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Predictability: harmonic rhythm 2

The last post talked about conventions regarding chord placement on strong and weak beats. Taking chords that normally go in one place, and putting them in a different place is one way to be unpredictable.

Another way is to use syncopation.

You can put chords anywhere you want. The two most common ways to write chord progressions are:


  1. One chord per bar
  2. Two chords per bar (chord on beat 1 and chord on beat 3)


Why restrict yourself to beats 1 and 3? Instead of putting the chord on beat 1, try putting it on beat 4 and holding it into beat 1 (strictly speaking, this isn’t syncopation, which occurs off the beat; but it feels syncopated, given psychoacoustic reasons that I won’t go into here. Please trust me on this).


Here’s the common way…

chord on beat 1


…and here’s the way I’m talking about.

chord on beat 4 - 2


Set up the second example by playing the first example first. That way the listener thinks they’ll get the first example again.


More complexity

In this example we get a syncopated rhythmic profile that’s more complex.

syncopated chords


Here’s a pretty decent site for practicing eighth note syncopation.

And here’s one of my posts that explains how to count eighth notes.


Taking a considered approach to rhythm when you write chord progressions gives you almost limitless possibilities for expression. Simply strumming chords while you sing means that whatever you write will be based on habitual body movements that you’ve most likely used in other songs.

That’s fine if you want everything you write to sound the same…


Matching rhythm and emotion

It’s a lot more difficult to find rhythmic patterns that match the emotional life of your lyrics. I know this. But ultimately, it’s more satisfying as a process, and it eventually produces better work.

I say eventually because at first it may seem forced. But it doesn’t have to be ridiculously complex. One syncopation on the off-beat of any beat in the bar can sound perfect.

Experiment by placing chords on the off-beat of each beat (beat one only, then beat two only, etc.). Each syncopation produces a different emotional reaction.

The following example shows the same simple progression played four different ways using syncopation on each of the beats.

sync on each beat


Start this way and your ear will start to hear more interesting patterns.

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Predictability: harmonic rhythm

I wrote a post about this a while ago :


But we could use more detail.


Strong/weak beats

Conventionally, strong and weak beats are distributed as follows:


  • Beat 1 – strong
  • Beat 2 – weak, but stronger than beat 4
  • Beat 3 – strong, but not as strong as beat 1
  • Beat 4 – weak


When there are only two chords in a bar (which is usually the case), beat 1 is strong and beat 3 is weak.


Strong/weak chords


  • The I chord is the strongest, and is normally on the strongest beat.
  • The V chord is weakest and is usually on a weak beat
  • The IV chord and the ii chord are often on a strong beat, since they’re usually in front of the V chord, which is on a weak beat
  • The iii chord and the vi chord can be found on either strong or weak beats


Here are two examples, one correct and one incorrect.

strong:weak correct

Notice how the V chord (G7) is on the weak beat (beat 3), and the ii chord (Dmin) is on the strong beat. The I chord is on the strong beat twice in this example.


In the next example, the V chord is on beat I and the I chord is on beat 3. Conventionally speaking, this is backwards

strong:weak wrong


Right and wrong

Right and wrong don’t really apply here. You want to be sensitive to convention, but you don’t want to be a slave to it.

Play the “correct” progression above, followed by the “incorrect” progression. Which one feels more normal? Which one feels best?

Look at some songs that you know. Which ones conform to the conventions I’ve been talking about? Which ones don’t?


Look at the songs you write. Again, which ones conform and which ones don’t?

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Predictability: harmonic and melodic phrases

The harmonic phrase (the length of a chord pattern) follows the melodic phrase. And the melodic phrase is based on the need to breathe. In other words, you can only sing as long as you have air in your lungs, and the way that you use chord progressions should support that.


Phrase length

The conventional phrase length – melodic or harmonic – is 2, 4, 8, or 12 bars. These are predictable phrase lengths that we hear all the time, and they’re identified by chords that provide a cadence at the end of the phrase.

Here’s an example of a 2 bar harmonic phrase followed by a 4 bar harmonic phrase.


2 bar phrase:4 bar phrase


And here’s the same two harmonic phrases with melody.


2 bar phrase melody


You can tell where the phrase ends by where you find the long note (the second bar and the last bar). The long note is a way of marking the location of the breath. There are always exceptions, but this is fairly standard.



Knowing these conventions allows you to step outside of them. Extending or shortening phrases (say from 2 bars to 3 bars, or 8 bars to 7) can be a nice way to create variation and novelty.

The 3 bar phrase is easy to sing without taking more than one breath; the 7 bar phrase is a bit trickier and may require two breaths. This makes it sound less natural, but you may like the effect. It can provide a sense of urgency.

You can also try extending the vocal line past the cadence. So if the song cadences after 2 bars, write a vocal line that lasts 3 bars. Here’s the 2 bar phrase above extended into the third bar. We expect it to end on the downbeat, but it continues to beat 3.


2 bar phrase extended


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Predictability: non-cadential chords

How do you end a song with a non-standard cadence (and by non-standard cadence, I mean ending on a weird-sounding chord)?

Try these ideas. You might like them. You might hate them. Gotta try them to know.


Repeat non-cadential chord a few times.


This one is easy. Just play anything other than the I chord as the final chord. This can be any chord at all, either in the key or not.

The execution can be tricky. Since everyone is expecting the I chord, the non-cadential chord will sound wrong. Play it a second time and now they know you meant it. The third time sounds normal.


Trailing off


Play the final, weird-sounding chord and don’t stop playing it. As you continue to play it, gradually get quieter. Arpeggiate the chord as it fades away.


