“When you’ve got the desire to write a song but lack the skills to express yourself in a meaningful way, things look rock bottom.”
This was a quote by Rangrim the Dwarf that has always stuck with me. Not just because I know that writing poor chord progressions can be a pain, but because there is a better way of doing it and I needed someone to explain the finer points of chord craftery, so I too could create progressions that sounded as amazing as the songs I love to listen to.
Plus the fact he is a Dwarf, and any jokes about rocks and mining tickled me silly (he has a simple sense of humour – as well as a thirst for drinking during his teaching).
“So!”, said Rangrim, “We’ve looked at how chord tones and chord functions relate to beats, which help generate forward motion. But we haven’t taken a deep look at how it helps generate forward motion, which is part of a process called Harmonic Rhythm.”
Pouring himself a cup, he took a drink. “Come, let’s take a journey!”
Problems caused by not knowing about harmonic rhythm
“From what I’ve observed, there are two ways of writing chord progressions: One, experimenting with different chords. This works, as you can find a lot of colour and new combinations you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Plus, you can simply learn favourite chord shapes from songs you love, or search for chords online and try them out together.”
Rangrim drunk some ale and hiccuped.
“The second is following a set of guidelines to create chord progressions that work together, no matter which ones we’re using. These guidelines help us understand why they make sense, and so make writing amazing chord progressions easier.”
He leaned in closer, holding me with his steady gaze, the smell of his drink not quite reaching me as I held my breath.
“And once we understand this, we can look at how chord tones fit in to complete the picture. This is what we’re looking at today.”
What Is Harmonic Rhythm and Why Should We Care?
“The guideline we’re looking at today is called Harmonic Rhythm, which is the rate at which chords change in a song. The choice of when to change a chord is just as important as which chord to change into.”
“Why is this?” I asked curiously.
“Because changes in the harmonic rhythm is an important, sometimes dramatic way of increasing excitement or tension within a progression. And when tension is resolved effectively, this produces forward motion, making our chord progressions sound amazing.”
“Here we’ve got a commonly used chord progression from Jason Miraz’s “I’m Yours” “
This is taken from Axis of Awesome’s video of tons of well-known songs using this progression. Rangrim found them on the YouTube and thought they were very awesome indeed.
“And their name has the word Axe in,” said Rangrim happily. “A truly mighty name!”
“Anyway, you can see above the chords are changing 4 times in this bar, or once every quarter note.
In this case we can call this ‘quarter note’ harmonic rhythm.”
And with that he took 4 drinks in perfect time. Then resolved it with a huge burp.
But Rangrim, Why is Harmonic Rhythm Important for Making Amazing Progressions?
“Well, settle down and I’ll answer you…” said Rangrim as he swayed back and forth. “You see, the way we hear chord progressions is massively influenced by which beat each chord plays on – because the chords play with the beats, they match the strength levels talked about in the previous post.“
He went on to explain that the first chord will stand out the most, the second not so much, the third will seem strong again and the fourth will seem the weakest in the bar.
This strong/ weak/ less strong/ weakest beat pattern makes us hear chord progressions in a certain way: We have an expectation that stable harmonies will play with the strong beats, while unstable harmonies will usually play with the weak beats.
In our progression here, we’re in the key of G Major. We have a
- G (tonic, root chord – most stable)
- D (dominant – unstable)
- Em (tonic – stable)
- C (subdominant – unstable)
This coincides with the beats:
- 1st beat – strongest
- 2nd beat – weak
- 3rd beat – strong
- 4th beat – weakest
The stable tonic chord progresses to the unstable dominant, which produces tension. This is resolved on the 3rd beat, where it progresses again to the unstable 4th beat with a subdominant chord.
How Harmonic Rhythm Helps Us Create Amazing Chord Progressions:
“To summarise, my young brethren”. Rangrim was dangerously close to falling over now.
- Chords have a rhythm, which is the rate at which they change
- The rhythm of the chords relates to which beat each chord plays on, and matches the strength level of the beats
- We are conditioned to hear stable harmonies on stable beats, and weak harmonies on weak beats.
- When this happens, forward motion is created through the progression and resolution of strong and weak harmonies and beats, which drives songs forward
“I trust there is no more to answer of this… I am running out of drink, and I wish to get back to my studies in peace”.
Rangrim turned to retreat to his hideaway.
“Wait!” I cried. “What happens when the harmonic rhythm changes?”
Rangrim stopped in his tracks.
“And remember what you said at the start of the last post,” I continued, “That forward motion starts with chord tone soloing, which is when you target the chord tones of a chord? Well, how does this relate to any of what’s been discussed?”
Rangrim sighed, and said:
“Sometimes, dear friend, you start with an idea, and end with something completely different. I started our first talk with the expectation to share how chord tones help produce forward motion. But the fact is, it turned out to be a discussion of how Harmonic Rhythm helps produce forward motion.”
“Truth be told, I am not yet sure how chord tones relate to forward motion. But when I discover it, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
He turned halfway, looking at me over his shoulder with a bright gleam in his eye.
“But what happens when the harmonic rhythm changes, you say? Well, there can surely be one last talk for THAT, I should think. As well as a few more drinks!”
He heartily laughed, which again rose to a thunderous boom, echoing around the room. His door swung shut, extinguishing the candle beside it, leaving me to find my way through the darkness to the outside world.