Songwriting secrets – Chord Progressions

Songwriting Secrets is my insight into songwriting tips, tricks and things I have learnt over the years. Things I wished I had known when I first started out in songwriting, as well as techniques and ideas I am still using and developing today!

Killer Chord Progressions To Kickstart Your Songwriting

What Actually Is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is the order chords are played, one after another, in a song or a piece of music. The chords you use, and the order you play them in make up the harmony of a song.

Like most of music, chords and their progressions come in patterns. A chord progression is just that – the pattern of chords in songs you play or write.

Songwriters want to put chords together that sound good. More importantly they want chords that feel good…or sad…or angry, tense, moody, sexy, whatever! As songwriters, the chords you use and the way they’re put together is important. It can help create the melody or give context to how the melody makes us feel.

You can have as many chords as you like or work with just two – a progression has to have at least two. But a song can work with even a single chord. So being able to use a chordal instrument, like a guitar or piano, is a powerful songwriting tool. Because here’s the thing – there aren’t many instruments that actually play chords (i.e., two or more notes at once). Guitars, piano, and synths rule supreme here.

How Do Chord Progressions Work?

Many chord progressions will be super familiar to you. As citizens of the 21st century, you will have absorbed many of these from contemporary music, without even being aware of it. So don’t panic. But it does help to understand what’s going on. Then you can intentionally create amazing emotional landscapes in your own songs!

You can create powerful songs using different chord progressions.  For example, the minor chords used in the verse of ‘Losing My Religion’ by REM are almost begging for the major chords of the chorus to lift us up from the melancholy.  You can create tension with certain chords to enable the chorus to be the release and lift the hook even more.  You can avoid certain chords on purpose to allow them ‘satiate’ the listener at a later stage in the chorus, bridge or even resolving to major chord right at the end when previously it has been minor in previous progressions.  So much scope!

So here’s a little basic music theory…

First up, chords in a progression work together because they’re in the same key. The notes in the key (the scale) are put together to build that key’s chords. So if I’m writing a song in the key of C major, I’ll use chords made up of the notes from the C major scale. Here are the notes in the C major scale:

C Major scale

And here are the 7 basic chords you can create just using the notes from this scale:

The seven basic chords of the scale C Major

Those are the chords in my available “chord alphabet” that I have in C major. I can make any progression I want with these 7 chords. This pattern of 3 major/3 minor/1 diminished chord is the same no matter which of the twelve major keys you use.

Here’s a trick that musicians use to tell which chords to play next, no matter what key you’re in: Instead of writing out chords, they’ll use Roman numerals. Uppercase for major chords and lowercase for minor chords. A superscript circle is added for the diminished chord.

Because every major key follows the same structure, using Roman numerals instead of chord names means you can write a chord progression and put it in any key you want. And those chords will always sound the same!

Roman numeral notation for chords in any key

Now, there’s a different pattern for all the twelve minor keys too.And here’s what happens with the minor keys. The same number of minor/major/diminished chords are used but in a different mix.

So for C major’s relative minorA minor, we get this pattern of chords to use in our song:

Roman numeral notation for A minor key

Just like the major keys, you can apply this pattern to whatever minor key you are in. But there are so very few (if any!) popular songs using B diminished, there has to be chords that work better together than others right?  Right!

What Are Some Famous Chord Progressions?

Now that you understand how to write chord progressions, let’s look at some time-tested examples. If you’re trying to write a song, these are a great place to start:

Three Is a Magic Number: I–IV–V–I

That’s right – all hail the three-chord thrash!

But there is enough of a journey here (IIV) and a very clear resolution (VI). It’s supported the entire genesis of Rock and Roll through the Blues for the better part of a century. This progression still dominates rock music today, from Tom Petty to Metallica, The Beatles to the White Stripes. And it hasn’t outstayed its welcome.

So if you are in C major (I), you add F major (IV) and G major (V). Roll on back to C major, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide chord progression. The trick is how long you spend on each of those chords, what ‘feel’ you apply to the rhythm, and what variations you throw in the mix.

These are also some of the first open chords you learn as a guitarist. What’s not to like? If you tinkle the ivories, these are all ‘white keys.’ This chord progression is beloved by beginner pianists.

Remember, whatever key you’re working in, the I chord will (almost) always start and finish the song. It’s home base, really.

When creating or using a chord progression, decide what your I is. The second chord you choose after that will set up the progression.

Show Me the Money! I–V–vi–IV

The internet’ found this insanely successful chord progression all over the Billboard charts (in over 1300 songs). It’s like a hit factory! I’ve used it myself in a few different songs in some way shape or form.

