Tuesday 28th November: Strong and fragile chord pairs/progressions.
Assignment: Go back through any chord progressions you have written that you like, or songs you particularly love, and analyse the chord movements in terms of strong/fragile chord pairs. Strong progressions are those in which the key is quite clear. Fragile progressions are more ambiguous. Sometimes we want clarity, other times we might want ambiguity.
Write some chord progressions from the perspective of seeking balance between strong and fragile movement. Experiment with some longer sequences that incorporate roots moving in fifths and fourths. You can either stay in key or travel out of a key a bit to do this.
The Cycle of fifths: Strong and Fragile Chord Progressions
So. As there are 12 notes in the Western system, there are 12 places you could start major scale from, and 12 places you could start a series of chords from. 12 keys, in fact. Some, like C# major and Cb, are rarely used.
Some of these keys are quite closely related to one another. The keys of G and C, for example, share four chords. So do the keys of F and C, and the keys of G and D.
G is the adjacent key to C on the cycle of fifths diagram, and D is adjacent to G.
The cycle of fifths works like this: if you go up a fifth ( five notes) from C, the note you get to is G. G has one sharp in its major scale. If you go up a fifth from G, you get D. D has two sharps in its major scale. If you go up a fifth from D, you get A. A has three sharps in its major scale.
The major scale (and therefore the key) that is closest to C isn’t D – it’s the scale that starts a fifth up. So the point of the cycle of fifths is to tell us how close or distant keys are from one another. To identify the closest key from the one you’re in, you need to go up a fifth.
You’ll have noticed the keys which are adjacent on the cycle of fifths share four out of six chords. Keys that are one key apart (eg C and D, which are separated by G) have two chords in common. You can use this knowledge and these common chords to great effect if you want to suggest a move, or actually make a move, into a new key. Doing so can provide a nice lift or dynamic in the chord progression in a song. If you randomly change to a faraway key, it can interrupt the ow-there’s a ne line between maintaining or creating interest, and disrupting the ow of a piece of music.
If you go anti-clockwise, you add a flat in each time. The key of F is as closely related to C as the key of G and also contains four common chords – F, C, Am and Dm.
Where this gets even more interesting is that when you think in fifths or fourths, you can increase the strength or the fragility of your chord progressions. When we use the term strong or fragile in this context, it’s in reference to the effect of certain chord movements. Strong movements tend to sound very clear and to set up or to meet an expectation. Fragile movements are more ambiguous. The downside of strong movements is that they can be predictable, and this might not be what you want. On the other hand, they are satisfying because of the way they set you up to expect something and then meet that expectation. They tend to make it clear what key you’re in, ie what the tonic or I chord is. It sets up expectation.
Fragile chord progressions can meander and lose their way if they continue for too long-but they can be atmospheric and suggestive. Neither is good or poor as a rule, they just have different properties, which you can use to create the momentum or the space you want in your harmonic movements. You may want a balance of both.
The strongest chord movements are those in which the root notes of the chord are a fourth or a fifth away from one another. This is where the cycle of fifths/fourths can come in very useful. Even if you’re choosing chords from one key, having root notes that are a forth or fifth apart will create strong movement.
Try this progression: C Em Am Dm G C
Compare it with this one:
C Bdim Em Dm F Bdim G Em Dm Am
What do you notice? The second one may sound a bit confused in comparison.