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I find that I am writing a lot of rhythm guitar passages in a C Major progression, with power chords.

But, I also find a lot of my songs are starting to sound alike.

What dissonant chords can I introduce? A typical progression might be ( E / D / A / G ) -> C -> E.

Ultimately I am looking to branch out and learn new chords. I don't want to stray too much from power chords, though.

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    You can add any chord at all. Different choices will have different outcomes. Whether those outcomes are to your tastes is a question only you can answer. Dec 17 '21 at 17:08
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    Note, that power chords are often just a simplified voicings, and suggest more rich underlying harmony. E.g. your example may likely suggest Em, D, Am (A), G, C, Em Dec 17 '21 at 17:17
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    Listen to something like Nirvana. Many of their structures use 'unusual changes' yet at the same time often only playing 2-note 'power chords'. Then they managed to write a non-dissonant melody over that - which is what made them worthy of note.
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 17 '21 at 17:23
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    @AndyBonner - maybe I should replace 'non-dissonant' with 'singable'. They are surprisingly memorable, easily reproduced melodies. Other end of the pop-scale, Brian Wilson could do similar - chord salad with singable tune. This is the opposite of many jazz classics, where if you remove the chords people just completely lose the key-centre. [I'm no 'eggspurt' on any of this, just a play-it-by-ear muso ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 17 '21 at 18:18
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    @Tetsujin - that G# belongs with V/vi - it's part of E, or E7.
    – Tim
    Dec 18 '21 at 12:47
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...my songs are starting to sound alike

One comment to start. This notation...

...A typical progression might be ( E / D / A / G ) -> C -> E.

...is a little unclear. I can't tell if E / D / A / G are options and then you continue with C and E power chords.

At any rate, I think I get the general idea. Here are a few things to consider:

  • If you always write in C major, it will become monotonous. Change the tonal center (key), try D or B flat, etc. It will refresh your ears.
  • Watch your root changes and try to use a variety. Think in terms of ascending/descending roots and the intervals used, you can think of three general categories of intervals for the root changes: seconds (whole or half steps), thirds (which tend to work in relative major/minor pairs), or fourths and fifths. From your progression example, it looks like you haven't tried, for example, all descending steps like A(m) G F E or ascending F G A(m). I put m for minor in parenthesis to show those progressions imply the A chord is minor.
  • finally, a big factor is harmonic rhythm, which is how long you hold the chords. For example take a series of roots changes C F C G C, then using | for barlines and / for beats, consider these two harmonic rhythms...
| C       | F       | C   F   | G       |
|:/ / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / /:|
| C     F | C     F | G       | C       |
|:/ / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / /:|

Regarding major mode, power chords (chordal fifth without a third), and dissonance. The comments on your post hint at not dissonance per se, but going beyond using only root in the major scale. In other words breaking out of plain diatonic progressions.

While you may be playing power chords on guitar, if there is another part like a lead guitar or a voice singing, the combination of those parts is very likely to result it the power chords being filled out to full major or minor triads.

You can use "borrowed" chords from the minor mode. For example in C major you can use roots B flat or E flat rather than B and E natural. You can also refer to that kind of chromaticism as "modal" flavoring. If in C, it would be common in rock music to use all major chords on roots C F G and B flat, the B flat being described as either "borrowed" from the C minor mode, or as a mixolydian "flavoring" or "coloring" or the major mode.

The way you use chromatic chords can change how you describe them. For example a B flat chord in C major can be called "borrowed" and it often functions like a substitute for a G chord (the dominant). But, if in C major you used chromatic chords like E flat major or A flat major, and the roots moved by thirds from the C, you might refer to those changes as chromatic mediants.

The point is you can bring in chromatic chords under a number of different descriptions.

Technically, if all those chromatic chords are played as just roots with a perfect fifth above, you would not call them dissonant. A common word to describe them is "color."

You could try working with other intervals beside perfect fifths and still be in the hard rock/power chord style. In the opening progression to Hold On Loosely by 38 Special it uses minor sixths between two power chords E and D. Those minor sixth could be explained as voicings of B and A chords in first inversion, or you might think of it as chromatic passing tones, either way the perfect fifths get complimented by another interval. The opening riff for Cold Gin by Kiss also uses a minor sixth. You can also use perfect fourths or thirds. They can become muddy in the low range, but some rock styles want that.

Technically those intervals are still not dissonant (except some consider the perfect fourth dissonant), but if you re-frame consonance/dissonance as stable/unstable, then the perfect fifth is your very stable interval and the sixth, thirds, and fourths are unstable. The push and pull of unstable to stable intervals is a dynamic essentially the same as the push and pull of dissonance to consonance.

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Power chords are not major or minor, nor dissonant. You should think of them as a timbre or tone flavor, rather than as chords at all.

"Dissonance" comes from highly chromatic motions. VERY common is the use of the flat-ii and flat-vii, which gives a nice Phrygian Medieval feel.

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  • I didn't mean a power chord in C Maj. I meant the collection of power chords that make up that scale ( C D E F G A B ) Dec 20 '21 at 12:56
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    @JasonPSallinger - By that extension, the power chord with B as its root would be the most dissonant in that power chord collection in a C major piece, as it must use a note not in C Major (F#). Expanding this chord vocabulary to include chords more strongly associated with C minor, such as the Db power chord (already implied in this answer), opens up more opportunities for usable dissonant chords.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 20 '21 at 16:32
  • @Dekkadeci Ahh thanks. That's a good way of thinking of it. Dec 20 '21 at 16:38
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    @JasonPSallinger Well, in any major scale, the 7th and 4th are the "dissonant" ones, as they resolve by semitone-- either up to the tonic or down to the 3rd. But in metal, it is the notes that are NOT part of the major scale that will best be used to add dynamic tension. Listen to Metallica or Slayer, and you'll hear a LOT of complex root motions. Dec 21 '21 at 20:57

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