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#1940568 - 08/10/12 08:40 PM How do you make interesting chord progressions?
JonnyCamp Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 08/10/12
Posts: 3
Loc: Florida
Hello everybody, I'm new to these forums and a little bit to music theory and composition. So pardon me if my questions are a bit too basic and obvious.

Okay, so say I'm going to write a song in the key of D Major and I'm going to use a I-IV-V progression. Do you have to use D,G & A or can you use a different chord type? For instance, instead of Dmaj, could I use a sus,6, maj7 or aug in place of that maj? If not, wouldn't the progression be a little boring? How else could you "spice" up that progression?

On another note, how come some musicians don't "follow the rules" and stick to the original progression formula? Instead of D, G & A, they might alter it to D, Gmin & A. Or go two half steps down from a G and use F. Why is that? What allows them to do that? Wouldn't that deviation counteract with the original key?



Edited by JonnyCamp (08/10/12 08:48 PM)

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#1940700 - 08/11/12 03:56 AM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 118
Hey JonnyCamp,

Wow... so much could be said, since you're tackling some pretty broad (but good!) questions.

I'll try to get the ball rolling with a few thoughts:

1. "Can" is a funny word in music. smile Composers "can" do whatever they want. You can use I IV V, or you can use all sorts of substitutions. Forgive me if you're already well-aware of all this, but just to throw it out there- instead of thinking in terms of "can" and "can't," it might be more helpful to frame things historically in terms of "did" and "didn't." That is, we might say that Bach did use Technique A, but did not use Technique B. Later, Mozart uses Technique A and B. Still later, Beethoven drops Technique A, but uses Technique B and incorporates Technique C. I believe the story of composition is the story of the evolution of a language. And while some musical advancements have clear theoretical explanations (which I'll get to, below), others might basically come down to "because the composer liked that sound." I'm not trying to get caught up on a philosophical tangent, but I just wanted to set up the fact that when we speak of what you can and can't do with harmony, we ultimately reach this point where we have to acknowledge that, in the end, you can do whatever you want. Absolutes like good/bad, right/wrong, or even words like "boring," as you said, become very fuzzy, because they're subject to individual interpretation.

2. So- can you use those substitutions for Dmaj? Sure! Would they be commonly used? I'd say yes, to the specific ones you mentioned. (The D augmented might be less common, but it's definitely possible. It might be more often used as a tension chord that resolves to plain D major, but it can be used!).

3. You asked if it might be boring if you used plain D major. I'd say first to remember that "boring" is a subjective term, so I have no authority to say that it is definitely boring, at least not to everyone. More importantly, though, I'd point out that simpler chords shouldn't be necessarily thought of as being less-desirable on the whole. Simpler chords can also create a feeling of "purity," for example. Early classical composers created (in my opinion) tons of amazing work using little more than triads. And later composers (say, Romantic), knew how to use simpler chords effectively. In the context of their relatively fuller harmonic language, simple triads could stand out in the music for their bright, "pure" quality. I'd encourage you to consider your own musical growth process as a process of "gathering" tools/vocabulary, whereby you don't necessarily abandon simpler structures in favor of more complex ones, but that you constantly grow your own harmonic vocabulary to where you have more choices including, sometimes, the simplest ones (IF that's where you choose to go at that moment, musically).

3. How else could you spice up that progression? There are lots of great options. You could use inversions, such as I, IV6, V6 (Dmaj, Gmaj/B, Amaj/C#). You could add sevenths, such as I7, IV7, V7 (Dmaj7, Gmaj7, A7). You could insert chords in-between, creating a stronger "pull" toward each chord, such as this: I, V65/IV, IV, viid7/V, V (Dmaj, D7/F#, Gmaj, G#dim7, A). And there are several ways you could swap out chords, such as I, bVIb7, V (Dmaj, Bb7, Amaj) or I, IV, bIImaj7 (Dmaj, Gmaj, Ebmaj7). There are many more wonderful options, and I'm sure others here could offer several to you.

