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Does Chord Progression Matter?

Sep 04, 2021

Does chord progression matter? Or do you just randomly pick a progression and go? If you have a melody already, do you figure out a chord progression that works and say “alrighty, that’s good enough”?

In short, no.

In not-quite-as-short, how dare you even consider it. Aggression intended.

Of course chord progression matters. At the end of the day, a song is exactly 3 things: Lyrics, Melody, and Chords. So chord progressions are ⅓ of a song. 

If you just didn’t take ⅓ of your tests in school, how would that turn out? How about not showing up to ⅓ of your work days? Good if you dislike money. 

So how do we think through our chord progressions?


Whatever Sounds Good

At the end of the day, the chord progression needs to sound good. Specifically, it needs to sound as you intend– if it’s meant to be jarring, than a jarring chord progression would be good

If you’re just starting out and want to tread lightly at first, pretty much any progressions involving the I, IV, V, and vi chords will sound good

Just because those chord progressions will almost universally sound good doesn’t mean you should stick to them.

Why stay with the same-old mainstays when you can do something that’s awesome?

I think you can get a lot of bonus interest just by learning to wield the ii and iii chords, much less getting far deeper into chord selection.



It’s All About Flow

We’re talking about chord progressions. What’s most important here is in the nameProgression is defined as the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more advanced state.

So it’s all about developing and moving. It’s about getting to that “advanced state”. 

The chords aren’t that important on their own. They need to be matched intentionally with the melody but, besides that, the movement from one chord to another is what gives each chord character.

Let’s take a G Major chord and a C Major chord. Which is more strong? Which sounds better? 

The answer is it depends. On what? On the key of the song. In other words, it depends on the chord’s context within the flow

In the key of G Major, a G Major chord would be the most powerful, resolved-sounding chord. C Major wouldn’t feel resolved. 

It would be the exact opposite if we played the two chords in the key of C Major.

In G Minor, G Major would sound straight up gross. Why? Because it’s all about context. 

In the same way, the character of a chord progression is defined less by having the chords C Major, F Major, and G Major, and more by the progression you chose them to have.

C Major -> F Major -> G Major will be a whole different musical journey than  F Major -> G Major -> C Major. And that will be very different than G Major -> F Major -> C Major.

For the progression G Major -> F Major -> C Major, once you get to the F Major, you can feel the pull to C Major. The progression begs to be resolved at C. And, once you give it that resolution, it just feels good

Similarly, in C Major -> F Major -> G Major, you should feel a pull from F Major to G Major. And, once at G Major, you should feel that desire for resolution back at C Major. So it feels as if it’s begun to be resolved, but the resolution hasn’t happened yet. 

It’s all about flow.



Context Is Everything

How do you feel when 5 random characters are shot in the head in the action-heavy first few minutes of an action film? 

Ok, so how do you feel when the bad guy is shot in the head at the end of the film?

And how do you feel when the good guy is shockingly shot in the head at the end of the film?

Oh, and when you find out that one of the people shot in the first few minutes was actually the main character’s best buddy, how do you feel then?

All involve a character shot in the head. And yet all feel completely different.

This is basically the relationship between melody and chord progression. The melody has an emotion and tells a story. But the chord progression helps to inform that emotion through the story. 

It tells you whether you should feel that the story is unresolved, that it’s taken a dark turn, or that the song is rising to somewhere else. 

Your melodic C doesn’t really have much of a feel on its own. If it’s sung over an A minor chord in the key of C, it will sound very different than over an F Major chord. And that will sound very different than being sung over a C Major chord. 

So, if you put it together, you can see that you have two different emotional journeys you have to play with at once. The melody has its own emotion by its own melodic journey, but it also has another layer of emotion based on the chord progression. And then another layer based on what note the melody is in context of the chord.

So, put simply, these are the emotional tools at play just with melody and chords:

  • Chord within Key
  • Chord within Progression
  • Melody Note within Chord
  • Melody Note within Melody Progression

Notice how all of them are entirely context driven. 

So, does chord progression matter? Yes.

Chord progression is your context. Chord progression helps inform the listener of all the emotional cues of the song. Chord progression has movement and moves the emotional journey forward.

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