Songwriting Tip: Passing Chords

By Annie Bzdawka

Passing chords are often used in jazz progressions, but have you considered using them in other genres?  You can can add glitter and excitement to a chord progression which may feel like “it just needs something,” adding tension or kicking it up a notch.  You can add them to a chord progression which appears every time you play the verse or chorus, or you can change up the last verse or the last chorus by giving a passing chord a nifty cameo appearance, to spice up that last verse or chorus!

Generally, passing chords help you get to the next chord in the progression (your “target” chord) and are inserted into your progression for 1 or 2 beats, right before your target chord.  Thus, unless you’re playing jazz, you probably don’t want to add a passing chord to every chord in your progression.

You may find that you like your passing chord enough to add it to your progression, so you would hang on that chord longer than you would a passing chord.  Check out example #2 for how I did this in one of my songs! 

Choosing your target chord can be based on any artistic decision.  Perhaps you want to add tension right before the last chord in the progression, or maybe the 2ndchord in your progression.  There’s no right or wrong here.  It just depends on what you think sounds cool.

The idea is that you add a passing chord BEFORE a certain chord you have in your progression, which is your target chord.  The point is to make sure the passing chord sounds good and adds a quick burst of emotion right before hitting your target chord.  

1. Chromatic passing chord = A chord that is one ½ step above or ½ step below your target chord.  Add in this chord right before your target chord.  

– My chord progression: | F | Am | G | C |

– Target chord = C

– My choices are a B chord, or a C#. I prefer the C#, so here is my new chord progression: | F | Am | G  C# | C | where the C# acts as a passing chord, so I play it for just one short beat before beat 1 of the C chord.  

2. Secondary Dominant = The Dominant 5th (the V7 chord) of your target chord.  Add in this chord right before your target chord.  

– My chord progression: | F | Am | G | C |

– Target chord = Am

– The V7 chord for Am is Em7, but let’s also see what E7 sounds like.  I prefer the E7 over the Em7, so that’s the chord I will add in.  Here is my new chord progression: 

| F E7 | Am | G | C |

– But I think I like that E7 chord a lot, so I’m going to add it in as more than just a passing chord.  I’m going to change the duration of the chords in my progression to this:  

| F | E7 | Am  G | C | so the E7 now takes over the entire 2nd measure, and the Am & G chords are each played for 2 beats in the 3rd measure.

-This is a good example of how my original passing chord got added into the song so now it’s more than just a passing chord; it’s a chord that ended up changing things quite a bit!

3. Tritone = Tritone (b5) of your target chord.  Add in this chord right before your target chord.  

– My chord progression: | F | Am | G | C |

– Target chord = G

– The tritone is a C#, so here is my new chord progression: | F | Am C# | G | C | where the C# acts as a passing chord, so I play it for just one short beat before beat 1 of the G chord. 

4.  Use The Melody = Add a passing chord using a note in from the melody line.  Here’s the chord progression I am using: | F | Am | G | C |.  This song is in 4/4, so each measure is 4 beats.

My melody line is represented by the notes right above the lyrics

F        Am         G       C  (chords)

F        E  C       B       C  (melody)

Good morning, Dar – ling

I want to add a passing chord before the Am.  This means I will add a passing chord in the measure where I’m singing an F note (and playing an F chord).

Here are some options for chords that have an F:

F (already being used in this measure)

Bb

Db

Dm

I like both the Bb and the Dm, but I can’t decide.

Here are my 2 choices:

F  Bb  Am        G      C  (chords) 

F         E   C      B       C   (melody)

Good  morning, Dar – ling

OR

F   Dm Am         G       C   (chords)

F           E   C      B       C  (melody)

Good    morning, Dar – ling

I like them both, so I think I’ll use them both!!!  The 1st, 2nd, & 3rd lines in the verses will be: 

| F   Dm | Am        | G      | C   | and 4th line will be: 

| F   Bb | Am        | G      | C   |

That Bb is kind of quirky, so I’ll make the 4th line in every verse be a little quirky!

Passing chords can really add a lot to your chord progressions, so experiment with this, and see what kinds of added tension and excitement you can bring to your songs with these passing chord ideas!

About the Authour:
Annie Bzdawka is the founder of the Milwaukee Music Academy, located in Milwaukee, WI.  She’s been singing professionally for over 25 years, and has gained critical acclaim as a singer and songwriter.  She teaches voice, guitar, and piano.