4. Regarding doing progressions like D, Gmin, A, and your question about why composers don't "follow the rules." Well, that's another one of those philosophical tangent-starters, and it relates to music history. smile Long lecture aside, we can say that diatonic harmony (all chords come from the "parent" scale) is a relatively simpler form of harmony. (I don't mean anything negative in that). However, the story of musical evolution is often the story of composers fiddling around with things they "weren't supposed" to be able to do, until such usage became common. In this case, it's actually quite specific: they found that they could borrow chords, from a key's parallel major or minor, to have a second set of chord choices. So in other words, if you're in D major, you can use all the chords diatonic to D major. However, you could also borrow any chord from D minor, to create a second set of chord options. G minor is the iv in D minor. F is the (flat) III in D minor. Yes, it "counteracts" with the original key. But, you could argue, it creates "spice"!

So as you explore composing in D major, you could include D minor, E half-diminished, F major, G minor, A minor, Bb major, and C major. These can be really great choices to add richness to otherwise simpler progressions. And, similarly, you could have a piece in D minor, and use some of the chords diatonic to D major. In fact, this explains one borrowed chord we use often: in minor keys, we commonly "borrow" the V from the parallel major, rather than using the (minor) v chord that would be diatonic to the natural minor scale.

Why did I think this might be a short message? Oh, well, hopefully something above has been useful. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.
_________________________
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#1940882 - 08/11/12 02:56 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
Aaron Garner Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/24/12
Posts: 56
Loc: Sacramento, Ca
James, you posted an excellent answer to a very complex question even though Jonny stated he was starting out with primary triads. I usually don't read posts that long, but you write so well, I read every word. I like how you gave ideas that would appeal to beginners up to more advanced composers.

I wish I had more time to chime in, but ironically I'm preparing for my new crop of theory students this fall and the advanced ones too.

One quick idea to ponder Jonny. What I'm about to suggest is pretty advanced for some, but you can experiment and use your ears; and your ears will change as you develop.

Try using 9-11-13 chords. Forgive me if you already know this. A 9, 11 or 13 is found by literally counting up from the root of a chord. A Cmaj9 would be: C-E-G-B-D. The D is nine notes up from the root C (including the C). The triad part is of course C-E-G. You can lower and raise the 9th, raise the 11th and lower the 13th and combine them in different combinations. A shortcut: 9 = 2nd scale degree, 11 = 4th scale degree and 13 = 6th scale degree. I'm only scratching the surface of this.

Here's were it can get interesting. Take one of your melody notes and think of it as one of the upper extensions, i.e., 9-11-13 or even one of the altered ones. Build a chord as if the melody note is an upper extension rather than 1-3-5 or even 7. For example: if one of your melody notes is A, you could think of that note as a raised 11th. The note A could be a raised 11th on an Eb7 as an example. Oh boy, how did I figure that out? Count down 11 notes from A and you arrive at E. But wait, is a #11 on an E or Eb chord? "A" is the 11th diatonic note of E major so that would not be a raised 11th, but it would be a raised 11th from Eb. Count 11 notes up the scale of Eb major and you arrive at Ab. Raise it and you have a raised 11. The problem with this is, if the melody note moves quickly to a note that doesn't work with the chord it can sound bad unless you change the chord again.

Okay, I really opened a can of worms because this is very advanced and I probably created more questions for many. Sorry for the very brief and incomplete explanation. I take at least two weeks to teach this to my 3rd semester theory students and many struggle with these concepts. Harmony is a lifetime study.

The best advice I can give is, listen to all kinds of music, ask a lot of questions and try analyzing scores - and use your ears! Better yet, get a good music theory book or enroll in a class. I hope I've at least contributed something worthwhile.
_________________________
2013 Mason and Hamlin BB
Full-time music professor (theory) and jazz pianist

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#1941179 - 08/12/12 02:43 AM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
JonnyCamp Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 08/10/12
Posts: 3
Loc: Florida
Thank you both! I kind of understand what you guys are saying. James, in accordance to borrowing chords from a key's parallel major or minor, does it ever change the original key by doing that? For example, when we talked about the G chord going to a Gmin, does that make my KEY change to Dm? Or do I stay in D, allowing a few additions? Are there chords that can transition you smoothly between keys? What is the relationship between keys that are a fifth apart from each other? (Like G, D and A) I notice they have chords that are shared with each other. Are those "shared chords" open invitations to alternate keys at anytime? I'm driving myself crazy with this!

