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You’re probably writing a new song and putting some chords together or even using a standard chord progression. The problem you’re having is that the chord progression sounds basic, like a stock photo, but in song form.

Let me first say that there is nothing wrong with using basic chords. Many great songs have been written with them. But when you feel like you need something more, how do you take that simple progression and make it more awesome and unique? That’s what we are going to talk about today.

We are going to use a standard chord progression for these examples and spice it up in different ways using a few songwriter tricks, AND we are going to try to do it in a way that you won’t need to know much theory to put it into practice.

I recommend you get your instrument so you can play the chords and see how the progression changes.

For all of these we’re going to use the pop song standard chord progression in C Major just to mess around with. This is that progression:

I – V – vi – IV
Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

Before we start I just want to briefly mention an important topic you need to know that can help guide your decision making for chord progressions.

Chord Function – How Chords Flow to Make a Chord Progression

Essentially, chord function is the role that a chord plays within a key. Some chord degrees in a key are very stable and have a feeling of “being home”, while others add more tension and have a feeling of venturing away from “home” and feel like they need to go somewhere, like further away or back home. In a major and minor key there are 3 types of chord functions: Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant.

Major Key Chords
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viio

Minor Key Chords
i – iio – III – iv – v – VI – VII

So here all you need to know is that in both major and minor keys the chord functions are as follows:

  • Tonic: the first, third and sixth degrees are all tonic or “home”
  • Subdominant: the second and fourth degrees are all subdominant or tenser and “further from home” and they usually want to go to chords that are dominant but can go back to tonic or “home” chords too.
  • Dominant: the fifth and seventh degrees are dominant or the most tense and “farthest from home” and they usually want to go back to a tonic chord or “home” chord.

Now, this is not set in stone. This is just a general guideline to help you understand how chords usually want to flow. Use your ear and be mindful of how chords flow into each other and whatever sounds good to you is fine.

Now let’s check out how we can make boring chord progressions a bit more interesting.

Use Chord Extensions

This one is fairly simple. You can take your standard chord progression and instead of playing just the regular major and minor chords you can add more notes like 6ths, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, etc, for example.

The progression is still the same but those added notes will put more color to your chords.

Example:

C Major Key

I – V – vi – IV
Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

With chord extensions:

I – V – vi – IV
Cmaj7, Gmaj, Amin7, Fmaj7add6

If you play these chords in your instrument you will notice the chords are a bit more colorful with the chord extensions than without them, so we’re starting to make this progression a bit more interesting sounding.

If you don’t know much music theory: Just add more notes to your chords. It will add more colors. Use your ear to determine what sounds pleasant and what doesn’t.

Use Chord Inversions

If you’ve never heard of chord inversions all it basically is is playing the notes of the chord in a different order. So for a simple example:

Notes of Cmajor

C, E, G

Cmaj first inversion

E, G, C

Cmaj second inversion

G, C, E

Notice how all we are doing is playing the same chord but the order of the notes starts on the second or the third note of the chord, instead of the root (C note). That is what an inversion is and we say that is first or second depending on which note we are starting on.  

This will give a different vibe and feeling to the chord even though it is still all the same notes when played together. Some inversions will sound deeper and more lush, some will sound brighter, smaller, and more intimate. 

This is not so much about the sound being dramatically different but the feeling of the chords. It also helps when it comes time to produce and maybe you need to do the same chord in a thinner way to leave room for the bass or low keyboard notes to shine through clearly. Inversions can help you still play the same chord but clear up some of that space for the other instruments.

If you don’t know much music theory: Check what notes are in the chord you are playing and change the order. Try starting the chord on the second or third note and just drop the other notes at the end of the chord.

Borrow Chords from Relative Major and Minor Keys

This is a pretty cool trick that can dramatically change the sound of the chord progression. 

So you probably already know that major and minor keys are relative because if you have a major key but start playing the chords from the sixth degree you are essentially playing it’s relative minor key, like so: 

Major Key Chords

I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viio

Minor Key Chords

I – iio – III – iv – v – VI – VII

Well what is cool is that you can be playing a major chord progression and then borrow chords from the relative minor key and vice versa. Let’s use our pop song standard chord progression as an example:

Pop Song Chord Progression in C Major Key

I – V – vi – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

Chords of Relative Minor Key = A Minor Key

i – iio – III – iv – v – VI – VII

Amin, Bdim, Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj

Pop Song Chord Progression in C Major

with a chord borrowed from its Relative Minor

Before:

I – V – vi – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

After:

I – V – VI – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amaj, Fmaj

As you can see, we used the pop song standard chord progression, and just replaced the minor sixth chord (Amin) with the sixth degree from its relative minor, which is Amaj. 

