4 Ways To Make Common Chord Progressions Fun & Interesting

You want to be original.

That’s reasonably easy for lyrics. You can say ‘I love you’ in a million different ways.

Melodies a little trickier though, but by adding different registers and dynamics we can just about get by.

Chords, ha, no chance!

There is a reason why common chord progressions are a thing.

And that’s because they work. They are the perfect motion for a journey in a song, so why change it?

Well for some of us the usual I-vi-IV-V (1-6-4-5) or I-V-vi-IV (1-5-6-4) or I-IV-V (1-4-5) transition per bar or two is just plain and simply… boring.

It’s a plain cake with no flavour, and eating a plain cake everyday can drive you insane. Your tastebuds want more.

Well my ears want more!

Let’s put together some creative chord progressions that will make our ears happy!

Spicing up a common chord progression

Spicing up your chord progression doesn’t have to be hard. It can be as simple as changing one chord.

We are going to be using a basic chord progression from C major as our original, and in each example we are going to spice it up and change it.

Here’s the chord progression:

C major – G major – A minor – F major

This follows the numerical pattern of I-V-vi-IV (1-5-6-4).

Here’s how it sounds:

Don’t get me wrong, it sounds great, but let’s make it more interesting, a little different, a little less ‘standard.’

4. Invert your basic chords

One way we can make our chord progression a little more interesting is by rotating the notes of a chord, therefore, inverting it.

So what does this mean exactly?

Well our C major chord contains 3 notes, C E G, in this specific order.

If we rotate the order by one place we get the 1st inversion which would be E G C, and if we rotate by two places we get the 2nd inversion which would be G C E.

Inverted chords are shown with a slash symbol, the letter after the slash represents the note that is now the bass note (the lowest note). For example C/E is the 1st inversion because E is the bass note, and C/G is the 2nd inversion because G is the bass note.

So why is this different?

Well, as you ascend through the inversions the higher the chord sounds. What this gives you is a hint of instability and tension without having to go full blown diminished chord in your progression.

So let’s compare, here’s our original chord progression:

C major – G major – A minor – F major

Now here is the altered version with a 1st inversion G major and a 1st inversion F major:

C major – G/B – A minor – F/A

They both sound completely different! But notice how the second has a sense of emotional imbalance? This is great if your song requires it!

But, too many inversions in one row can lead to too much instability so use them with caution.

You wouldn’t put a whole tub of pepper on your food now would you?

3. Change your mode

Okay Nicola, what do you mean by change your mode?

If you’re unfamiliar with music theory, then the idea that modes exist will seem like an alien concept. But modes are really easy to grasp.

Technically you already know two, but just don’t realize it. I’m referring to major and minor, these are both modes but, we call them something else.

Let’s quickly go through what modes are.

Each note in a major scale has a number attached to it. That number also has a modal name, derived from the rotation the scale is played in.

Here’s the C major scale as an example:

  1. C major – C Ionian – CDEFGAB (major scale)
  2. D minor – D Dorian – DEFGABC
  3. E minor – E Phrygian – EFGABCD
  4. F major – F Lydian – FGABCDE
  5. G major – G Mixolydian – GABCDEF
  6. A minor – A Aeolian – ABCDEFG (minor scale)
  7. B diminished – B Locrian – BCDEFGA

Each mode has the same notes, just rotated.

As you can see we most commonly use ionian and aeolian modes without even realising it!

So how would our chord progression (1-5-6-4) sound in lydian mode?

So let’s compare, here’s our original chord progression:

C major – G major – A minor – F major

Now here is the altered version using lydian mode which starts from F:

F major – C major – D minor – B diminished

Ouch, that diminished really puts the shock value on that progression.

Let’s try our chord progression in dorian mode instead.

So let’s compare, here’s our original chord progression:

C major – G major – A minor – F major

Now here is the altered version using dorian mode which starts from D:

D minor – A minor – B diminished – G major

The B diminished really fits in quite well with this chord progression, definitely gives it a spooky quality.

Experiment with modes, as each one can make us feel a certain way.

2. Take a common chord progression and alter its sequence

The 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th chords tend to get preferential treatment, and our main focus has been on this sequence 1-5-6-4.

So let’s play some more with these chords by creating a new sequence.

Here we’ve used repetition and duplication, this is our chord progression:

C major – A minor – C major – A minor – F major – F major – G major – G major

Our progression still focuses on the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th chord. Here’s how it looks:

I-vi-I-vi-IV-IV-V-V (1-6-1-6-4-4-5-5)

Let’s hear how it sounds:

Here we’ve used the ‘bean bag’ technique, this is our chord progression:

C major – F major – C major – G major – C major – A minor – G major – F major

Here’s how it looks:

I-IV-I-V-I-vi-V-IV (1-4-1-5-1-6-5-4)

Let’s hear how it sounds:

Now let’s try going up the scale and back down again. This is our chord progression:

C major – F major – G major – A minor – A minor – G major – F major – C major

Here’s how it looks:

I-IV-V-vi-vi-V-IV-I (1-4-5-6-6-5-4-1)

Let’s hear how it sounds:

We could keep on going but here’s a few more:

  • 1-4-1-4-1-4-5-6
  • 1-5-4-1-5-4-6-6
  • 1-6-4-1-6-5-4-5

But you could just focus on 3 chords to make it easier, or even just 2, but it’ll be difficult to keep it interesting!

You can also try using a different chord as your starting point, such as starting with G major instead of C major.

Experiment, and see what sequence of chords you like.

1. Don’t focus on a chord per bar

We see it so much, that is changing chords per bar.

I get it, it’s easy. If you’re playing in time signature 4/4 then changing chords every 4 beats is easy.

Simplicity can be effective.

But sometimes the movement of your song requires something a little more creative.

Now, I’m not referring to strumming patterns in this example, just simply the timing of your chord changes.

Our example chord progression in C major changes chords per bar.

So let’s add some variation to the mix by reducing the last two chords.

C major – C major – G major – (A minor – F major)

Let’s hear how it sounds:

Same progression, but the last bar creates a quicker sense of resolution as it goes back to the C major.

Here’s another example but with a quicker climax mid chord progression then a slow and relaxed resolution.

C major – (G major – A minor) – F major – F major

We can add many variations to this style such as changing per 2 bars, changing per beat or even per half beat.

Experiment with your song and see what chord timing changes work. If your melody is an odd rhythm, make it less odd by matching it with when you change chords.

Such as this:

C major lasts 3 ½ beats, G major lasts 1 ½ beats, A major lasts 2 ½ beats, F major lasts 3 beats and then we finish off on another G major.

May sound unnatural on its own but paired with the right melody, it could be magic!

It’s your turn

Right now it’s your turn! Pick a standard boring chord progression and spice it up.

Don’t be afraid to use more than one of these suggestions!

Add inversions to modal changes, alter a sequence and alter the timing of the chord changes.

Here’s our last example and it’s adding inversions and a change in timing of chord changes together.

Here’s the original chord progression:

C major – G major – A minor – F major

Here’s the new and improved progression:

C major – C/E – G major – G/B – Am – F major – F/C

C major – C/E – G major – G/B – Am – F major – F/A

Definitely sounds more interesting!

Experiment until you find the right chord progression for your song, or the right chord progression to start developing a song to!

Good luck, and get creating!

Further reading:

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