead and come up with one now so that you can follow along with these tips. If you’re not sure where to start, that’s okay! Follow these quick steps to come up with a progression.
First, learn the diatonic chords within the key you want to use.
Let’s take C major as an example. The C major scale is as follows –
Now we need to harmonise these notes by stacking thirds above them.
That gives us the following chords –
There is a LOT that goes into forming great progressions – I’m not going to dive too deep into which chords to use, but rather how to improve the progression you already have. For now, choose 4 or 5 diatonic 7th chords that sound good to you in succession.
If you’re not sure where to start, use this progression as a sample:
Which in C major translates to:
C – Am – Dm – G – C
Alright, let’s give your progression some extra flavour..
1. Chord Extensions/Tensions
Chord extensions are a great way to spice up your chord progressions by using compound intervals (intervals larger than an octave). You can achieve this by continuing to stack thirds after you have reached the 7th degree (4th note).
Let’s take a look at this image below outlining the diatonic chords of C major with tensions (9, 11 & 13):
Out of those tensions, only some are available to use, depending on the context of the chord within the key.
Let’s take a look at the 7 modes, we’ve outlined which tensions are available and which are secondary (avoid notes). Avoid notes are a semi-tone above a chord tone (1, 3, 5, 7).
Here are a couple of rules of thumb to make this a little simpler –
- Imaj7 can use 9 & 13
- All maj7 chords that are not Imaj7 can use 9, #11 & 13
- The 11 is an available tension for all minor and diminished chords
Dominant (major triad with a minor 7th) chords are a little trickier, as there are many factors to consider.
If the dominant is the V chord in your key, you can use 9 & 13.
Some musicians may add other tensions to a dominant chord called altered tensions. These are b9, #9, #11 & b13; and would be played to create even more tension, which after all, is the purpose of dominant chords. Most commonly, you would only play those if the chord symbol states to do so, e.g. G7alt. The musician would generally decide which tensions to add based on their experience. This is most common in jazz, Latin & fusion styles.
In order to find the available tensions for secondary dominants, you will need to fill in the gaps between the chord tones with the notes from the scale belonging to the chord you are resolving into. I have outlined below all of the available tensions for the 5 secondary dominants:
- V7/II – 9, b13
- V7/III – b9, b13
- V7/IV – 9, 13
- V7/V – 9, 13
- V7/VI – b9, b13
This is just the tip of the iceberg on this topic; hopefully, the above information is enough to get started and spark some creativity!
2. Chord Inversions
Inversions are created when you raise the bottom note of the chord up an octave.
Let’s take a look at Cmaj7 in root position and 1st, 2nd & 3rd inversion.
Using inversions can be a great way to smooth the transitions between chords because of the root motion.
Let’s take a look at this sample progression:
The above image shows how root motion can be used to create a more interesting bass line and add more forward motion to your progression.
Inversions can also make your progression easier to play as there usually isn’t as much jumping around.
Adding suspensions can be an extremely effective way of conveying tension and release in a song; suspensions really want to resolve!
A suspended or sus chord is created by replacing the 3rd in a chord with either a perfect 4th or major 2nd.
The most common use is resolving from a sus4 chord to it’s major counterpart. For example, Csus4 – C.
Suspended chords also work very well as transitions between sections.
You can also add a suspended 4th to a dominant 7th chord. That is one of my favourite sounding chords, and can work particularly well if used in a ii – V – I.
Dm7 – G7sus4 – G7 – Cmaj7 (iim7 – V7sus4 – V7 – Imaj7)
Note: The 10th is an available tension on a 7sus4 chord.
Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” is a great example of 7sus4 chords. The progression is as follows –
D7sus4 – F7sus4 – Eb7sus4 – Dbm9
Using 7sus4 chords in that way can be a very effective method of conveying an unknown destination and sense of wonderment.
Arpeggios, or broken chords, are achieved when you spread out the chord one note at a time and play them in ascending or descending motion.
Let’s take the intro from Fallin’ by Alicia Keys:
The chord progression is Em – Bm7 (Im – Vm7) and the pattern goes:
Em — 3rd – 5th – root – root – 5th – 3rd
Bm — 7th – 3rd – 5th – 5th – 3rd – 7th
This is a very simple progression but is made much more interesting by arpeggiating the chord.
Arpeggios are very easy to implement and can make a big difference to the sound of your song.
5. Secondary Dominants & Extended Dominants
A secondary dominant is a dominant 7th chord which has a dominant relationship to a chord not related to the tonic.