Artists like Lady Gaga (“Edge of Glory” “Paparazzi”), Journey (“Don’t Stop Believing”), the Beatles (“Let It Be”), Maroon 5 (“She Will Be Loved”) and Lewis Capaldi (“Someone You Loved”) have used it across the decades.  So can you. And it has three very close friends…

I–IV–vi–V
I–vi–IV–V
vi–IV–I–V

These chord progressions can run through the whole song. Use different melodies on top for the verse, chorus, and a bridge.  In fact, it’s amazing how many songs use this progression, but they are all unique.

But different songs and different sections within those songs vary the number of beats on each of the chords. This gives subtle variations so we differentiate and avoid law suits.

So How Do I Make My Own Chord Progression?

There’s a lot to be learned from transcribing progressions of your favourite songs. Some folks recommend doing that and then writing your own melody over the top. But you can also build from the bottom up.

Step 1: Pick an Instrument

Keyboard or guitar, acoustic or electric, analog or digital. Something you can build chords with easily, i.e., play more than two notes at a time.

Step 2: Pick a Key

This pretty much determines the first chord (I or i) you’ll use and return to. For example, I might pick the key of C Major.

Step 3: Pick Either the Major or Minor Cheat Sheet

This helps limit the chords you have immediately available. Don’t worry, you can always throw in a curveball chord anytime if it sounds good. But these formulas can be a springboard.

Step 4: Pick the Second Chord

From I or i, you can choose any other chord in the cheat sheet you picked. There are just more common or familiar choices. They just work better because of the notes contained in each chord.  Some chords ‘feel’ like a conclusion, like a resolution to the progression. Some chords feel like are like a bridge or link between other chords.

This chart comes from Walter Piston’s book, Harmony, called the Table of Usual Root Progressions. It summarises the ‘usual’ chords to follow on from the previous chord and it works so well!

Chord progression chart ‘table of usual root progressions’ from ‘Harmony by Walter Piston’

Step 5: Pick a Feel

Whatever your mood dictates here – groove and tempo. Get a pulse going between your first and your second chord. How many beats are you going to have on each chord? Not every chord needs to fill the bar and how many beats each chord plays for can make a massive difference in your progression and your song overall.

Sweet Home Alabama” effectively uses two beats on V, two beats on IV, and four on I. Where as “Good Riddance” by Green Day uses four beats on the I, two on the IV and two on the V. The same chords, different progression and feel.

What kind of mood do the chord changes give you? Is three chords enough of a “journey” for your song? If not…

Step 6: Add Another Chord

Have a look at some of the options that the Table of Usual Root Progressions suggests. Try them out.

What sounds good to you? What really clicks with you? What have you never tried before?

A simple home studio setup

Step 7: Create a Rough Demo

Put your possibilities on your phone or DAW. Recording ideas and chord progressions quickly and easily using my phone has been a massive game changer for my songwriting.

Remember the chord progression is the infrastructure for your song. It can suggest emotion before a single note is even sung.

You may want to use different progressions between your verses and your chorus. Or you can use the same one the whole song through. When you listen back to the raw recordings, what emotion do you experience? That’s what you’re trying to capture at this stage.

Step 8: Try Spicing It Up With Out-Of-Key Chords

OK, if you’re really getting nothing from what you’ve recorded, bring out a curveball.

TLC’s “No Scrubs” uses a progression that’s basically a minor i-iv.

But it uses an out-of-key V7 (seventh). That really strengthens the sequence of i–iv–V7–iv that’s repeated through the entire song.

This also brings up the idea of chord extensions, which is a whole other topic!

But those extra notes – like sevenths and suspensions, sixths and elevenths – can bring so much flavor it hurts.  You also don’t ‘have’ to start on the I chord – it is entirely possible to use other chords for the verses and use the I chord only in the chorus as a way of maximising its ‘tonic’ harmony in the song.

Step 9: Try Simplifying With Fewer Chords

Some songwriters vary the chord progressions within the lines of their verses, though not usually between verses themselves. Better three chords in a song than thirty, as a general rule of thumb.  Maroon 5’s song “Moves like Jagger” is just 2 chords!

It’s useful to remind yourself that the word progression implies a direction. We, your audience, may delight in surprises. But we still want to know the general direction we’re headed!

Conclusion: Chord Progressions

My hope after reading this is that you’ll experiment with a new chord progression or two. Also take a second look at some of your favourite songs for inspiration! Learn how other people use chords and see how many massive artists are using that I V vi IV progression.  Also see how truly inspirational artists create mind boggling progressions using multiple key changes during a song (Uptown Girl – Billy Joel anyone?!) and still have massive hits!

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