How to Build Impactful Chord Progressions for Your Music

By Patrick McGuire

How to Build Impactful Chord Progressions for Your Music​

When it comes to the attention-grabbing elements of a song, the vocals, the main melody, drum beats and even bass lines usually come to mind for many of us before chord progressions do. But, for my money, nothing builds a mood and an emotive feel better than the series of chords taking a listener on their journey. 

From romantic, nostalgic chord progressions engineered to pull at the heartstrings, to ones that sound tense, dissonant, or intentionally unpleasant, the way chords flow together often say much more than any vocal melody or driving beat can. So your ability as a songwriter to make an impression with your harmonies can make all the difference between whether audiences resonate with your music or not. 

Here are a few tips for constructing the sort of chord progressions listeners will remember.

1) Start With a Mood in Mind, But Let it Flow

Writing chord progressions with a specific mood in mind is a great starting place, but you don’t need to stay there. The creative process is not always going to yield the same results every time, so don’t be discouraged if you start with one idea, and evolve towards another. The key is to follow your ideas, and your sounds, wherever they lead, without judgement or expectation. 

That said, some chords are constructed with intervals that lead to certain predictable emotional responses. Surely you’ve heard the age-old comparison between major and minor scales, where one will always appear lighter and the other darker; but with suspended chords you can create a weightless, floating feeling, with diminished chords you can often allude to creeping suspense, and so on. 

There are so many ways to use chords to simply lay the foundation of a mood. Learning just a bit about how harmonic intervals work in this way can open up tons of possibilities for more impactful songwriting. 

If you’re looking for some additional help, check out our friends over at Soundfly and their online course Unlocking The Emotional Power of Chords, to dive deep into the exciting, colorful world of chord construction. Plus, if you join Soundfly’s all-access subscription plan you can tell them we sent you and get 15% off with our promo code: MELODYNEST.

2) Loop and Experiment

Great chord progressions don’t just come fully formed out of the gate. They usually emerge after quite a few trials and even more errors. So it’s great to have a loop station, a quick and ready DAW, or even just a bunch of willing band members who can loop some chords over and over again to see if it fits your melody. 

Over time, you’ll notice what works and what doesn’t as you add and take away new chords, or even just modify them slightly. During this process, you should be thinking not only about the mood and character of the chords, but how potential melodies can be placed over them. In fact, many writers develop melodies and chord progressions simultaneously, so lean into trying that if you feel so inclined. 

Give yourself the time and space you need to develop these progressions in a free, un-rushed way.

3) Add Non-chord Tones to Build Character And Interest

It’s incredible how much just one suspension or 6th chord can transform an entire chord progression. There’s a time and place for triads (basic chords consisting of a root, third, and fifth), but in many cases, extending your chord with add-on non-chord tones can add complex emotional drama, ambiguity, bittersweetness, and narrative pull to your progression. 

And it’s those “between the lines” elements that help your song become ultimately more memorable. 

What’s more, you can use your topline melody to voice lead the chords to less predictable places, and they’ll still work because they’ll be following your melody. 

4) Use Rhythm to Make Your Progressions More Engaging

Lastly, it might sound strange, but a syncopated rhythm could be all that’s standing between you and an interesting chord progression. What I mean is that even the most boring progression can sound new and fresh with arpeggiation, syncopation or polyrhythms in the drum beat, or a less-common time signature than 4/4. 

If you have a set of chords that you’re fond of but something seems missing, try varying the rhythm by changing chords on off-beats, or giving certain chords more real estate in your measures than others, or even throwing in some odd accents. A basic example would be if you have a two-chord progression and you’re playing in 4/4 time, try giving one chord three beats and the other just one. 

When you clear your mind of the things you think you should care about in music and give yourself the freedom to explore in an un-rushed way, good things can happen. Go try some of these ideas out and let us know what you come up with!

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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