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Unexpected Chords Add Interest To Your Songs

6:00 am Songwriting

A lot of popular songs are built on standard chord patterns (see my article Standard Chord Patterns For Basic Song Segments for some examples of such patterns). The reason these patterns work in songs is partly because they are familiar. For music to be interesting to the listener, it must combine elements of the familiar with unexpected twists on those familiar elements. If a song sounds too familiar, we say it is “cliched.” If a song sounds too unfamiliar, we say it is “inaccessible” or even “arty” (gasp). Somewhere between these extremes lies the right combination of old and new.

All of this applies to your songs too! If the verse of your song is four lines of A D E A and the chorus is two lines of D A D A plus an E7 chord, well, that probably sounds OK, but it’s a little bit boring. Everything that happens in the song chords-wise is totally predictable. Patterns repeat; there is no chord outside the three chords in the key of A (no minor chords even!); the chorus is higher by an interval of a fourth compared with the verse. You know what’s coming next the first time you hear the song. Ho hum.

Shaking Things Up

Let’s take a close look at this hypothetical “song” and see what we might do with it by way of unexpected chords to liven things up a bit. First, here is the original verse and chorus:

D A E7 E7

All right. How might we make this chord pattern more interesting? Let me count the ways.

1. Substitute relative minor chords.

One quick fix is to substitute relative minor chords for some of the major chords in your song. (See my article Minor Chords Provide Major Benefits! for many examples and variations of this technique.) The relative minor of A is F#m, and the relative minor of D is Bm, so we might rewrite the chords in the verse like this:

F#m Bm E A
F#m Bm E A

If you play through this pattern, you’ll see that it’s less predictable and thus more interesting. The listener is not “expecting” that first F#m chord.

2. Change major chords to minors.

This is similar to the first idea, but instead of substituting relative minors for major chords, you simply change some of the major chords to the corresponding (i.e. same-name) minor chords. Using this method might lead to this reworked verse pattern, for example:

A Dm E A
Am D E A
A Dm E A
Am D E A

Much better!

3. Throw in a chord that’s not in the key.

What could be more unexpected than a chord that doesn’t “belong” in the song in the first place? Here’s your chance to go wild. Switch out some of those fusty A, D, and E chords and switch in a C! Or a G#m! It could be anything, so go for it. (Early Beatles songs do this all the time).

In our example song, this could be accomplished by something as simple as raising one of the E chords in the chorus to an F. Combined with an in-key minor-chord substitution, our more interesting chorus might look like this:

F#m A F E7

Check that out - E, F, and F#-type chords, all in one line. Well, you can’t get much more interesting than that. Or can you?

4. Use a different key for the chorus.

One of the most predictable points in this “song” is the first chord of the chorus, which is “telegraphed” by the final A in the verse. The A would naturally resolve to a D, and so it does. But what if it doesn’t? Try using this pattern for the chorus:

B B A E7

When it’s time for the chorus, the pattern goes up one step from an A chord to a B chord instead of resolving “naturally” to a D.

Note that this change is more significant than swapping in minor chords or importing “accidental” chords. The E, A, and B of this pattern indicate that the chorus is actually in the key of E, representing a modulation from the verse (which is in A).

Of course you could also modulate the chorus into a key more “foreign” than E (like maybe F?), but this is harder to do since such aharmonic shifts can sound unnatural, thus calling attention to themselves and distracting from the song. A shift like this can be “papered over” with a strong melody structure that brings sense to it, but that’s a topic for another article! Really odd shifts can also make it tricky to “get back” to the verse key for the second verse without introducing another unnatural-sounding modulation.

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One Response
  1. Jeni :

    Date: April 15, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    Thanks for all the tips, here! You’ve helped me through a couple blah songs! :)

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