You have finally come to the realization that your chord progressions are too normal. The good news is that your audience probably hasn’t noticed yet; many of them would go on listening to I – IV – V until the end of time, but you know better than that.
You owe it to yourself as a musician to treat your ears to something a little weird in your own songwriting.
So what do I mean by weird chord progressions?
Let’s break it down. Weird really just means something other than the expected, so weird chord progressions are chord progressions that are unexpected, and different.
We could be talking about the chords themselves–adding a diminished chord or an augmented chord into the mix, perhaps–or how otherwise normal chords fit together into a progression.
If we are shying away from the word “weird” because of negative connotations, we could just as easily say “interesting chord progressions.”
In this article, we will examine the following:
What makes a chord progression ‘weird’
Strategies for using uncommon chords
Strategies for building interesting chord progressions out of common chords
What Makes A Chord Progression Weird, Anyway?
Chords and their significance are culturally constructed. While physics explains objectively why certain frequencies combine to create certain sounds, which is essentially what chords are, the meaning attached to these combinations is subjective.
What sounds normal to someone born and raised in Bali will sound totally new to someone born and raised in Texas until the latter listener gets to know the music, or becomes enculturated to it, and vice versa.
Typically when I write about chord progressions I am writing within the framework of Western music, which is by and large defined by diatonicism.
Diatonicism is a way of organizing music in relation to a tonality centered on the tonic chord and utilizing pitches from a scale.
The tonic chord, in its simplest form, is a triad constructed with scale degrees 1, 3, and 5. A chord progression is a story of how the harmony departs from the tonic and returns to the tonic, as well as the stops in between, however many or few.
The progression from one chord to another in diatonic music is mediated by a set of conventions established over the course of hundreds of years. Chords fall into three categories: tonic, dominant, and pre-dominant.
Generally, every chord progression is a story that can be summarized as tonic leads to dominant and then back to tonic.
Sometimes, tonic stops by the pre-dominant along the way, but once it hits dominant the only place to go is back to tonic. Chord progressions can get very complicated, but at their essence, they tend to follow the same basic story.
Chord progressions get weird to a Western ear, an ear brought up on diatonicism, when they break with this storyboard.
Triads formed from pitches of a common scale sound pretty normal to a Western ear. Non-triadic chords, such as seventh chords, ninth chords, suspended chords, and the like, sound a little weirder until you get used to them.
The same goes for diminished and augmented harmonies. We’ll investigate some of these in the next section.
One of the quickest, easiest ways to start building a chord progression is to harmonize a pre-existing melody. Any melody you write out could be harmonized using a number of different chord progressions ranging from simple tonic – dominant – tonic progressions, to the wildest suspended, lush, clashing harmonies imaginable.
Depending on how you approach the harmonization, the melody gives you just one or a few of the pitches in the chord, making it sort of like a conversation starter for a creative musician.
Take London Bridge is Falling Down, for example. The standard harmonization is pretty simple, moving from a tonic chord (D Major in this case) to the dominant chord (A Major in first inversion).
With a clever substitution, however, we end up with a diminished chord in the third measure with a suspended chord tone from the bar before.
The Major Minor seventh chord it leads to is also an interesting move in terms of songwriting.
These new chords might not be to your liking, especially with a tune so familiar to you, but they ought to illustrate a point: when harmonizing a melody, the pitches of the melody are a starting point you can take in any direction you want.
Why not throw in a peculiar Major Minor seventh chord or the relative minor chord of a tonic?
Jazz chord progressions are filled with colorful substitutions and the odd suspended chord. Likewise, there is no reason to shy away from fitting something adventurous into a less-than-obvious opening.
Building Interesting Chord Progressions Out Of Common Chords
Neo-Riemannian theory is a loose bundle of analytical frameworks meant to explain triadic music that does not fit the conventions of diatonicism.
It began as a response to the music of Liszt, Wagner, and other composers of the late Romantic era, but it can be reverse engineered to generate all sorts of weird chord progressions using simple triads.
One Neo-Riemannian analytical device that can be used not only to analyze but also to write chord progressions is the tonnetz.
The tonnetz is a web of pitches arranged so that as pitches move from left to right they are separated by perfect fifths (thus from right to left they are separated by perfect fourths, the inversion of the perfect fifth).
Each horizontal line of pitches has a horizontal line of pitches above it arranged so that pitches occur at each vertex of an equilateral triangle.
Each of the angles on the horizontal is separated by a perfect fifth (or fourth, depending on the direction), as previously mentioned, and if the third vertex is pointed upwards, the pitch is a major third above the bottom left pitch.
If the third vertex is pointed downwards, it is the minor third below the top left pitch. In this way, the three pitches of an upward-pointing triangle make up a major chord, whereas the three pitches of a downward-facing triangle make up a minor chord.
There are no augmented chords, diminished chords, nor seventh chords triangulated in the tonnetz, making jazz chord progressions difficult to analyze using this tool.
The tonnetz continues in every direction endlessly, with sharps and flats added ad infinitum until it makes more sense to return to the realm of mostly naturals, just based on enharmonic equivalence.
By that I mean that C##### is the same thing as F, so we might as well scroll back over to where F-natural lives on the tonnetz.
In mapping pitch relationships out spatially, the tonnetz facilitates the analysis of triadic chord progressions that are organized not based on the 18th-century rules of common practice diatonicism, but based on maximally smooth voice leading.
Through a cursory glance at the tonnetz, we can see that a C minor triad shares two pitches with a C Major triad, thus progressing from the former to the latter would involve raising the third by one semitone, a relatively smooth operation in terms of voice leading.
In Brian Hyer’s (1989) work on the tonnetz, this movement is known as a Parallel inversion (P). The movement from C minor to A-flat Major would similarly share two common pitches but on a minor third axis, thus the G would be exchanged for an A-flat in an operation known as a Leading-tone exchange (L).
Moving in the opposite direction, across the major third axis, would result in an E-flat Major triad, and a Relative (R) inversion.
These different transformations can be used to track chord progressions in pre-existing music, but they can also offer a roadmap for delving into previously uncharted territory in chord progressions.
You need not follow the rules of diatonicism if you have a different set of organizing principles.
Even the tonnetz need not restrict your creativity if you have an ear for sounds that work well together, but it serves well as a starting point for experimenting outside the box of diatonic chord relations, and what you come up with using the tonnetz might be just weird enough for your taste.
When it comes to making weird chord progressions, an open mind and a commitment to experimentation are key.
These tips and tools might be a good place to get started, but in the end, the best thing for musicians looking to push boundaries is to find the musicians who have already done some pushing and push beyond what even they have done.
If you feel like binging on more chord-related topics, check out: