I teach a composition class once a week, and one of my students asked me a question in which I believed the answer to be innate, or implied. He asked me, “How do you come up with chord progressions?”
As a teacher, questions like these that arise in class, force you to realize that you’re relying too much on assumptions about your students understanding of the material, and that your methods need refreshing. My students question also got me thinking about music in general, and how in most of popular music today (and even in a lot of film/tv scores) many musicians, performers, composers and the like, aren’t really branching out beyond very diatonic harmonies.
Now I do believe that there is some really great creative music being composed today, but less than make it worth while listening to. This is most likely due to music producers, distributors, and creators wanting to make money, and be popular with 13 to 24 year olds. For whatever reason they seem to think that non-schooled individuals have very limited taste and understanding, and are unwilling to hear new and different ideas.
Consequently, I believe that current music is very flash in the pan, and doesn’t hold value over time. The Stevie Wonders, David Bowies, Samuel Barbers, Aaron Coplands, Miles Davis’s, Herbie Hancocks, Michael Jacksons, etc… are not being developed any more. I believe this is due to the powers that be, greatly underestimating peoples ability to appreciate diverse melodies and unique chord progressions. The ironic circumstances created by this thinking, is that their need to make instant money kills any possibility of making really great money now, and in the future. Fresh, unique, and cool ideas are what everyone’s looking for and make the big bucks!
Anyway, before I digress too much, this article is about adding harmonic flavor to your compositions. I believe this will help create an added dimension and attention grabbing element to spice up bland music. I’m not suggesting that current music needs an entire overhaul, and that some weird harmonic progressions overtake all music. There still is value in using tried and true techniques tastefully. However, I do believe that by adding little harmonic changes in your music, you’ll not only allow your music to be more interesting, but it will help to make it stand out from the sea of monotony.
Okay, let’s back up to the initial question that started this article. How do I come up with a chord progression? The simple answer is, one must first decide upon a melody, and from that, a chord progression can be derived.
In addition, and obviously, we need to choose a key signature. When you’re developing your melody you’ll have a good idea as to whether or not you want your melody to be in a major sounding or minor sounding key.
Now if you really want to know how key signatures/harmony were discovered, and ordered you have to thank Pythagorus. He figured out how nature organizes and ordered tones (Harmonic Overtone Series)
Consequently, the ordering of tones helped to realize that some intervals of tones have more prominence or presence than others. What that basically means is that some intervals or harmonies sound stronger or weaker than others. It was determined that one of the strongest sounding intervals is the fifth. Hence the Circle of Fifths was created.
The Circle of Fifths is a study all in it’s own and I do not want to bog down this article with excruciating detail about it. I highly recommend that anyone who doesn’t know about the depths of this musical wonder, go out and do much in-depth learning about it.
The reason why it’s necessary to mention it in this blog, is because it’s what you’ll need to refer to when expanding your harmonic palate.
Okay let’s get to creating expanding, developing, and energizing bland harmonies.
Below is a vocal melody with a simply diatonic piano accompanied chord progression that I composed.
For this example I chose the most common of all key signatures…C. The key of C major is comprised of C,d,e,F,G,a, & b. I composed a simple melody that I thought was nice and pleasing to me.
Next I determined what chords from the key of C worked with my melody.* (See additional footnote)
Below each chord (from my example) is a Roman Numeral. It refers to the quality of chord (major or minor), and at what interval within the key signature the chord is based on. My chords are “C” major (I) to “a” minor (vi) “F” major (IV) to “G” major (V) back to I.
This is a simple melody and a simple harmonic chord progression. Again there is nothing wrong with this, but if you compose every single piece of music with the exact same tactic, you will get panned, and overlooked.
One way to counteract this, is by using what’s called Secondary Dominants. My definition of secondary dominants is: a dominant 7 chord that resolves to either a major or minor chord of a diatonic progression from an interval of a 5th above.
This definition applies to every chord in a major or minor scale except for the root of the scale. This should be apparent, but the 5th above the root of a scale is already a dominant chord diatonic to the key. What secondary dominants are asking you to do, is to use dominant chords that are not indigenous to the key you’re in. We figure this out by referring to the Circle Of 5ths.
If we take the key of C and start on the second interval “d” then look at our Circle of 5th chart we see that a fifth above “d” is “A.” We’ve just determined that a 5th above “d” is “A” and if we have a chord progression with a d minor in it. We can inject an A dominant 7 before that chord to add variety. If we choose “e” from the scale we see a 5th above is “B7”. If we choose F from the key of C we see that C7 is the dominant chord we would use to resolve to F major. This is repeated to the rest of the notes/chords of the scale all the way up and to the leading tone.
