Do you want to write more interesting chord progressions for your music?
Are you tired of the plain and boring 1 bar block chords, and using the same 3-4 chords throughout your entire song?
Let’s find out some great ways to improve your chord progressions! =)
How to Improve your Chord Progressions
There are of course plenty of ways you can make your chord progressions more interesting. I am going to teach you my top tips, and I hope you will try them all out so that you can start using these tricks in your songwriting and music composition process.
1 – Create a Groove with Your Chords
Long block chords are the most boring way to play chords. Try to instead add some rhythm into the playing style on the instruments you use to play chords and harmonies in your music. The best example I can give is an acoustic guitar.
Have you ever heard a guitar player only play one long chord per bar for the chord progressions? Probably not, right? They play a strumming pattern, to make the chord progression more interesting, with a rhythm and groove.
Start applying this mindset of a strumming pattern, even if you play your chords on piano, electric keyboards, and even orchestral strings…just make sure you use articulations that can play shorter notes as it works better for rhythms on chords.
2 – Change Chords within the Bars
Using the same chord for 1 or 2 full bars can become boring. Now, if your melodies and the way you play your chords has a lot of variation and movement you can of course use the same chords for a longer duration and still make great music. But you can go beyond 1 bar chords to add more harmonic variation in your music.
You should consider adding a few more chord changes into your progressions. The best moments are usually at the half bar point or on a beat (1/4th note). Your music will get more harmonically deep if you change chords within a bar, and not only at the exact bar transitions.
3 – Add Transition Chords
Music is about telling a story using sounds instead of visuals. And what is important for any good story? Flow! In this case taking your listener on a ride that feels like a rollercoaster, with ups and downs, twists and turns, but always moving with a flow that takes your music story from a beginning to an end.
And this is true for your chord progressions as well. One way to improve flow is with voice leading for a smoother ride. But also using transition chords and passing chords to make the journey between chords more interesting.
The best moments to add these brief chords is in the final 1/4th note before the next bar where a new chord comes in. The transition chord does not even have to be very different from the two main chords, but can very often simply be a variation of one of them.
For example: a 7th chord, suspended chord or any other variation with the same root note as one of your main chords.
4 – Use Better Voice Leading
Voice leading in music, is the art of choosing how to play each voice in your chords and harmonies over time.
For example: If you play a C Major chord, the notes are C, E and G. But you can play those notes in a different order than the standard order which is called root position.
If you play them as E, G, C, it is called 1st inversion. And if you play them as G, C, E it is called 2nd inversion. And if you play chords with 4 notes, such as 7th chords, you can also get a 3rd inversion.
Most often you want to play your chords in a way that makes the chord progression flow smoother, which means choosing inversions that creates fewer and shorter jumps of the internal chord voices.
But you can go one step beyond this, if you start doubling some of the chord voices, and then change how you voice the chords as you play. For example: C – E – G, is a basic C Major chord.
Now if you then add another C an octave above (C, E, G, C), you can create a smooth voice leading transition to for example a C Dominant 7th chord after that (C, E, G, Bb). And let’s say you go to F sus4 to F Major after that. And you have just created a great little chord progression using creative voice leading.
5 – Use Creative Chord Voicing
Chord inversions and voice leading is a way of mainly making your chord progressions flow smoother. But let’s take this a step further now.
Imagine a guitar player that plays a chord using all 6 strings on the guitar. This means that the chord notes will be doubled. And in some cases the player might choose to mute (not play) one or more of the strings.
You can use this same concept for being creative with the way you voice your chords in your chord progressions. A good guideline is to make sure the root note of every chord has the most weight and focus in your chord, which in most cases means using it as the lowest note, and often even doubling it an octave above.
So let’s say you want to voice a C add9 chord in your chord progression. Instead of playing it straight with no doubling like this (C, E, G, D).
Experiment with the voicing. For example: C- C – G – D – G – C – E. It is usually recommended to play the root note in octaves and/or perfect 5ths in the lower range below middle C for your chord voicings.
6 – Arrange your Voices for Different Instruments
The great thing about chords and harmony in music, is that you are completely free to divide and arrange the individual chord voices to be played on any instrument in your composition.
For example, if you have a standard C Major triad (C, E, G). Then you might choose to play the root note (C) on the bass track, the C an octave above on the cellos track, the E on violas, and the G on violins.
Then you can still have a piano playing the chord rhythmically using all chord notes. And double the root and fifth on a brass ensemble track, and so on. Some instruments might only play monophonically, meaning one note at a time.
Another instrument like a piano or guitar might play all chord notes including doubling of chord voices. And some instruments might play a 2 note harmony of two of the chord voices.
There are no limitations on your creative choices here. Arrange your chord voices as you want, on every instrument you want to play the harmonies in your music.
7 – Add Variation in Playing Styles per Track
You have complete freedom in arranging each chord voices per instrument and part in your composition. But let’s go further.
You also have unlimited choices on how you play each instrument playing chords and/or harmony voices in your music. Meaning that you can have your arrangement using any number of instruments playing a chord progression, but every instrument and part being played in a different way.