For example, D7 in the key of C would be a secondary dominant as the only diatonic dominant chord in the key of C major is G7.
D7 is the V chord in the G major scale and would, therefore, lead very nicely into a G7 chord; which in turn would lead nicely back to the tonic, Cmaj7.
Extended dominants are dominant chords that resolve into secondary dominant chords. Let’s take our previous example; D7 – G7 – Cmaj7.
If we were to add the V chord of D major (A7) before the D7 in that progression, the A7 would be an extended dominant. As you may have noticed, we are simply travelling counter-clockwise on the circle of fifths.
If you are not familiar with the circle of fifths, I would highly recommend familiarising yourself with it, as it’s very helpful for songwriting, improvisation and your overall understanding of harmony.
Secondary dominants do not have to be the V7/V, they can be the V7 chord of any chord in the diatonic system other than chord VII. This means you can use any of the following:
Try experimenting with these and see what you come up with.
Note: There are only secondary dominants in minor for the degrees of the scale that are the same as major – II, IV & V; otherwise you will create modulation.
6. Tri-tone Substitution
A tri-tone is an augmented 4th interval, 3 whole steps from the root. It’s commonly referred to as an augmented 4th or a diminished 5th, and the interval is exactly half an octave!
A tri-tone substitution occurs when we substitute a dominant chord with another dominant chord a tri-tone away from the root. For example, G7 turns into Db7.
The reason that this works so well is that the 3rd and 7th degrees of those chords (guide tones) are exactly the same, just switched around. In G7 the 7th is F, which is the 3rd of Db7.
This is most commonly used in jazz. Let’s take a look at a classic ii – V – I progression in C major.
Now let’s substitute the G7 for a Db7. Notice that it gives us descending chromatic root motion. This is a very nice effect and each chord leads very nicely into the next.
You can also substitute the ii chord in a ii – V – I, let’s see what that looks like:
Finally, try substituting only the ii chord.
Tri-tone substitutions are a fundamental of jazz reharmonisation and a very handy technique to know.
7. Diminished chords
Diminished chords are comprised of minor thirds stacked on top of each other. You could argue that there are only really 3 diminished chords, just with different inversions. For example, Cdim7 (C, Eb, Gb, Bbb) contains the same notes as Ebdim7 (Eb, Gb, Bbb, Dbb(or C))
The most common use of diminished chords is to use them as passing chords, giving you chromatic root motion.
Let’s take a look at this example:
This is a fantastic example of tension and release. The reason for that is because passing diminished chords that ascend like that have dominant function.
Here are the 4 variations you can try:
- Imaj7 – #Idim7 – IIm7
- IIm7 – #IIdim7 – IIIm7
- IVmaj7 – #IVdim7 – V7
- V7 – #Vdim7 – VIm7
You can also have descending diminished passing chords, however, these have chromatic function, not quite as effective as dominant function in most contexts.
Here are the variations you can try:
- IIIm7 – bIIIdim7 – IIm7
- VIm7 – bVIdim7 – V7
Try experimenting with these and see what you come up with.
Modulation is the process of changing key during a song. There are many modulation techniques, but for now, I’ll cover these three:
- Direct Modulation
- Pivot Modulation
- Transition Modulation
Direct modulation is the most obvious, and arguably the most powerful. When modulating directly, no common chords belonging to both keys are used to help smooth the transition. You just simply jump directly into the new key.
A great example of this is in Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror. Just after the 3rd chorus, the gospel choir sings the word “Change” in the new key of G# Major, a semi-tone up from the original key of G Major. This gives me goosebumps every time I hear it!
The most common type of Direct Modulation is going from Imaj7 (old key) – Imaj7 (new key), however, there are a couple of other options to try out:
- V7 – V7
- (IIm7 – V7) – (IIm7 – V7)
- V7 – Imaj7
- (IIm7 – V7) – Imaj7
- Imaj7 – V7
- Imaj7 – (IIm7 – V7)
Pivot modulation uses a pivot chord/common chord, one that belongs to both keys. This works best when you modulate to a neighbour key, a key which is no more than 1 accidental away. For example, the neighbour keys of C Major (no sharps or flats) are:
- D Minor (1 flat)
- E Minor (1 sharp)
- F Major (1 flat)
- G Major (1 sharp)
- A Minor (no sharps or flats)
A common technique is modulating to the fifth degree of the original key, but the possibilities are many and this is definitely something that you will want to experiment with if you are trying to modulate to a neighbour key.
