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If you’ve been playing or creating music for longer than 5 minutes, chances are strong that chord progressions with any variation of the I, V, vi and IV chords are starting to irritate you.
Somehow, over the years, these four chords have become the go-to chords for contemporary songwriters. If you’ve never seen Axis of Awesome’s “4 Chords” video, go watch it now, to get some idea of how many songs use the exact same progression. Of course, the melodies are all different, and the chords change in different places, and so there is still room for creativity even while using an overused progression. In some sense, that is why people are still using these four chords in songs today - because the melodic and rhythmic possibilities are almost endless when writing to them.
HookTheory.com wrote an excellent article on the most commonly used chords in popular music, and their research showed that it is these four chords - I, V, vi and IV - that are used most often. From 1950s doo-wop to clasic rock anthems to modern pop Youtube hits, these chords just show up everywhere.
So how can you make your diatonic chords sound more engaging? More specifically, how can you take boring, overused progressions and make them come alive? Here are some ideas:
Use major sevenths
Major seventh chords are great secret weapons for subtly changing the sound of a diatonic chord. They have a dreamy or melancholy quality to them, and work particularly well with I and IV - because the added 7th note still stays in the key you are in.
These are easy to figure out on a piano - simply play the major chord, and then move the root note down a semitone on the right hand, while keeping the root note in the bass. The root and the major seventh played together create tension.
Cmaj7 - the C on the right hand drops down a semitone
F major (second inversion on the right hand)
Fmaj7 - the F on the right hand drops down a semitone
Watch Billy Joel talk about playing major 7th chords here.
Add9 chords are some of my favourites - they also create tension by using the 9th and the 3rd (essentially a 2nd and a 3rd) at the same time. These tend to work well on I, vi and IV.
Add9s are also easy to figure out - this time, move the root of the chord up a tone, while keeping the root note in the bass. Note: these are different to sus2 chords, because sus2s get rid of the third, whereas add9s don’t.
Cadd9 - the C on the right hand moves up a tone
Am add9 - the A on the right hand moves up a tone
A common technique is to introduce tension using an add9, and then resolve it by going back to the original major or minor chord.
Use sus4 chords
Sus4 chords are commonly used to create and resolve tension. They can be used to great effect on the V chord, particularly when it is leading you back to the I chord and creating a perfect cadence.
To play a sus4 chord, simply change the 3rd of the chord to a 4th.
Gsus4 - the B on the right hand moves up to C
Again, these are often resolved back to the normal triad to bring about a sense of release before changing to the next chord.
Applying these techniques
Now let’s try apply these techniques to a “boring” progression, using the chords we spoke about earlier. We'll use a I - IV - vi - V progression in C major, giving us the chords C - F - Am - G.
In the first clip, the standard triads are played. Notice how plain and generic the piece sounds:
In the second clip, the same progression has some slight tweaks to make it sound more interesting.
All we did was change a single note in each chord, and the progression seems to come to life!
Try this in your own songs/productions. Stick to diatonic chords, and then tweak them slightly to create far more interesting sounding progressions.
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