If you find yourself stuck in a rut of using the same old chords and chord progressions, there are a few simple techniques that may help open up new creative avenues for you. This post assumes that you have a basic understanding of music theory, if not then some of my earlier blog posts on music theory may be helpful.
I’ve added a circle of fourths and fifths diagram and listed the chords in each key for easy reference below:
Tension and resolution
One point to bear in mind when trying these techniques is the principle of tension and resolution. Whichever key you are using the further away from the root chord – or tonic – you move, the greater the tension and the more the sound wants to resolve to the tonic. This isn’t a linear progression though, it moves in fifths through the key. So this gives a sequence from resolution to tension of I | V | ii | vi | iii. You can use this knowledge to add tension to your progressions.
Transcribing to a different key
The first technique is to transcribe your chords into a different key. This is simply a case of looking up a different key in the tables above and reading across to the new chords. The chord positions tend to be denoted by roman numerals with capitals for major chords and lower case numerals for minor chords. If we take a I, V, vi, I progression in the key of C, this gives us the chords of C, G, Am, C. If we pick a key from the circle of fourths, for example Db, this gives us new chords of Db, Ab, Bbm, Db. This can work especially well on a guitar where you can create voicings on parts of the fretboard that you’re probably not familiar with, opening up many new creative possibilities.
Modulating for the chorus
Another technique is to keep your original chords but modulate a flat third for the chorus. This gives us a progression in the cycle of fourths which will work for any key and you could also play through all of the chords and keys as a sequence for practice. Using an example of a I, vi, IV, V progression in the key of C gives us C, Am, F, G. The flat third in the key of C is Eb; the flat third in the key of Eb is Gb, the flat third in the key of Gb is A and the flat third in the key of A is returning to the key of C again. This is shown in the table below:
For songwriting, you can use this technique where you play a I, IV, V progression for the verse and modulate a flat third for the chorus. Of course you can use the technique for any part of the song, it’s not just limited to the chorus.
Random chord selection
This technique doesn’t require modulation to a new key, instead you pick random chords from a given key rather than sticking to a particular progression. You can use 3, 4 or 5 chords in a repeating sequence and can stick with straight major / minor chords or use extended chords such as maj7 / min7 or maj9 / min9 chords. Another point to bear in mind is that certain chords within the key share 2 common tones. These are effectively interchangeable and can be swapped in a progression to add interest, tension or extend the progression. These are the I and vi; V and vii; ii and IV chords. On a guitar the essence is phrasing although this is still largely true for a keyboard too. You could also try chord inversions to give a different sound or even layer chord inversions over the top. It’s a great way to break free from routine patterns, add a bit of interest or surprise but still remain musical.
Extending progressions using the corresponding minor key
I must admit that I don’t often use minor keys as such, but when using a major key the corresponding minor key offers us an opportunity to extend our progression and add some tonal variation. The table below shows the difference between major and minor keys:
This means that a progression in a major key will sound different to the same progression in the corresponding minor key because of the difference in intervals. If we take a I, V, IV, V progression in C major and repeat this sequence in the C minor key this gives us C, G, F, G | Cm, Gm, Fm, Gm. These sequences can be used consecutively to extend chord progressions or alternatively use them in a chorus, for example. You could even reverse them if you wanted to.
The main thing to remember when modulating or swapping chords is to think about the bassline and other scales and/or modes because the modulation may mean that these don’t fit over your new chords. Sometimes the tension / dissonance will work well when you’re not expecting it, other times it will sound horrendous but you won’t know until you try so feel free to experiment and see what happens because making music should be fun, even if it doesn’t always work out as you’d hoped!