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3 Ways To Make Your Chord Progressions Less Predictable

Something we may not think about much is how predictable the rhythms of chords usually are.

Chords almost always land in the same places – on the first beat of a bar, or the first and third beat, or the first beat and the ‘and’ of two (the 8th note after beat 2). And songs usually stay in the same time signature, rarely throwing a different one into the mix.

Sometimes just fooling around with where the chords land can make a song feel fresh.

A great and famous example is “Hey Ya’ by Outkast (song below). The same chord progression runs through the entire song… but it’s a wild one. It’s 6 bars long, atypical in itself, and one of those bars is in 2/4 (the rest are 4/4).

Also the chords move at unexpected times – for instance, it starts on the I chord for a bar, then goes to the IV chord for 2 bars… which gets your attention… and then comes the 2/4 bar… which is a real wake-up call. Here’s how it goes:

||:4/4 G | C | C |2/4 D |4/4 E | E :||

It also includes a VI chord (E) which is major, not minor as the ear might anticipate in the key. Another surprise. The herky-jerky – but flowing – chord progression keeps the ear and the body off balance, but the song still grooves hard and energetically… it kind of marches to a different drum machine…

A simpler example is something like ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd. It’s basically a modified minor blues, but since it’s mostly in 7/4, what might be very predictable in 4/4 is always moving when you don’t expect it to.

This is accentuated in the turnaround, when it goes to the V and IV chords. It stays on the V chord for 8 beats… then the IV chord for 6 beats. Which adds up to the same amount of beats as if it’d stayed in 7/4… which in a way it does… and in a way it doesn’t. Another twist.

A more complex example is Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ (song below). As is common in Bacharach’s music (David wrote the words), the chords follow the melody… which moves at unexpected times. But the chords themselves have an underlying rhythmic pattern that keeps the listener off balance (in a good way).

(By the way, I’m not going by the original Bacharach/Dionne Warwick version, I’m going by the Aretha Franklin version… which even Burt eventually admitted improved on his. The chords are a little different but they mostly move in the same places.)

The Verse chord progression elements are weirdly similar to ‘Hey Ya’ – the first 3 bars go I to IV in the same way (though this one is minor, not major) and there’s a 2/4 bar right in the middle:

||:4/4 F#minor | Bminor | Bminor |2/4 E |4/4 A | D | C#7 :||

The Chorus has a 3/4 bar in each phrase, again keeping our ears on their toes (???).

||4/4 D E |3/4 C#minor F#minor |4/4 F#minor A/C# |
| D E |3/4 C#minor F#minor |4/4 F#minor A/C# |
| D E |3/4 C#minor F#minor |4/4 F#minor A/C# |
| D E | C#+7 | C#+7 ||

Very elegant. And, as in all successful songs where the chords move unconventionally (check out Elton John, The BeeGees), the melody leads the way. The chords are not just ear-catching. First and foremost they serve the melody, though sometimes in unexpected ways.

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