The listener will be expecting that chord to be minor but we made it major and that makes it sound more unexpected. 

This is a simple example, feel free to replace any of the chords in this way and use your ear to find a progression that sounds good. Remember it also works if your song is in a minor key and you want to borrow chords from the relative major key. It goes both ways. 

If you don’t know much music theory: Google the chords of the key of your progression in both major and minor and feel free to replace any chords using the chords from either key. 

Borrowing Chords from Parallel Modes

This expands on the previous point. 

Technically, the minor scale is also the 6th mode of the major scale, Aeolian. This is a relative mode. 

But there are also parallel modes, which are slightly different.

  • A relative mode plays the same major scale but starting from different notes of the same key. 
  • A parallel mode actually plays notes that are different from the key you are in. 

For example there is a difference between playing the Aeolian mode of C major (which is A minor, C major’s relative Aeolian mode) and C Aeolian. Look at the notes of each and this will make sense. 

C Major Scale

C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Relative Mode:

Aeolian of C Major (A Minor Scale)

A, B, C, D, E, F, G

Parallel Mode:

C Aeolian

C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb

Notice the difference? C Aeolian has different notes, the Eb, Ab, and Bb. 

This also means the chords of the C Aeolian are different. 

C Major Key Chords

Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Bdim

Relative Mode:

Chords of Aeolian of C Major (in other words, its relative minor Amin)

Amin, Bdim, Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj

Parallel Mode:

C Aeolian Chords

Cmin, Ddim, Ebmaj, Fmin, Gmin, Abmaj, Bbmaj

Notice that many of the chords of C Aeolian are totally different from C major AND ALSO from the Aeolian of C (its relative minor, Amin).

So in a nutshell, Relative Aeolian and Parallel Aeolian are not the same thing. They have different chords and if your song is in Cmaj you can borrow chords from its parallel Aeolian mode, or any other parallel mode. 

Let’s see it in action with our chord progression:

Pop Song Chord Progression in C Major Key

I – V – vi – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

After borrowing a chord from C Aeolian

I – V – vi – iv

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmin

As you can see we changed the Fmaj for an Fmin. And you can look up the chords of any parallel mode and try those too. Just Google “chords of (insert key and mode name here)”. Example: “chords of C Aeolian”.

I know this might take some time to wrap your head around but re-read it and it will start to make sense. 

If you don’t know much music theory: If the key of your song is Cmaj and you want to borrow chords from C Phrygian, then Google “chords of C Phrygian” and you can replace a chord from your Cmaj chord progression for a chord from the C Phrygian mode or whatever other mode you want.

Use Secondary Dominants

These are common in songwriting and are just a great way to transition between two chords.

Secondary Dominant

A secondary dominant is any chord that has the dominant function over another chord that is not the tonic of the song.

See the example below. 

Pop Song Chord Progression in C Major Key

I – V – vi – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

Let’s say we wanted to add a Secondary Dominant chord to this progression and we want to add it right between the V chord (Gmaj) and the vi (Amin) chord.

Pop Song Chord Progression in C Major Key with a Secondary Dominant

I – V – V7/vi – vi – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, E7, Amin, Fmaj

There you go, we put in a Secondary Dominant because E7 creates a V – I relationship with Amin and V chords usually have a very strong pull towards I chords, so even though E7 is not in the C Major scale, it sounds good and works. 

If you don’t know much music theory: Look at any of the chords of your progression and check which one you want to go to from your Secondary Dominant. Then just see it like a powerchord on guitar. If you want to go to A then check what the 5 is (basically the second note in a powerchord, E). In this case the 5th of A was E. Then just make that E a 7th chord. So E7 going to Amin and boom. You’re done.  Secondary Dominants bi***.

Wrapping it up

These are essentially some basic concepts from Harmony Theory, but they can be so so powerful because now you are not restricted to just the chords of one key or just standard chord progressions.

Doing these things will expand the colors of the sounds you make in your songs and once you really get them down you will have so much freedom. As a songwriter, chords are your bread and butter so these Harmony tricks are very helpful.

Learn these well. Bookmark this page and come back for reference if you need to. 

Good luck!

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