Seven secrets will take your Chords from sounding basic or even cheesy to extremely emotional.
Read this entire post (or watch the video above) and I guarantee every chord progression you write from now on is going to sound incredible.
However, this post is not about the best chord progressions for Pop Music. That was the subject of another article.
This is how to take them to the next level so they can provide beautiful background harmonies for your vocal melody.
Scale Degrees: The Foundation of Emotional Chords
Now, emotion is subjective. Everyone's perceptions are going to be different.
And to understand everything I'm about to show you, you only need to know what scale degrees are.
Here's the easiest way to understand scale degrees: I want you to think of a Major scale.
It's made of seven notes that you can combine to create the chords that belong to that scale.
If we take the C major scale, it's all the white keys on a keyboard.
Each note from that scale has a number, a scale degree — from one to seven, starting at C all the way up to B — and this is the foundation of writing stunning chords and melodies.
So what's a Chord?
You pick some of those notes, and you play them simultaneously.
Like this basic progression I-vi-IV-V or C major, A minor, F major, G major:
#1 Different Instrument for Each Voice of Your Chords
I noticed that most beginners build their chords by playing all the notes on a single instrument.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
I know it's convenient. Pianos, synthesizers and guitars can play several notes at once.
But spreading your chord notes among different instruments will immediately make your chord progressions sound more interesting.
In fact, most orchestral music has each instrument playing just one note.
I'm making sure everyone is aware of that because it opens up lots of possibilities on how to arrange your chords.
Chord progressions as parallel melodies
I want to invite you to think of chord progressions as a bunch of melodies playing at the same time.
And when you combine all of these parallel melodies, you're actually looking at chords.
For instance, if the chords in your progression have 3 notes each, then try to think of them as 3 separate melodies playing at the same time.
We'll call each one of these melodies a voice.
For example, I'll split those same chords into different instruments. Guitar in yellow, Piano in blue and Bass in Green.
These are the same chords as before.
But it already sounds entirely different — more interesting because now we have different timbres, and we can perceive it with more clarity and separation between each note.
Now, the transitions between these chords sound a bit cheesy because there's a big leap between each note and the next.
#2 Voicing and Inversions
A quick and easy way to make sure your chord progression never sounds cheesy is to smooth out the transitions between each chord.
In this progression, each color represents a different instrument — a different voice.
Look at the distance between one yellow note to the next. Or from a blue note to the next. They may be too far from one another.
What if we reorganized the sequence of the notes within each chord to smooth out the transitions? So the movements happen in small steps.
Now the transitions are a lot smoother, and not cheesy anymore.
The previous chord setup had those big leaps. It sounded more intense and there was more energy, but it could also sound cheesy, depending on the context.
When people ask why their chords sound cheesy — this is the number one reason.
The new setup sounds smooth. I feel more tension — of course this is subjective — but it'll never sound cheesy.
It could be a great background harmony for a vocal melody with lots of fun movement.
What's chord voicing?
That's called Chord voicing: the structure in which you play the chord notes, from lowest to highest.
Look at this first chord. It's a C major chord. Made of these notes: C, E, and G.
If my chord only has these 3 notes, no matter which note is highest or lowest, that's going to be a C major chord.
In this case, it goes from C, at the lowest, to E to G. That's called root position because the C note is the lowest note, or the bass note.
If I reposition them so that E is the lowest — so E, G, C — That's still a C major chord.
But that's a different voicing of the chord. It's called an inversion.
Same thing starting with G, C, E. That's another voicing.
They sound pretty similar, but the feeling we get in context is slightly different.
Here's a bunch of voicings of the same chord, C major.
When to use each chord inversion?
You can use any voicing at any time. However the root position always sounds more resolved and the inversions sound a bit more tense.
When the lyrics ask for a tiny bit of tension, using a chord inversion may be just what you need.
Of course you can keep your bass in root position, and just change the voicings of the other instruments — and that's a pretty common practice in Pop and Dance music.
But keep in mind that a bass inversion is an excellent tool to make small tweaks to the flavors and emotions of your chords.
#3 Extra Notes, Extra Spices
If you're a beginner in music composition and you're only using basic chords like C major or A minor — but you find that they sound boring — here's how to spice them up.
You can add another note to your chords.
So instead of three notes, the chords now have four notes. They're called tetrads instead of triads.
Think of it as if you're taking a basic chord and adding some extra spice.
For example, one of my favorite chords is the C major chord with a major seventh (Cmaj7).
It sounds beautiful, peaceful, and almost lazy. Makes me wanna go to the beach and just listen to the waves.
But change the voicing, turning B into the bass, and you get a completely different feeling.
It's a simple inversion, and it sounds very different. Maybe it could be used to support a tense transition in the song.
And sevenths are not the only notes you can add to your chords.
You can add anything if it sounds good. Each note you add that doesn't belong to the triad chord will give it a different character.
#4 Open Chord Voicings
When beginner producers start putting their chord progressions together on a piano roll, I noticed that most times their chords look like a tiny block.
They have the smallest possible interval between one note and the next.
And there's nothing wrong with that. But here's an idea: you can spice up your chords by simply spreading them apart.
Aka open chord voicing or spread voicing.
To turn that chord into an open position, all we have to do is spread them out beyond an octave.
The easiest way is to select one or a couple of notes from the center, and move them a whole octave up.
In this case, I'll pick the third and the fifth.
There is a notable difference between closed position and open position.
Doesn't that open up the sound? It gives each note more space, so there's a lot more clarity. You can distinguish everything easily.
