After writing a certain number of songs, you might find that your hands end up falling in the same places on your instrument, and that you’re using a lot of the same chords over and over. This is a tale as old as time and one that I’m here to help you re-write and reharmonize.
In this piece I’ll walk you through seven techniques to help you integrate new harmonic colors and interest into your compositions.
I - V - vi - IV
The progression I - V - vi - IV is one of the most widely used progressions and one that you hear over and over whether or not you’re aware of it. Songs such as “Let it Be” by the Beatles, “With or Without You” by U2, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” by Elton John and, “When I Come Around” by Green Day all share the same I - V - vi - IV progression.
For the purpose of this piece I’ll be showing you all the reharm techniques using that very same progression. I suggest you take your pick of the songs listed and sing along to each iteration of the four chords. In each example you’ll hear the original progression first followed by the reharmonization.
1. Swap in chords that have the same function
Without getting too deep into the details, all the chords that are diatonic to a key are assigned one of three functions; tonic, subdominant, and dominant. A general way to describe the feelings of these functions is that tonic feels like home, subdominant feels like it’s headed somewhere, and dominant feels like it’s about to head home.
The tonic chords are I, iii, and vi, subdominant chords are ii and IV, and lastly the chords with a dominant function are V and vii°. Try swapping out a chord with another that has the same functionality. You’ll notice that a lot of times this means that you’re going up or down a major or minor third. In this example I’ve swapped out the second I chord with the iii and the second IV with the ii.
2. Use a pedal point
Pedal points are a great and easy way to create a big sense of shift with your progressions. A pedal point is when you take any one note and play all of the chords over it, which in turn changes most of your chords into slash chords. The most commonly used pedal point is the tonic pedal, which means you would put the tonic, or “do” of your key underneath each chord.
The result is one that creates a sense of tension and works especially well in pre choruses or anywhere you want to create instability. In this example, all of the chords are now over the bass note C, which is the first note in the key of C.
3. Same chords, different bass note
Changing the note that is in the bass of any chord is one of my favorite ways to create a sense of change without actually changing too much. The harmonic functions that each of these chords carry can be further sculpted by changing the note it’s suspended on top of. For instance, a tonic chord over its 3rd still feels like “home,” but it’s not as stable, so you get an entirely new take on what home feels like.
In this example I’ve put the I, V, and IV chords over their respective 3rds.
4. Change chord qualities
Changing the quality of the chords you’re using might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it happens in modern music more often than you think. One widely used version of this technique is to swap out the major IV for the minor iv, especially at the end of a chorus or any moment where you can linger for a bit. This small change has a huge effect on the feeling of the song and lyric.
Going from major to minor isn’t your only option. You can add in sus chords, dominant 7th chords, major 7 chords, b5 chords, Minor/Maj7 (if you’re John Mayer), 9 chords and all upper structure variations.
In this example I added used a I sus2 to replace the I, a vi7 to replace the vi and a iv7 to replace the IV.
5. V7 of X
The circle of fifths is a powerful tool, and the gravitational pull of one chord to another that’s a perfect 5 below it is something you can use to your advantage. If you know you want to land on one chord in particular, you can spice things up a bit by preceding it with a dominant chord a perfect 5th above.
In this case I know I want to land on Am so I’m swapping out the G for an E7 which is the V7 of Am. The E7 has a G# in it which isn’t diatonic to the scale of C major, but because of the V to I relationship of the E7 and the Am, all is well according to our ears.
6. Tritone substitutions
Feeling jazzy? I’ve got just the thing for you. Swap out any chord with a dominant 7 chord a tritone away, which is equivalent to six half steps in either direction.
In this example I’ve swapped out the G for a Db7 and the F for a B7 which means I’ve replaced the V with a bII7 and the IV with a VII7.
7. Modal interchange
Who says you can’t just throw in a chord from another modality and key center? I’m saying right now that you can, and if it serves your song, you should. Common examples of this are bIIMA7, bIIIMA7, bVIMA7 and bVIIMA7, which are the chords that Neo-Soul is built upon. Other ideas are the VI instead of the vi and yes, IV to iv would also be considered modal interchange since we’re borrowing from the parallel minor.
In this example I’ve kept the I but then proceeded to play the bVIMA7, the bIIMA7 and the bVIIMA7 chords in that order.
So many choices
The real thing to keep in mind when you’re putting this into practice is how any of these reharmonization techniques in turn recolor your lyrics. You want to make choices that serve the purpose of communicating your central statement to your listener. Chord choices are fantastic vehicles for telling a story, and the best of the best take those choices very seriously, whether it’s a simple I - V- vi - IV or any variation thereof.