Aaron, I actually checked out a book from a local community college and it was Harmony by Walter Piston. I understood some things (intervals, inversions, etc) but I had no luck in getting any further with that book.
I tried analyzing and playing sheet music, but I found myself playing the song from memory instead of reading the notes in front of me. (I guess I should of picked a tune I didn't know!!) Eventually I'd get discouraged from my slow, choppy playing and give up.

As far as ear playing, I'd listen to different genres of music and try to figure out what made a certain song interesting. Gutting out the bass, chords, and melody. I can re-create songs pretty well. Although some songs can be a bit too "clever" for my current understanding. This is the method that currently attracts me.

I bought a piano chord encyclopedia yesterday, thinking that it would improve my progressions. Now I'm not so sure that would solve the problem I'm facing. I would be building a good vocabulary while still having poor sentence structure and incoherence. Guess I have to invest in some good theory books.

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#1941903 - 08/13/12 11:37 AM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
Steve Chandler Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/18/05
Posts: 2760
Loc: Urbandale, Iowa
There have been some great responses in this thread. My point is that if you're going to use non-diatonic notes then you need a reason. For example you mentioned a D augmented chord. This could be a passing chord to G (or e or b minor) from the tonic chord with the A# acting as leading tone. If the F# and A# are acting as leading tones you've enhanced the leading tone impact. However, D to G is pretty common and using the A# to lead to e or b minor yields to a progression of harmony that may be more interesting to your ears. You have to practice to develop your personal harmonic vocabulary.

A chord encyclopedia is a great thing, but I find chord progressions more interesting when voice leading is the driving factor. This is the sentence structure and incoherence you referred to in your post. Voice leading implies knowledge of harmony.

Finally analyzing means not playing the piece, but looking at the actual notes and determining what the chord progression is and how and why it works (or doesn't). Perhaps what you need is lessons in music theory so you have an understanding of harmony and analysis.

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#1942134 - 08/13/12 06:10 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
Exalted Wombat Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 1197
Loc: London UK
There's a common beginner's misconception that using notes outside a key's home scale must take you into a different key.

It doesn't.

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#1942308 - 08/14/12 12:35 AM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: Aaron Garner]
LoPresti Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/07/10
Posts: 1304
Loc: New York
Originally Posted By: Aaron Garner
. . . . . ironically I'm preparing for my new crop of theory students this fall and the advanced ones too. . . . .

For example: if one of your melody notes is A, you could think of that note as a raised 11th. The note A could be a raised 11th on an Eb7 as an example. Oh boy, how did I figure that out? Count down 11 notes from A and you arrive at E. But wait, is a #11 on an E or Eb chord? "A" is the 11th diatonic note of E major so that would not be a raised 11th, but it would be a raised 11th from Eb. Count 11 notes up the scale of Eb major and you arrive at Ab. Raise it and you have a raised 11. . . . .

I take at least two weeks to teach this to my 3rd semester theory students and many struggle with these concepts.

There’s a surprise.
_________________________
In music, everything one does correctly helps everything else.

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#1942325 - 08/14/12 01:04 AM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
Aaron Garner Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/24/12
Posts: 56
Loc: Sacramento, Ca
Originally Posted By: JonnyCamp
I actually checked out a book from a local community college and it was Harmony by Walter Piston. I understood some things (intervals, inversions, etc) but I had no luck in getting any further with that book


Piston's book was actually my first theory book. I got it from my dad. Although I still think the Piston book is great in a lot of ways for reasons beyond a single post, there are much better theory books these days - especially if you're teaching yourself. Everyone will have their favorite for a variety of reasons. This is not my favorite theory book by any means, but you might check out "Harmonic Materials In Tonal Music" originally written by Paul Harder (Greg Steinke new author). The advantage of this book is that it can be used without an instructor because all of the solutions are given. It's pretty thorough and is not "wordy."
_________________________
2013 Mason and Hamlin BB
Full-time music professor (theory) and jazz pianist

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#1942378 - 08/14/12 04:42 AM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
JonnyCamp Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 08/10/12
Posts: 3
Loc: Florida
Thanks for the help everybody! I guess the answers all boil down to more theory study.

Also, thanks for the recommendation Aaron, I'm going to give that book a go.

