19 August 2020
By Ellie Palmer
Trying to find that perfect chord progression can be a frustrating process. We take a look at some top tips below...
The chords you choose for your composition can completely define your piece. They can change the entire mood and direction.
That gives you an unlimited amount of combinations that you can go with. When picking your chords, there is absolutely no right or wrong way. By sitting at your piano and playing around with different combinations, you will find which ones fit and which don’t.
We've picked out four different popular chord progressions for you to use freely or manipulate to fit your piece.
Let’s use C major as our root chord. The chords in C major are C(I), Dm(ii), Em(iii), F(IV), G(V), Am(vi), and B diminished(vii).
These are just four of many combinations that you can try. Our advice would be to spend some time at your piano trying these combinations out, until you find a progression that you like. Once you have picked out your main chord progression, it’s time to choose a selection of alternative chord progressions to use in other varied sections.
Here are three techniques you can use when picking your alternate chords:
1. Start your new section with a minor chord
The use of a darker chord here will signify a shift in mood to the listener, confirming that a new section is in play. You cannot go wrong with this technique. It’s also a good idea here to use any other chords that weren’t included in your main chord progression. Let’s use chord progression No 3 from the examples above as a demonstration:
2. Utilise the circle of fifths
Utilise the circle of fifths. In classical music particularly, this technique is used on a regular basis. The circle of fifths is the relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys. The following graph shows the circle of fifths.
Effectively, chord V of your current key becomes chord I in your new section. So, if we continue with our example of C major, using the chord progression example 1 from above…
The last chord here, chord V (G), will now be chord I in your new section. Your chord sequence will now look a little something like this:
If you want to really build up the tension in this section, you could keep going with the circle of fifths! Next up would be:
... and so on.
3. Use chords that aren’t in your key
This is particularly effective in cinematic or ambient pieces. There are numerous chord tricks that composers purposely use in order to cause a particular response from their audiences. Here are three tricks:
a) Move from chord I to the minor V; for example, C major to G minor. It’s used multiple times in the Back to the Future films, as well as hundreds of others. You may also recognise it from The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson. It creates an aura of amazement and magic.
b) Create your own circle of SIXTHS: Let’s start with the chord progression VI, V, major ii. In Db major, this would be: Bbm (VI), Ab (V) Eb (maj ii). In the next phrase, switch to chord VI (Gm) of the first chord! For example, the next progression becomes: Gm (VI), F (V), C (maj ii). This is basically a circle of sixths! This particular trick is used in the blockbuster film Avatar (2009), composed by James Horner.
c) Move from chord I to the major vi: for example, E major to C major. The expectancy is that we will hear E major to C# minor. However, the introduction of the C major is a pleasant and uplifting surprise.
This article was taken from Pianist's Ultimate Guide to Composing Your Own Piano Piece. Our interactive eBook includes access to advice from top professionals within the music industry - including Ennio Morricone and Melanie Spanswick, dozens of tips and tricks to help you compose your own music, blank sheet music and infographics, and so much more.
By downloading the eBook, you will have access to top advice on how to:
- Choose your own style
- Pick your key
- Establish your chord progressions
- Establish your main melodic theme
- Create your structure
- See Melanie Spanswick's alternative method
- Read advice from the world's best composers