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How to spice up a chord progression

Coming up with awe-inspiring chord progressions can feel like an impossible task. There are only so many chords and ways of puzzling them together. The truth is that you don’t have to find the magic chords, you can make any boring chord progression come to life with these five tricks!

Harmonic rhythm

Harmonic rhythm is the time you spend on each chord before you change to the next one. The most common harmonic rhythm is to play one chord per bar but you can also double or halve the harmonic rhythm for a faster or slower feel.

The real magic happens when you change the harmonic rhythm for each chord. By mixing long and short chords, you can keep the listeners on their toes. If you change the chord on a syncopated (off-beat) note, the progression will also become more groovy and rhythmically interesting.

Voicing

Voicing is how the notes of a chord are distributed. The way you voice a chord can have a huge impact on how it sounds and feels.

Octaves

One aspect of voicing is what octave you play the chords in. Chords in a lower octave tend to sound darker and moodier while chords in a higher octave usually sound brighter and airier. Playing chords in a low octave can also sound muddy and dissonant, especially if they’re complex chords. Low notes can easily collide with each other while high notes are a lot more forgiving.

You should also think about the relationship with the rest of the instruments of the song. If you play the chords too low, they might clash with the bass, and if you play them too high, they could interfere with the leads and vocals.

Inversions and voice leading

When you play all chords in a progression in their root position, you can get abrupt chord changes. This could be the desired effect, but there is a way to make the transition smoother by using chord inversions and voice leading.

An inversion is when you start on a chord note that is not the root. In simpler terms, if you move the root note up one octave, you get the 1st inversion of the chord. And if you then move the third up one octave as well, you get the 2nd inversion.

What this allows you to do is make the move from one chord to another as minimal as possible. The way notes move from chord to chord is called voice leading. You could think of each chord note as a voice in a choir that sings its separate melody that together with all other voices forms a chord.

Closed vs open voicing

Another aspect of voicing is how closed or open the chords are. Closed voicing is when the notes are clustered together with minimal space between them. This sounds dense and thick.

Open voicing, on the other hand, is when the notes are spread out with a lot of space between them. This sounds clearer and grander.

Rhythm

Besides changing the harmonic rhythm, you can give the chords themselves some rhythm. This will help the chord progression feel more groovy and energetic. This way, the chord progression will serve two functions, both harmonic and rhythmic.

You can first try playing the chords with straight 4th, 8th, or 16th notes. Then you can experiment with deleting notes to break up the pattern and create more interesting rhythms. You can also use dotted notes, like dotted 8th notes commonly used in EDM to make the rhythm more syncopated and hypnotic.

Melodic decoration

To make the chord progression more ear-catching, you can decorate it with melodic lines. To do this, you can simply move around the top notes of the chords to other scale notes that are close by. This means you are momentarily changing the chord but sometimes it’s better not to think about the music theory. Instead, use your ears and do what sounds right to you.

You can use melodies to make the chord progression flow better by playing the notes that bridge the gaps, which goes hand-in-hand with voice leading.

Arpeggios

Another way of making the chord progression more melodic and rhythmic at the same time is by using arpeggios. An arpeggio is when you break up a chord into the individual notes and play them separately.

You can play the arpeggios in a repeated upward, downward, upward and downward pattern, or any other pattern you can think of.

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