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#1942593 - 08/14/12 02:12 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 118
Originally Posted By: JonnyCamp
Thank you both! I kind of understand what you guys are saying. James, in accordance to borrowing chords from a key's parallel major or minor, does it ever change the original key by doing that? For example, when we talked about the G chord going to a Gmin, does that make my KEY change to Dm? Or do I stay in D, allowing a few additions? Are there chords that can transition you smoothly between keys? What is the relationship between keys that are a fifth apart from each other? (Like G, D and A) I notice they have chords that are shared with each other. Are those "shared chords" open invitations to alternate keys at anytime? I'm driving myself crazy with this!


JonnyCamp,

As Exalted Wombat said, using chords from another key doesn't automatically mean changing keys. We could think of three general "routes":

1. Playing entirely within a key: diatonic harmony, with no accidentals.
2. Basically staying within a key, but using accidentals here and there to spice things up, without actually changing the key.
3. Actually changing keys: you start in one key, and then transition into another. (Modulation).

I think what we're mostly talking about here is no. 2, above. There is such a thing as a key change (no. 3), and you can use borrowed chords as a way to get you to another key. However, no. 2 above is very common: just basically stay in one key, but add extra chords here and there from outside the key to spice things up. In theory textbooks, the "spices" include such things as borrowed chords, secondary dominants, secondary leading-tone chords, and so on. When it comes to analysis on paper, these moments aren't treated as a true key-change. (They don't change the key signature). We do have special roman numerals that indicate that something out of the ordinary has happened, but that doesn't necessarily imply that a key-change is coming. You just did something different/nondiatonic/cool for a moment. smile

So, to answer your first few questions specifically:

Originally Posted By: JonnyCamp
James, in accordance to borrowing chords from a key's parallel major or minor, does it ever change the original key by doing that? For example, when we talked about the G chord going to a Gmin, does that make my KEY change to Dm? Or do I stay in D, allowing a few additions?


I'd say: it can mean a key change, but it doesn't have to. You can use G minor in the key of D major because you're wanting to transition into D minor, or you can use G minor just because you like how it sounds. Either way, if you analyzed these chords on paper, you would refer to the G minor chord as "iv." This shows that it is the IV chord, but minor. Also, I would echo Steve's great point that voice-leading can give a good "rationale" for using such chords, but there are cases where composers use such chords "abruptly," too.

Originally Posted By: JonnyCamp
Are there chords that can transition you smoothly between keys?


Yes! However, this is a pretty big can of worms. Exactly which chord you'd use depends on exactly which key you're wanting to go to. And there are generally several different ways you could get to any key. If you'd like to name any specific example, I'd be glad to give you some options.

Originally Posted By: JonnyCamp
What is the relationship between keys that are a fifth apart from each other? (Like G, D and A) I notice they have chords that are shared with each other. Are those "shared chords" open invitations to alternate keys at anytime?


Yes, you got it! A chord that is common between two keys can be used to "stitch" the two keys together, so that you start in one key and end in another. (Now we ARE talking about no. 3 above, "modulation"). This connecting chord is called a "pivot chord." Here's an example.
Say you had these chords (ignore the little yellow periods- I'm trying to crudely get my spacing to work):

| Dmajor | G major | A7 | D major | E minor | C major |....D7....|...G...|

If you tried to put this into roman numerals, you'd have a problem:

| Dmajor | G major | A7 | D major | E minor | C major |....D7....|...G...|
D:....I.............IV........V7.........I..............ii........what?!?...what?!?....IV

C major isn't in the key of D, nor is a D7 chord, because of the C note. The final G chord IS in D, but that is negligible. Something "happened" back there!

Here's how we'd explain it. The E minor chord is our "pivot chord." It actually has two roles, or functions. First, it is the ii in D. However, it is ALSO the vi in the key of G. If we give the E minor chord a "dual role," and THEN we analyze everything afterward in the key of G rather than the key of D, then everything makes sense again! Let's see if I can get this to look right:

| Dmajor | G major | A7 | D major | E minor | C major |....D7....|...G...|
D:....I.............IV........V7.........I..............ii....|.......IV..........V7..........I
........................................................._____|
....................................................G: | vi

Hopefully that looks correct on your screen. What we're saying here is that the E minor chord is BOTH a ii in D AND a vi in G. In case you aren't familiar, using a letter followed by a colon (such as "D:") tells you what key you're in. Once we put that "G:" in the analysis, then, we're saying that we're in G major from this point on. So, those last three chords are analyzed in G major, and everything fits!