Full stop


Just stop with confidence on the non-cadential chord. This doesn’t always work. The song has to do something to set it up. Gradually getting slower can help, as can playing and holding the chord.

This last one is more difficult because, unlike the first two, it doesn’t hold the chord for very long. Continuing to play the chord eventually makes it sound normal because after a while, you forget what came before it.



I’ve made an effort to not explain too much; it’s important to experiment with this kind of thing. Some non-cadential chords work for some songs, but not others, and you have to do some work to figure it out.

You may find that they work in the middle of songs, too…

Doing this work will stretch your ear. It makes chords that never sounded like they could work, suddenly become a resource for making more interesting songs.

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Predicability: deceptive cadences

When a song ends, the last few chords are always predictable. And they’re predictable because songs usually end with the I chord.

But not always…



In the last decade or so, cadence has come to mean the rhythmic nature of someone’s speech.

Cadence also refers to the way things end. Specifically, it refers to two or three chords that resolve to the I chord. Here are some very standard cadential patterns…


  • ii – V – I (D minor – G – C)
  • IV – V – I (F – G – C)


…and some not so standard cadential patterns.


  • IV minor – bVII – I (F minor – Bb – C)
  • ii – bII – I (D minor – Db – C)


Notice that they all end on the I chord.


Not going to the I chord: deceptive cadences

Some cadences are called deceptive. They lead you toward the I chord, but take you elsewhere.

Let’s take one of the standard cadences (ii – V – I) and resolve it to anything but the expected tonic chord.


  • ii – V – iii (D minor – G – E minor)


Here’s another one.


  • ii – V – vi (D minor – G – A minor)


Here’s one that is not a cadence in any standard way.


  • ii – V – bIII (D minor – G – Eb)


It’s not a cadence because there’s no strong sense of ending.



The iii chord and the vi chord sort of remind us of the I chord, while making us feel something different. How do they do this?

Through relations, of course. And what are those relations?



  • The I chord in the key of C has the following pitches: C E G.


  • The iii chord in the key of C has the following pitches: E G B.


  • And the vi chord in the key of C has the following pitches: A C E.


Do you see how the iii chord and the vi chord are related to the I chord?

Compare the pitches and you’ll see that the I chord and the iii chord share two pitches: the E and the G. And the I chord and the vi chord shared the C and the E.


Chord meshing

I love this kind of thing in harmony. Chords meshing with chords…

When you play the final chord of the cadence, you can add pitches from the other chords. This adds color and a different sense of closure.

Here’s what I mean.

Say you want to end on the iii chord. Do that and then find a way to add the C (just the note, not the whole chord). Just to be clear, you’re meshing the E minor chord with the C chord. Those two chords meshed together give you E G B, and C.

Try this. Play an open-string E minor chord and then add the C on the 1st fret of the second string.

emin w c1

Doesn’t sound that great.


But this…

emin w c2

Your first finger goes on the A string at the 3rd fret. That’s the C. The triangular shape on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings is the E minor chord. The whole thing is a C major 7 chord.

Chord meshing makes new chords!

Try this with other chords that have common tones. Mesh the E minor chord with the A minor chord and you get A C E G B: an A minor 9 chord.

Here’s an example of how to work this E minor/A minor mesh into an arpeggiated idea.


emin amin mesh


It starts and ends with the E minor chord (E G B), inserting notes of the A minor chord (A C E) along the way.

This is the kind of thing that you can use to extend an ending. Adjust the length, rhythm, number of notes, etc. to suit your needs.


Compare everything

Now write down the notes of all of the chords in the key of C. Compare them. See which ones share commons notes, and then write chords or licks using those notes.

Think of these things you’re writing as song-enders. People remember endings. Make them distinctive.



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Predictability and chord patterns


Predictability isn’t a bad thing.

Endless predictability is.


Two things make music boring:

  1. too much predictability
  2. not enough predictability


Every time you write something, you need to find a balance between predictability and novelty.

So how do you do that?


The proper mix

Figure out what musical characteristics create predictability. There are quite a few, but for me chord patterns spring to mind immediately.

All chord progressions are built from chord patterns, which are short progressions of chords (two to eight chords) that can be used to build an entire song.

I’m going to use roman numerals for the rest of this post. If you need some information on that, here’s a link


Common chord patterns

V – I (G to C in the key of C) is probably the most common chord pattern.

I – IV – V – I (C – F – G – C) is another one.


Here’s a longer one that I know you’ve heard before:

I – vi – ii – V – I (C – A minor – D minor – G – C)

Longer yet:

I – ii – iii – vi – IV – V – I (C – D minor – E minor – F – G – C)

One more:

I – III7 – IV – iv – I (C – E7 – F – F minor – I)


Finding patterns

Play around with these to see how familiar they are to you. Then look at some of the songs you know, or have written. See if you can match the chords in those songs with roman numerals. The harder this is, the more the song is exhibiting non-functional tendencies (see my last post on functional and non-functional harmony).


Pretend that this progression in the key of C is from one song:

C – F – G – C

I – IV – V – I

And that this one in the key of F is from another:

F – Bb – C – F.

I – IV – V – I

Notice that both have the same I – IV – V – I  pattern. Without roman numerals, the pattern can be difficult to see.


If you have something weird like C – Eb – D minor – F – Bb – G – C, just think in the key of C: I – bIII – ii – IV – bVII – V – I (bIII and bVII are flatted chords, in case the symbol looks confusing).

Ultimately, this is an awareness exercise. It helps you see where you’re repeating yourself. You need this awareness if you’re going to break out of those inevitable situations where you feel that everything you write is stale.



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