In harmony theory, secondary dominants are also referred to as 5 of (insert interval), or V7 of (insert interval). When viewing an analyzed chart you may come across figures that look like this: v7/ii or V7/V. That is simply saying the exact same thing that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. V7 of ii would be “A7 to d minor” because it’s a fifth above “d minor” and it’s a dominant chord.
If you’re asking yourself, why does all the chords have to be dominant? We’ll have to refer to what was stated earlier in the article to answer that. Again, some tones are weaker or stronger sounding than others. A dominant 7 chord has a tritone in it which is a very strong tonality. It also gives the listeners ear a setup or delivery to it’s targeted chord. The diminished chord and augmented chord do this as well, but those are really just iterations of the dominant.
The last bit of information you need to know about secondary dominants, it’s important, applies to what tensions or extensions you may want to use when composing.
When I was in school we referred to the additional notes you could place on a chord to add character, as tensions. I believe that many schools refer to them now as extensions. Which implies extended range of notes you’re allow add to your chords of a diatonic chord progression.
I say allow because western tonal music harmony is based upon a set foundation of rules for it’s creation. Essentially, these rules are in place not because you can’t break them, or shouldn’t, but because your music will take on nebulous characteristics if you decide not to use them. I’ll have to give you an example to explain what I mean by my nebulous statement, and why this is setting us up for the final part of this article.
Again, (I Know I’m sorry) I’ll use the key of C to demonstrate my explanation. When you get into music, and study it a bit you learn that there are certain tensions/extensions that are to be avoided when composing your harmony. Since western music is based on a tertiary system, we create our chords in steps of 3. A “C” major chord is comprised of C,E, &G. If we continue in this pattern the next notes we can add to this chord would be, B,D,F,&A. Those extensions would be called the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th because of the interval distance from the root note “C.”
Unfortunately we run into an issue with our 11th interval/extension. If we were to use the 11th or the note F in our “C” chord, we would confuse our listeners ears because it would make it sound like we’re referring to a different scale (Lydian), and not the tonic chord we intended. This is what I mean by nebulous, because you need to understand how music interacts harmonically in order to convey your musical idea to people the way you intended. That is why there are certain notes that should not be used (unless you know what you’re doing) in chords as you will imply different scales and harmonies if you use them.
Now that I’ve explained the reasons behind why some tensions/extension aren’t a good choice for your chosen chords, I can give you the rules for the tensions/extensions for secondary dominants.
- If your secondary dominant chord resolves to a major chord, then your available tensions are 9 and 13.
- If your secondary dominant chord resolves to a minor chord tensions, b9, 9, #9, b13, and 13 are your available tensions.
With everything I’ve explained thus far, I can now give you my simple composition with a more interesting chord progression.
(I’ve slowed this version down in the recording for listener to really hear the changes)
The changes made to my original chord progression were as follows. An “E” dominant 7 (V7/vi) with a b13 was inserted before the “a” minor chord of the first measure. I chose b13 as my tension, because it was the common tone through all the chords and also has a really nice sound. I then added a D dominant 7 (V7/V) before the G7 and chose an “E” the 9th of the chord as my tension. I liked to use tensions in my chords, but by no means is it a requirement.
As with any material, the more it’s practiced and utilized the easier it becomes to implement. Additionally, when all is said and done, I believe that I was able to improve the harmony of my composition without overcomplicating it or making it too busy.
As I wrap up this article, I realize that there was a significant amount of foundation information given to explain and create a simple, but enhanced chord progression. Once the ground work is laid Secondary dominants are easy to understand and apply. This is a technique that can be applied to all genres of music and I hope that more people do.
*Another factor that helps to determine a chord progression is what emotion you’d like your music to evoke. I’m bringing this up, because many times when musicians will come up with a melody, they often pick chords that just work technically. Often we choose things that are familiar to us, and settle on something that’s been done a million times. Think about what the what the music is trying to emote from an overall perspective. Ask your self what is this music trying to convey, and is this progression supporting it? When choosing a chord, even if it’s technically correct and you like it, do yourself a favor and just try other possible diatonic chords to see if it’s better or re-enforces your initial decision. Even if it doesn’t work, it may help to create additional ideas like a bridge or a tag.
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