This works for keys located a fifth apart, but it works for other keys as well. There are "related keys," and then there are "unrelated keys." Each has its own general "tricks."

This is a really quick explanation, but I hope it's helpful. Hopefully you can see that this is just one instance, and that it's the tip of the iceberg for the whole concept. If you want to learn more, I would google "modulation related pivot" and see what you get. One of these days I'll have to put together something more in-depth on this topic.

Hope this helps!

James

Oh, and Aaron: thanks for the kind words!
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#1942609 - 08/14/12 02:46 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
rada Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/07/06
Posts: 1124
Loc: pagosa springs,co
Frankly, I think interesting chord progressions are what the individual ear likes to hear. For instance, root positions are not nearly as interesting to my ear. I could pick any Bach piece I like, study the progressions and voila....I don't have to find my own....it never turns out that way but music itself provides many templates. Even a Beatle's song if you prefer.

rada

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#1943330 - 08/15/12 05:33 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
Aaron Garner Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/24/12
Posts: 56
Loc: Sacramento, Ca
James,

I need a couple of days off, could you sub for me in my 3rd semester theory class? It's great weather out here in Ca. Very good explanation. It's uncanny that I've been reviewing all this over the last 3 days. This is very tricky stuff for many of my students; it takes a lot of practice and attention to details. Jonny, I wish more of my students would ask the kind of questions you've been asking.

Rada, the Beatles have written a lot of great music and some pretty interesting harmonic progressions. It's not surprising that many jazz artists have recorded many Beatles tunes. I have the students analyze both aurally and on paper a few Beatles tunes.
_________________________
2013 Mason and Hamlin BB
Full-time music professor (theory) and jazz pianist

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#1946118 - 08/20/12 12:39 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JamesPlaysPiano]
Exalted Wombat Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 1197
Loc: London UK
Originally Posted By: JamesPlaysPiano
...basically stay in one key, but add extra chords here and there from outside the key to spice things up. In theory textbooks, the "spices" include such things as borrowed chords, secondary dominants, secondary leading-tone chords, and so on. When it comes to analysis on paper, these moments aren't treated as a true key-change. (They don't change the key signature).


Now, there's an interesting topic! When have you changed key, when are you "just visiting"?

Beethoven would rarely change key signature within a movement of one of his piano sonatas. His whole style was about key relationships, he always "came home" - but analysing the harmony of some sections without reference to a different key centre from the original would be impossible and ridiculous!

There aren't any rules. But there are plenty of fascinating descriptions!

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#1947566 - 08/22/12 11:02 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: Aaron Garner]
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 118
Originally Posted By: Aaron Garner
James,

I need a couple of days off, could you sub for me in my 3rd semester theory class? It's great weather out here in Ca. Very good explanation. It's uncanny that I've been reviewing all this over the last 3 days. This is very tricky stuff for many of my students; it takes a lot of practice and attention to details. Jonny, I wish more of my students would ask the kind of questions you've been asking.

Rada, the Beatles have written a lot of great music and some pretty interesting harmonic progressions. It's not surprising that many jazz artists have recorded many Beatles tunes. I have the students analyze both aurally and on paper a few Beatles tunes.


Ha! That California weather sure sounds tempting!

I hope your reviews have gone well. It can be tough to wake up those music theory brain cells that have gone into hibernation during the summer. smile

James
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Facebook groups: Jazz Piano Chat • Blues Piano Chat • Pop Piano Chat
Learn to play on YouTube: The Pretty Pop Piano Thingy

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#1954753 - 09/06/12 11:02 AM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
samasap Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/10/10
Posts: 607
Loc: UK
I have a family of chords worksheet I did for myself that has the key signature and all the popular major and minor chords that work well with the key...From this I then add in seventh chords and sus chords if the song feels like it will fit.

For example
Key of C Major
Relative Minor = A Minor
Other minors - E Minor
Majors - F Major and G Major

These all work well in the key.

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#1955483 - 09/07/12 03:41 PM Re: How do you make interesting chord progressions? [Re: JonnyCamp]
Exalted Wombat Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 1197
Loc: London UK
That's good. But you need to extend further - a LOT further - when you're ready for your music to move on from the kindergarden!

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