For example: you can have a piano playing the chords as an 8th note arpeggio. Staccato strings playing 2 of the chord voices as a harmony using a chosen rhythmic groove. Your bass playing a driving bassline mainly on the chord root note, but with transition notes using one of the other chord notes before a chord change. A brass ensemble playing the root and 5th of each chord as a marcato accent. A cello playing a spiccato articulation in an ostinato rhythm following the chord progression, and so on.
Again, your creative possibilities are unlimited. Even if you play the same single chord for 4 bars, you can create infinite variations using different playing styles on different instruments.
8 – Shape Dynamics and Add Movement
Music needs movement and variation to sound interesting. This will of course mainly come from your notes within your chords, harmonies and melodies.
But when you write and record your parts playing chords and harmonies for your chord progressions, you should also add variation in the dynamics, and the movement over time.
There are two main aspects of dynamics in music, the attack dynamics, meaning the start of the note. And the sustain dynamics, meaning how the loudness changes over time.
With some instruments like piano, you can not control the dynamics over time, where as with bowed strings like a violin, and wind instruments like a flute, you can shape the dynamics for a sustained note however you want. But both of these aspects are equally important.
To shape the attack dynamics you mainly use the MIDI Velocity level per note. And to shape the dynamics over time for sustained notes, you most often use the MOD-wheel on your MIDI keyboard.
What you want is both variation in the dynamics, but also creating dynamic curves over time, for the different parts playing the harmonies of your chord progressions. For example: let’s say you have a piano playing an arpeggio of each chord in your progression.
You should have variation in the velocity levels per note to make it sound authentic and human. But you may also want to create crescendos and diminuendos by increasing or decreasing the average velocity levels over time for the whole progression.
And let’s say you have a string ensemble playing the chord progression. You should then shape dynamic curves for each part playing a voice of the chord progression, and in most cases you want to do this in the shape of a wave. But they don’t have to align perfectly, they can go in and out in different times, some voices can be very low in dynamics while others are louder, and so on.
You are in charge for how you want your music stories to sound. It’s the whole experience for the listener that counts, not each individual instrument by itself.
8 – Shape the Main Groove and Accents
Since chord progressions can have any rhythm, and you have complete creative freedom on rhythm and playing style for each instrument, part and chord voice, it is important that you make sure your main groove and accents are respected and emphasized for every part playing a harmony voice or voices in your composition.
As a general guideline your chord changes should be accented. This can be done with both dynamics on velocity levels, meaning attack loudness. But also with dynamic curves on sustained notes.
But you can go even further, by choosing stronger articulations on the main accents.
For example: marcato, sforzando or any accent type articulation, which you may want to use on certain instruments on specific beats in your composition where the main accents of your rhythm land.
You should also make sure that the overall main rhythm is respected in the playing styles of your instruments playing chord voices, because too much variation will simply sound chaotic.
One tip I can give you regarding the main groove, is to have a rhythm sketching track in your music software which you simply use as a mockup and guide for the general rhythmic groove of your music. It can for example be a bassline, a strumming guitar, rhythmic piano part, or perhaps staccato strings.
Then you can use this main rhythm mockup as both a visual guide and an audio guide when you record any other melodic and harmonic rhythm parts in your music. Or when you do the MIDI editing to remove, add or move any notes in your harmonic parts to align more with your main groove track.
9 – Adjust the Timings and Note Lengths
Just like static block chords are super stiff and boring, having perfect robotic timings and exact note lengths will sound like music without soul.
You need to have variation in timings for your chord notes for every instrument and part, but you don’t want it to sound out of time. Just enough human variation in timing is the best. So don’t quantize notes and parts 100%. Often 50% to 80% quantize strength is enough.
Tighter quantizing the more rhythmic your part is, and less the more melodic it is. You can also adjust the timings manually in your MIDI editor.
And the same concept goes for note lengths. Having for example a piano arpeggio with exactly 8th lengths down to the millisecond on each note, will also sound robotic and soulless.
The best way to get all these timing and note length variations naturally, is to record every part manually into your music software using a MIDI keyboard or controller. But if you choose to write the notes with your computer mouse and keyboard, you can take advantage of a humanization or randomization feature in your software, that will automatically create variation in timing and note lengths, and even velocity values for you.
10 – Mix the Harmonies into the Background
In almost all cases, your leading melodies, riffs and main themes should have the spotlight in your music. This means that you want to mix all instruments and parts playing chord voices and harmonies into the background.
The first step of mixing is always within the music itself, meaning the composing techniques, articulations and playing styles you use. For example, a string section playing chords can use a sordino articulation to sound warmer and be pushed into the back of the mix that way.
You can also choose to play the chords and harmony parts with lower dynamics, using lower MIDI velocity levels, and lower dynamic curves on sustained notes.
In the music production side of your workflow for your chords and harmony parts, you might want to pan them out to the sides, lower their levels compared to the leading instruments, and even make the softer by using EQ and filtering to reduce the higher frequencies above 10kHz that add presence, as well as frequencies around 1 to 4kHz that adds focus.