Ways to make chord progressions more interesting

Dominant chord, secondary dominant, modulation and substitution

how to make chord progressions more interesting

We are going to continue our discussion of chord progressions, diving into some more complicated concepts with our chords. Remember in the Nashville Number System that lowercase Roman numerals represent a minor chord and uppercase represent a major chord. The first intermediate chord progression I want to mention happens to be the oldest chord progression in western music. It was used by classical composers and is still used today, especially for movies and epic soundtracks. The progression is known as La Folia and happens to be i-V7-i-bVII-bIII-bVII-i-V. Now that looks a little complicated but let's break it down.

Relative minor

Now before we were using the Key of C as an example, but now we are in the relative minor, if you take a look at this chart you will see Am is the relative minor of C. As well as C is the relative major of Am. Now if we apply the same rules of the Nashville Number System to La Folia in the key of Am we get these chords; i is the chord Am, V7 is E7, bVII is G, and bIII is C. Thus if we take the Nashville Numbering System above for La Folia, the progression in the Key of Am is Am-E7-Am-G-C-G-Am-E7-Am, give that a play through and try ending on Am after the E7. Notice how “medieval” it sounds, it is meant for music played to a king in a castle! And that is because it was written many centuries ago! It is a testament to how long great sounding chord progressions can last through years of different musical styles.

Secondary dominant

The more complicated our progressions get, the more complicated and enriching our music can be. Let's a take a look at the secondary dominant. The dominant of the Key of C is G, but the dominant of the Key of G is D... so the secondary dominant of the Key of C happens to be D. Take a moment to let that concept of secondary dominants sink in. This helps to create more tension in the chord progression, and tension being resolved is what makes great music. Secondary dominants can also exist as the dominant of any other chord in the key. So take the chord progression of C-A7-D7-G7-C. We have a tonic of C, the secondary dominant of the supertonic ii (Dm) which is A, the secondary dominant of the V (G) which is D, and then the dominant again before resolving back to the tonic. Now of course there were some 7ths added to these chords (remember 7ths can spice up the sound), and this progression above was used in the ever popular “I've Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin. Give it a play and you will hear that song! Gershwin was a master of popular and classical genres and he used a mix of these styles in many of his songs.


Remember the further you dive into chord progressions, everything can seem to get very complicated and can leave some folks befuddled. It's best to just take it slow and keep practicing these progressions and eventually it will all be very clear. Music theory is not as bad as it seems, it just takes practice. Another way of changing chord progressions is modulation, the process of changing from one key to another. A common chord modulation is I-ii7-iii-IV, in the key of G that is G-Am7-Bm-C. The C at the end is a transition from the Key of G. This chord progression happens to be used by The Beatles in the song “Here, There, And Everywhere.” In Beethoven’s famous Piano Sonata in G he uses a chord modulation in the form of a secondary dominant. The progression is G-D7-G-Am-A7-D, and the A7 is out of place in the Key of G. He took the secondary dominant of D and added a 7th, giving us an A7. Now granted this is a song for piano, but it helps to show modulation without getting too complicated.

Chords substitutions

We also can use substitutions in our chord progression, which is the simple process of adding another chord in place of something expected. While it is easy to do, the hard part is making sure that it sounds good! In jazz a well-known substitution is the ii7-V7. Which means we take the original progression of C-G7 (I-V7) and substitute the V7 with ii7-V7... so our new progression is C-Dm7-G7. In jazz this is very common and similar to another famous jazz progression; ii-V-I. This progression is not only used in jazz but sometimes pop rock. For the song “It Never Rains In Southern California", which uses Dm7-G-C. Because substitutions can be so varied there are many more examples out there in the world of music.

Rock ballad and Flamenco progressions

A couple more common progressions that will serve you well are; the rock ballad progression I-iii-IV-V. This is very similar to the Doo Wop progression of I-vi-IV-V but with a slightly different sound, used on songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun” by the Beach Boys, “Heaven” by Warrant, “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John, and of course many more. Another great one is the Flamenco progression, commonly used in Spanish flamenco music and even rock, it is i-bVII-VI-V. Using this progression in the Key of Am, try playing Am-G-F-E really fast and notice how it has that Spanish flare to it. There is even a progression known as the Sensitive Female chord progression, vi-IV-I-V... which as you guessed it, is used for that exact style of music. If you play Am-F-C-G you will have a sound similar to Sarah McLachlan’s “Building A Mystery”, Avril Lavigne's “Complicated”, and even the Iggy Pop song “The Passenger.”

Essentially the more you study chord progressions the more you notice how similar all music truly is (by the way, this online chord progressions generator may help you). As a guitarist or any kind of musician this is great news. Yes it honestly takes away some of the mystique of all the songs you have ever loved, but it also shows you how accessible music can truly be. So dive right into learning new songs with this info on chord progressions. Before you know it you will start to connect all the dots and become adept at playing nearly every genre and any artist. Plus you will eventually become a master at writing your own music!

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