Modern pop music is often criticized because of its simple theoretical background. Oftentimes, a whole pop song consists of three, maybe four different chords. On top of that, these chords are typically very basic – meaning that they are just plain minor or major chords. While the key to a catchy song often lies in simplicity, reducing it to these basic chord types doesn’t always result in great harmonies. Let me explain.
One usually associates chords with feelings. A major chord sounds happy and positive, a minor negative and sad. But are these the only feelings that you want to implement in your song? Allowing more complex chords which consist of more notes adds more dimensions to your song since more notes result in more possibilities and more creative freedom.
A seventh chord for example sounds soulful and funky, a minor seventh transports moody and mellow feelings, and a diminished chord sounds fearful and shocking. Mastering the art of chord progressions allows you to implement a much wider range of emotions into your songs and therefore taxes your storytelling to the next level.
Now, this isn’t huge news. Complex chords like these have been around forever, and they have dominated the jazz and soul scene of the 20th century. In recent times, they are being rediscovered, as new wave soul artists like Daniel Caesar, Anderson .Paak and Solange Knowles have risen to fame in the 2010s.
So, realistically, there is absolutely no reason why you should avoid more complex chords. I’m going to show you three simple ways to implement more complex jazz chords into your songs. You won’t need much music theory, although you should have a basic knowledge of scales and intervals, so refresh your memory if you aren’t sure about them. So let’s start.
Let’s begin with the basics. Write down the scale of the key of your song. In my example, I chose the C-major key. The fact that it’s major or minor is irrelevant since, for example, the C Major and A minor scale use the same notes.
Now, we are going to build the II-V-I-progression, which is the most basic and common jazz progression. Although it is basic and common, it sounds really nice and jazzy, making it perfect for beginner composers.
Take the second, fifth, and first note of the scale. In our example, these are D, G, and C. Take the second, fourth, and sixth note in the scale that comes after them. For the D, for example, those are F, A, and C. Layer them on top of each other to make a seventh chord and play them in the II-V-I order. Your chords should look something like this:
Congratulations! You just constructed your first II-V-I progression. This is pretty much the basis for almost all jazz music pieces. This is also an ideal starting point for further development. We will come back to this later. But first, let’s examine our chords:
The first one, D-7, which consists of D, F, A, and C, is called a minor seventh chord. The second, G7, which consists of G, B, D, and F, is a dominant seventh chord. At last, the Cmaj7, which consists of C, E, G, and B, is called a C major seventh chord.
If you play the progression, you can hear the introduction – tension – relief pattern of the progression, which makes it so universally applicable in music. Practice this progression in multiple keys. Try to do it without writing down the scale, if you’re advanced. You can try to create a different voicing:
Change the octave of some notes, delete some notes and add some others. Experimenting is key. For example, below, you’ll see the same D-7, G7, Cmaj7 progression, but with a simpler voicing. The bass is playing the base notes, D, G, and C, while the harmony consists of two notes which complete the seventh chord.
Notice that I left some notes out to create an interesting different sound. These are the fifths of the chords (A, B, G). This works, because the fifths aren’t as important for the sound of the chord as the thirds or sevenths for example. See for yourself how the chord sounds if you remove certain notes.
Next, let’s see how we can further modify our progression.
There is a very popular way to modify the II-V-I progression to adopt it to more modern styles of jazz. This method is called the tritone substitution. The name comes from the intervals of the dominant seventh chord (the V chord).
We learned that certain notes in seventh chords are more important than others. Most notably, the second and fourth notes from the bottom (the third and the seventh) are integral for defining your chord sound. In the G7 chord, these would be for example the E and the C, which is why they are played above the bass note in the example above.
The interval between B and F is called a tritone, and on its own, it sounds very dissonant. If you play a G in the bass, however, it turns into the known G7 chord (minus the fifth, which is not that important).
Now, there is a second chord that uses the same two notes. For G7, these are, as I said, B and F, and the corresponding alternative chord is Db7. In general, you substitute the dominant seventh chord of your choice with the one that lies a tritone under it (you see the pattern?). If we write this down in a nice voicing, as shown below, you will notice a nice property of the bass notes.
In fact, the lead harmony stays exactly the same, only the bass changes. The latter is really interesting because it takes a relatively simple form – it just travels from D to C in a chromatic fashion. This is why the tritone substitution is so popular among bass players.
Soundwise, you’ll notice that it sounds much more like something the average Joe would consider jazz. It is a modern implementation of the three-step chord progression in jazz and sounds more questioning and curious. Experiment with interchanging the tritone substitution and the classical II-V-I.
The last way you can spice up your chord progression is with types of chords known as sus-chords. “Sus” refers to the suspended fourth inside the chord. That means that for example in the G chord, the C is suspended. Let’s see what that means in practice.
You can easily construct a nice-sounding sus chord by playing a major triad in the lead harmony – for example, F, A, and C, which make up an F major chord. Then, you go a whole step up, to the G, and play it in the bass. This is a Gsus or F/G chord.
The “slash”-notation refers to the G in the bass while playing an F major chord in the harmony. In the picture below you see the harmonic context of sus Chords – it resolves into a dominant seventh chord. This is done by lowering the suspended fourth (the C) down a half step. In jazz music, however, a sus chord is often left unresolved which gives the chord a floating character. Try for yourself!
Jazz chords like sevenths and sus-chords do not only sound really nice and refreshing but are also not that hard to implement into your songs. Don’t be afraid of strange chord names and more than three notes per chord, get experimental! You can easily mix and match different techniques and make more advanced arrangements and progressions, but the three tips above are enough to get you started. Happy music making!
About the author:
Haris is a German pianist and sound designer writing for a music production blog named wavbvkery.