And you don't have to lock your song to one position or the other.
You're free to use them differently throughout your arrangement, and each one will cause a different sensation.
To make it even more intense, you can always double some of the notes, like the root and the fifth, on higher octaves and add more layers of instruments.
#5 Leaving Out Certain Notes
Another cool trick to change the character of chords is to leave out certain notes on purpose, instead of adding more notes.
For example, you can leave out the third of a certain chord to hide it's emotional content.
Leaving out the Third
When you don't want a major chord to sound super happy, don't play the third.
I hear that in pop songs all the time.
So in C major, since the notes are C, E, G, the third is E.
Same thing happens with minor chords.
When you don't want it to sound too sad, hide the third and it will sound neutral, discreet, careful — it doesn't tell you much.
I feel like the third is the heart of the chord. It's where chords keep their true feelings.
When they show you their thirds, they're being honest with you.
Leaving out the Fifth
On the other hand, if you just want to use the least amount of notes in your chords — just what's necessary to state the emotion —, all you need to use are the root and third.
Leaving out the fifth won't change the feeling of the chord because this note sounds very neutral.
It doesn't have its own characteristic sound, it doesn't color the chord unless the fifth is diminished or augmented — which are different kinds of fifth notes that we'll save for another article.
Here's the C major chord with a major seventh, but we'll get rid of the fifth for comparison.
It's not that one is better than the other. It's just a different vibe.
I feel like leaving the fifth out helps reduce clutter on spicier chords, like the ones with a seventh.
When you remove the fifth, there's less going on, so it makes it more intimate, more delicate and it gives the chord more simplicity.
There's more separation. It's easier to recognize each note and really savor each one.
Works for major and minor chords.
Keeping the fifth blends them together, so there isn't a strong spotlight on the seventh note — which you may want to emphasize or not.
Both chords are very similar, they can be used on the same occasions, because this is just a subtle change.
If chords were color palletes, these are two neighbor shades of the same color.
#6 Embellishing Tones, Passing Notes
Sometimes you want the transitions between your chords to be super smooth.
And you can do that with embellishing tones.
But to keep it super simple so everyone can follow along with no problems, I'll just call them passing notes.
These notes are played for a short amount of time, just to help transition into the next chord.
So it doesn't really matter if they even belong to the scale.
The goal is just to reduce the leaps within each voice. Reduce the size of the steps in each voice.
Remember how chords can be interpreted as a bunch of melodies in parallel?
So let's take that same chord progression and make sure the voices always move in small intervals.
From the first chord to the second, we've added chromatic movement.
We've added a G# that doesn't belong to any of the chords in this progression.
And that will cause a momentary tension that resolves nicely when the next chord plays.
The reason why it was kept short is so that it doesn't disrupt our harmony.
If we let this note last for too long, it may become distracting and may even sound wrong.
Now, from the second chord to the third, notice that two voices are staying the same — on A and C —, and only one voice is changing.
It goes from E to F, so they're as close as it gets. No need to add any movement here. It's already great.
But from the third chord to the fourth, every voice had to change notes.
I don't want them to change all at once. It's not fluid.
I want the listeners to notice that each voice is independent from one another — like separate independent melodies.
So I took the top voice and started descending early from F all the way down to D.
I actually anticipated the D note from the fourth chord, while the third chord was still playing.
Again, that note creates a bit of tension for a moment, and that tension gets resolved on the next chord.
Passing notes: best practices
Will these embellishing tones add movement and make your music more elegant?
Yes, but they will also make it busier.
If you overdo it, it can become chaotic and confusing.
I try to not move more than 2 voices at once, whenever possible so the listeners will understand every movement.
And remember, these are not rules, it's not mandatory to have passing notes or to do any kind of voice leading.
Although it is prettier.
#7 Pedal Point, Atmosphere and Mood
And the cherry on the top of your chord writing cake is the Pedal point. I've seen people call it drone too.
It's when you take a note and you sustain it or repeat it over several chord changes.
So over some of your chords it's going to sound consonant, and over some other chords it's going to sound dissonant.
That's usually done with the bass note but not always. For example, the song Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush has a pedal point bass.
It stays on the C note throughout the whole song, no matter what chord is being played.
What notes to use as Pedal Points
The most common notes to use as pedal points are the first and fifth notes of the scale — tonic and dominant. Or both of them at once.
Here's a chord progression that incorporates most of the concepts we've talked about and it also has a pedal point.
The chords move but the pedaling note stays the same, creating different consonances and dissonances on each chord.
It's an amazing tool to create mood and atmosphere. That sounds beautiful with some warm and moody instruments.
Now check out a similar progression in which the pedal point is not on the bass. It's on the pad, and it's the fifth scale degree instead of the tonic.
Pedaling a note creates mood but at the same time holds tension, builds drama and expectation — like in the song Driver's License by Olivia Rodrigo.
I like to use pedal point during pre-choruses to get that relief of resolving it when the chorus hits.
The trick here is to make it a dissonance during the pre-chorus, then turn it into a consonance when the chorus hits — by starting, for example, with the tonic chord.
That's a pretty dramatic effect, so you want to save it for special moments.
Now it's your turn
If you take advantage of the techniques from this article, you'll be able to squeeze all the emotion out of the most basic chord progressions.
From that point on it's all about writing tiny variations so it doesn't become a boring loop — and adding a great vocal melody on top.
If you'd like to level up your music production skills, check out the resources available on my website.