Songwriting can be a struggle. There’s no one-set-strategy for crafting the next big hit. But the chords you use can make all the difference.
And whether you’re a chord progression pro or a songwriting starter, there’s lots of different ways you can get crafty with chords. So here’s 7 essential tips that’ll help you strike the right (pardon me) chord.
How to write a chord progression
If you’re feeling lost when it comes to chord writing, don’t beat yourself up! Lots of songwriters find it challenging to add chords to their verses, choruses and melodies.
You could try a simple, repeated chord pattern, and then play with the melody and chords until you find something you like. I would suggest singing or humming over the chord progression to experiment. Or maybe even use a backing track.
Did you know: One of the world’s biggest hits was written this way (“Old Town Road” by ‘Lil Nas X).
<br>And once you've got the chord progressions down, find out how to write a song so you can start using them in action!
But for now, here’s some of the best tips for writing a hit-worthy chord progression.
7 tips for writing a chord progression
1. Beg, borrow and steal
Chord progressions are one of those song elements that aren’t usually protected by copyright, so it's fine to take progressions that you like in other songs and use them in your own.
For example, if you like “With or Without You” by U2, you can use the same chord progression and even play it in a different key to differentiate it from the original song.
This might resemble a change from the original chord progression of D A Bm G to C G Am F
Keep in mind however that if you feel compelled to borrow more than just the chords (and stray into borrowing the tempos, rhythms and basic sound of the progression as it exists in someone else's song) you're straying into a dangerous area where you could be guilty of copyright infringement.
We've learned this lesson from the Robin Thicke/Pharrell Williams situation with "Blurred Lines". So just be sure your treatment of the chords you borrow is truly your own.
Check out our advice on how to copyright a song for more on this!
I would recommend you change it up a little so as not to sound too alike the original chord progression. This could be through altering things like the sounds or even the overall hook.
2. Take an existing progression and try it backwards
Not every progression works when you play it backwards. But sometimes enough of it will work so that you can use it as a new starting point.
Played backwards, the chords in a progression have a different relationship with each other, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. But if your ideas are drying up, it's certainly worth a try!
3. Create chord progression palindromes
A palindrome usually refers to a word or a phrase that reads the same in both directions. For example, "Madam, I'm Adam".
In a similar way, some chord progressions will work well if you switch direction in the middle and finish it in reverse. Something simple like: C-F-G---|G-F-C---||
The longer the progression, the trickier it can be, so experiment to see what works. Here's a more complex example of a palindromic progression (try 2 beats per chord): C-Am-Em-F|Bb-F-Em-Am|C...
4. Use the circle of fifths
The Circle of Fifths (AKA Circle of Fourths) is an important concept in music. It outlines the relationship between each of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale and their related Major and minor keys.
The closer two keys are in the Circle of Fifths, the more related they are (i.e. the more notes they share in common). The song “Heart and Soul” is based on a standard circle of fifths progression: C Am Dm G
To get you started with it, picture a clock face where the chord C major (or A minor) is at the 12 o'clock position, and each number in the clockwise direction is the chord that's a fifth higher. Going in the opposite direction, each chord is a fifth lower.
Take a look at most chord progressions and you'll see that this fifth relationship is very important, and gives strength to the progression.
A great example: C-F-Dm-G-C. Most of the adjacent chords are fifth away from each other: C to F, Dm to G, and G to C.
A quick way to make use of the circle of fifths: Play a C, then play any other chord that exists naturally in C major. From there, move backward (counterclockwise) through the circle until you reach C again. So let's say that you decide to play Em after C. Using the circle, you'd follow that Em with Am, then Dm, then G, and end on C: C-Em-Am-Dm-G-C
5. Use a bass pedal point.
A pedal point is the repetition or sustain of a single note throughout various harmonic changes.
It can either make a standard progression more interesting or ground a complex progression in something familiar.
Here’s an example of a pedal point chord progression: Dm7/G, A7/G , Fmaj7/G, G
This doesn't create a new progression for you, but if you've come up with a progression that sounds a bit disorganized or overly complex, keeping your bass sitting on one note -- usually the tonic note -- will add a kind of musical glue to that progression and make it sound stronger.
Here's another example: This progression might sound a bit complex: C-Ab|Db-Eb|F-Bb|D-Db|C
Now, play this progression again, but keep a C as your lowest note. You'll see now that the C anchors everything, and keeps the listeners' minds riveted on the key of the progression: C major.
Bass pedal point works for any progression, and some bands, like Genesis for example, made great use of them.
6. Use non-diatonic chords
A non-diatonic chord is one that doesn't exist naturally in the key you've chosen.
For example, in this progression: C-F-Fm-C, the Fm is a non-diatonic chord because Fm doesn't exist naturally in C major.
Another example: In the key of A major, the seven naturally-occuring chords are: A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m, and G#dim.
Non-diatonic chords are wonderful ways to take a simple progression and add a nice dose of new color. It can make a normally mundane progression sound fresher and more innovative.
Some other non-diatonic chords to try (with examples from C major): Flat-III (Eb), Flat-VII (Bb), ii-dim (Ddim).
7. Use modes of your progression
A modal progression could best be described this way: a set of chords that points to a note other than the tonic (key) note.
In other words, if you’re using what appear to be chords from the key of A major, but the progressions seem to be pointing to a different note as being the most significant one, you’re probably using modal progressions.
Here’s an example: D Lydian: D E D E D F#m C#m7 D
Here’s another example: E Mixolydian: E Bm A Bm7 E
Now you’ve got 7 new tips and tricks under your belt, all there’s left to say is happy chord writing!
This article is brought to you by USA Songwriting Competition. USA Songwriting Competition has a long history of having winners getting recording and publishing contracts, have their songs placed on the charts as well as having their songs placed on film and television. In its landmark year, the 27th Annual USA Songwriting Competition is currently accepting entries. For more information, visit their website.