Here’s a handful of my top techniques that I use to develop new and interesting chord changes.
1. Stick with I-IV-V
I know, it’s not new, but I-IV-V doesn’t have to be uninteresting. There’s a reason why these chords are so fundamental to our harmony. So master them. Use their constraints to challenge your songwriting ability.
2. Copy another song’s chord changes
Just take a look at the top 10 in the past 10 years and you’ll find a long list of songs that use the same chord progressions. The chord changes to Prince’s Purple Rain have been used before that song and after that song many, many times. The challenge then becomes how to write a unique melody over those chord changes.
3. Copy another song’s chord changes and modify them
One of my favorite techniques to come up with chord changes is to simply copy another song and then modify it. You can modify the color of the chords (major/minor/dominant 7/major 7/etc.). You can modify the rhythm of the chord changes by making them change faster or slower or syncopate them. You can play the chords backwards or start in the middle. You get the idea.
4. Create a chord progression mashup
You can follow the popular mashup trend right now. Take two or more songs and then combine their chord progressions. You can cut them up, play them simultaneously or play them sequentially. I haven’t done this yet, but it sounds fun 🙂
5. Write a modal progression
Modal progressions–made popular by Miles Davis (Kind of Blue)–are a very easy place to start. The best modes to begin with are mixolydian and dorian. If you’re going to stay in a single mode throughout your song section, the challenge becomes making the melody interesting enough to sustain the listeners interest. And if all of your song sections are going to be in the same mode, then the challenge is to make each section contrast.
8. Use music software
I’ve used Band in a Box to inspire me and I’ve messed around with other music software that’s resulted in a few keepers. Check out the del.icio.us musicsoftware tag for the latest releases.
That’s it for now. I’m sure you have some chord progression shortcuts that I haven’t thought of yet. Please share them. 🙂