Transition modulation is a much more drawn-out process and is a far more ambiguous way to change key.
One way to achieve this is by using a symmetrical motion of ii – V – I’s or V – I’s.
You should use this modulation technique if you want your listeners to be a little more perplexed and wondering where they are going to end up. During the process, you can imply new keys and keep your listeners guessing. Transition modulation is a little more advanced but can be very effective in the right contexts.
Note: You may also want to try modulating to the relative major/minor, or parallel major/minor using the techniques above.
9. Modal Interchange
This sounds complicated, but trust me it’s easier than it sounds!
Modal Interchange is the process of borrowing chords from a parallel scale and using them in the primary key.
For example, borrowing chords from the C minor scales if we are in C major.
There are 3 minor scales that you can borrow chords from if you are in a major key:
- Natural Minor
- Harmonic Minor
- Melodic Minor
In order to find out what chords are available, you will need to stack 3rds on top of each note of those scales, taking into account the relevant accidentals of each scale.
In melodic minor, it is more common to play a Im6 instead of Im(maj7) chord as it is generally more pleasing to the ear and sounds more like home.
There are certain chords which I believe work best, but you can borrow whichever chords you like. These are my favourites when borrowing from the parallel minor scales:
Try experimenting with these and see what you come up with.
10. Negative Harmony
This topic can be a controversial one, but I think that the concept is fascinating and once you get your head round it, it can be a great way to make your progressions sound a little darker and more intriguing while maintaining the key centre.
The concept was developed by Swiss composer Ernst Levy, and pioneered recently by Jacob Collier. It is the idea that each note or chord has a corresponding negative counterpart, or reflection.
Let’s start by rotating the circle of fifths slightly counter-clockwise and drawing an axis between the root and fifth of the key we are in. Let’s use C major as an example:
As you can see each note now has a negative or mirrored counterpart.
In order to make up each note’s mirrored chord, we can simply take each note of the chord and find it’s a negative counterpart.
Let’s take Em7 in the key of C Major as an example. The notes of Em7 are:
E – G – B – D
Now let’s find each note’s negative as per the diagram above. This gives us:
Eb – C – Ab – F, OR F – Ab – C – Eb, giving us Fm7
When substituting a dominant chord, you will end up with a m7b5 chord, however, it will sound better in practice if you shift the root up an octave, giving you a m6. For example, a G7 would become Dm7b5, which would then become Fm6.
If we were to demonstrate negative harmony on a stave, we would take the C major scale which is built on the following intervals –
WT – WT – ST – WT – WT – WT – ST (Whole-Tones & Semi-Tones)
Let’s take that formula and invert it in a descending order, staring on the fifth degree of the scale, G. That gives us the following:
As you can see, we have created a descending G Phrygian scale, a dark and haunting mode.
Now let’s put that into practice with a ii – V – I. Here is a regular ii – V – I in the key of C Major:
Now let’s use negative harmony to substitute the ii and V chords:
Notice that I have not substituted the tonic chord, this is because the goal is to maintain the key centre.
This concept can be rather confusing at first, but is a fantastic tool and at this point in time, not a common one. It is a great way to make your progressions stand out.
11. Chord Voicings
One final factor to consider when performing your chord progressions, is chord voicings.
These are very important and can make a huge difference to the overall sound, especially when arranging for larger ensembles.
Check out the list below of a few great sounding voicings for the most common chord types, however, you must always consider voice leading; the way that individual voices/notes within a chord move to the next. The best voicing leading happens when each voice moves as smoothly as possible to the next and satisfies natural tendencies. Voice leading is a huge and complex topic, but a simple way to achieve good voice leading 90% of the time in your progression is by using the same notes where possible and moving up or down by a semi-tone or whole-tone within the inner voices of the chord.
No matter what kind of music you write, interesting and lush chord progressions are available to you! I hope that you’re able to use these tips to improve your progressions and ease any stress you may have on the subject. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to add a comment below or contact us regarding a collaboration.
Writing songs is meant to be fun, so don’t get too bogged down in all the theory and feel free to experiment with some of these tips until you find the right sound for your song.
Wow – This is super helpful… i’ve never heard of “negative harmony” before and it’s a little over my head right now, but I’ll definitely come back to this someday when I’m ready haha. thanks!
Thank you Ali McLeod for one of the most complete documentaries on Guitar music enhancements.