I always loved that Jazz Harmony is full of amazing chord progressions that have a natural flow but still contain some surprising sounds that make them interesting to listen to.
But how do you write chord progressions like that? Because most likely you’ll see 100s of lessons on II V I’s and while that is an important progression, you also want to be able to play other things.
I was always messing around with writing music and putting chords together also before I was playing Jazz, probably because I couldn’t really play a lot of stuff so I experimented and improvised together things.
The problem I kept having there was that I didn’t really know what chords would fit together, not beyond the I IV and V chords in the key, and even that I didn’t really get, so it would be more about luck and a lot of messing around before I created chord progressions that I liked.
Most of that is about having a better foundation and it is pretty amazing how far that will take you in terms of finding a lot more chords, and a lot more interesting sounds, that work together. I could probably also have used some sort of strategy to help me put stuff together, but I was just trying things out at random.
Let’s look at finding some interesting chords and then talk about how to fit them together!
The Basic Chords
I am going to start with a few basic things and then expand that REALLY a lot.
The basic process works for ANY scale and knowing this is useful in so many ways! If you start with the a major key, like C major then you have one chord for each note in the scale:
You build the chords by stacking 3rds so for C major
Adding an other 3rd gives you the triads:
and then add another note a 3rd above to get the 7th chords:
This is pretty basic and it is going to get a lot more colorful, but you can already do great things with this! If you have a basic progression going from Cmaj7
to G7 then you can use the other chords to walk there in steps down the scale:
Or you can walk up; Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7
Or if you are moving from Cmaj7 to Fmaj7 then maybe add an Em7 as a step up to the Fmaj7
Let’s use this to make it a bit more interesting!
#1 Beautiful Borrowed Chords
The upside to not knowing anything and improvising is that you have not idea what won’t fit and you probably don’t mind so everything is worth a try, the downside is that most of the chords don’t sound that great. The key of the music you creating or playing is a very powerful tool when it comes to creating chord progressions. In this case, the best place to start is to add the chords from the minor key, so C minor, then I can show you a secret subdominant trick and a fun way to create some wrong chords to make everything weird.
For C minor, you have these chords:
These are much more fun to add to our C major chord progression because they fit in there but they clearly also sound different.
Especially the chords you can use as minor subdominants in major are great, in this case: Dø, Fm7, Abmaj7, Bb7:
So if I am going from Cmaj7 to Fmaj7, I can add the Em7 to get to Fmaj7 and use the Abmaj7 to go back:
And this works with pretty much all the minor subdominants, for example Bb7:
And I am using the minor subdominant chord as a surprising sound that isn’t really dissonant but still resolves back to the tonic chord.
But you can also use them to get to the dominant like this:
Making Chord Progressions
Now that you have a few more chords to use then we can talk a bit more about how to put chords together. And this is useful if you are making your own songs, but it is also important if you are making your own chord melody arrangements and want to add a more personal color to them, or make your own intros or outros.
There are 2 ways that you can put chords together easiily, but keep in mind that they are not rules, if you play something else and it sounds good then that is fine as well, in fact I will show you some examples of that as well later.
#1 Circle of 5ths
Chords like to move in 4ths and 5ths, take a song like Autumn Leaves.
Cm7 F7 Bbmaj7 Ebmaj7 Aø D7 Gm6, everything is moving in 5ths or 4ths depending on if you see it as moving up or down.
That is also how I started with the basic chords going from Cmaj7 to G7 or Cmaj7 to Fmaj7.
The other approach is to move the chords in steps. You already saw examples of this, but here is another one which is really a stepwise variation of a II V I:
And the other option is to use stepwise motion as a sort of leading note. so just a single step before the next chord:
And like this you can create some great progressions putting chords together that will flow!
The next type of chord, before I start breaking the rules, is really a bit overlooked, which is useful because then we can sound different from everybody else.
#2 The Secret Subdominant
You already know about the diatonic chords, and some of the minor subdominants, but you also have the #IV subdominants, where the most common ones are the #IVdim and the #IVm7(b5)
And these are amazing ways to get some other sounds into the progression, just more variation together with the subdominant and minor subdominant chords.
The classic example is this one:
But can also work with it in a progression from Am7 to Cmaj7 like this
You can see that here I am turning the Em7 into an inversion to get step-wise movement, this is another thing you can also do to get your chord progression to flow better, explore making some of them inversions so the bass becomes stepwise movement.
The other one is a diminished chord that you probably know from a chord progression like this:
But it is also amazing as a suspension like this:
#3 Disguised Chords That Sound Amazing!
It can also be great to sometimes be less obvious. Check out this progression, and see if you can recognize the chords:
So it is starting on Cmaj7 and ending there as well. The 2nd chord is a G triad with a B in the bass, so an inversion to make a stepwise bass melody, and the Am7 is also fairly easy to recognize.
The chord with Ab in the bass is a little less clear, but in fact that is an Fm6 with Ab in the bass, which makes a lot more sense than trying to call it an Ab6(b5) the fact that it is an Fm chord also makes it clear why it resolves so nicely to Cmaj7, and it is a beautful variation instead going to an Fm chord or using Abmaj7, because you sometimes want to search for a less common sound.
Working with stepwise movement and inversions is a very powerful tool that you also will come across in Jazz Standards, maybe check out the beginning of” Like Someone In Love” as an example.
But a much more exciting and less typical idea is to make the chord progression more vague by changing the bass note, so that you don’t have a too obvious connection, check out how this sounds:
What is happening here is that I am taking a G7alt (play) and then using a b9 so the Ab as a bass note which creates this Abm6. The voice-leading still makes sense but the bass movement isn’t as obvious, which might be exactly what you want.
You can make a turnaround much more interesting by turning a G7altered into an Fm7(b5) which will eliminate most of the 1 6 2 5 sound. But you do need to couple it with an Em7 to justify the bass being F:
The Best Strategy for Creating Chord Progressions
As you saw already from the beginning of this video then I tend to start with a few chords and then find a way from chord to chord adding more harmony. This is an incredibly strong principle, but you need to be able to reduce chord progressions to the basic chords to tap inot that freedom. Using functional harmony like that is an incredibly powerful tool, and you can check out how to use it and also some approaches from Barry Harrys and Pat Martino in this video:
How The Pros Think About Chord Progressions (and you probably don’t)
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