Understanding how chord progressions work is a critical part of learning songwriting. Once you fully understand chord progressions, you can write better songs by choosing the right chord progressions for your songs. But how do chord progressions work? Here’s a short answer to that question:
Chord progressions work by playing a number of chords in a certain order, one after another. The choice of chords and the order you choose make up different chord progressions. Different chord progressions give different moods and feelings.
Now, let’s take a look at how chord progressions work, in greater detail.
What are chord progressions made of?
Chord progressions are, as the name suggests, a progression of chords. That means a number of chords are played one after another in a particular order. Chord progressions are therefore made up of 2 things: The choice of chords, and the choice of order in which they are played in.
A chord is essentially multiple notes played simultaneously. The most common way to play a chord is a triad, which means 3 notes are played at the same time. This creates a harmony that gives out a particular feel.
By playing multiple chords one after another, the flow gives the song a sense of direction. Although technically you can combine any chords and play them in any order you like, there are certain chord progressions that work the best in conveying the message of a song.
How are chord progressions named?
The naming of chord progressions is surprisingly straight forward.
First, we need to know the names of the chords. Secondly, we simply order them in the order of the chord progression.
For example, in our chord progression, we’re going to be using the chords C Major, G Major, A minor, and F Major, in that order.
Here are the notes for the chords mentioned:
- C Major: C, E, G
- G Major: G, B, D
- A minor: A, C, E
- F Major: F, A, C
If we write the chords in their short form, they are C, G, Am, F. Note that we can simply write the alphabet for the chords for Major chords, and add an “m” for minor chords.
Since that order is exactly how we’re going to play them, the chord progression is simply: C G Am F. Sometimes you may see the same chord progression written as C-G-Am-F, C | G | Am | F, etc. But don’t fret, they mean exactly the same thing.
The above example was written in the key of C Major. But what if we want to write down a chord progression that works in all keys? Well, we can use the Roman Numerals in this case. In the key of C Major, C, G, Am, F can be written as I, V, vi, IV. Note that we use the capital case for Major chords and lower case for minor chords.
So now, we can write the exact same chord progression as I V vi IV. Same as above, you may see the exact same chord progression written as I-V-vi-IV, I | V | vi | IV, etc.
What are some common chord progressions?
Here’s a list of common chord progressions used by many hits, feel free to use them in your own songs:
- C-G-Am-F (I-V-vi-IV)
- C-G-Dm-F (I-V-ii-IV)
- C-Am-F-G (I-vi-IV-V)
- C-Em-F-G (I-iii-IV-V)
- C-F-Am-G (I-IV-vi-V)
- F-C-G-Am (IV-I-V-vi)
- F-G-Em-Am (IV-V-iii-vi)
- F-G-Am-G (IV-V-vi-V)
- F-G-Am-C (IV-V-vi-I)
- Am-F-C-G (vi-IV-I-V)
- Am-Em-F-G (vi-iii-IV-V)
- Am-G-F-G (vi-V-IV-V)
- Am-C-G-F (vi-I-V-IV)
The list above is a great starting point for beginners! However, it doesn’t stop there. There’s an unlimited amount of combinations and variations available for you to explore. Also, chord progressions don’t have to be 4 chords in length. In fact, many chord progressions are 8 chords or longer or shorter than 4 chords. The exploration of chord progressions is part of the fun in songwriting!
How to write chord progressions in a song?
In modern songs, chord progressions are most likely written with the song lyrics. The chord name or tab is written at the point of a chord change, usually above the lyrics line.
Here’s an example:
As you can see, each of the chords is written directly at the point in which they are supposed to be played. So there shouldn’t be any confusion as to what position in the chord progression we’re at. This is crucial in a real song, as the chord progression may have many different variations throughout.
If the song is written as score notation (sheet music), then the chords or tabs will be written first, then the staff (bar lines), followed lastly by the lyrics, from top to bottom.
How to choose chord progressions for your song?
Now that we know how to write the chord progressions with the lyrics, let’s look at how we choose chord progressions for a song.
The general guideline is, for a happy and joyful song, choose a Major chord progression, while for a sad song, choose a minor chord progression. However, this is just a guideline, and it can be broken.
To determine whether the chord progression is Major or minor, look at where it starts and where it ends. Usually, this will give you an idea. However, if it’s not obvious enough, listen closely to what chord it resolves to, and see what scale it is played in. If it resolves to a Major chord, it’s a major chord progression and vice versa.
Be careful with identifying chord progressions using scales though, as every Major scale share the exact same notes as a minor scale counterpart. For example, the C Major scale has the exact same notes as the A minor scale. Therefore I recommend listen to where the chord progression resolves to.
For example, the chord progression C G Am F starts with the C Major chord, and it resolves to the C Major chord, and therefore it is a Major chord progression. It is also in the C Major scale. We usually use this chord progression for songs that are joyful.
How to design your own chord progressions?
If you’re looking for an adventure, why not explore and design your own chord progressions? It’s a lot of fun when you create a chord progression that suits your song perfectly.
To do that, the fastest way is to start with a common chord progression and use that as a base. Then, we place the chord progression into our song. Now we look at each of the chords in the chord progression and decide we want to tweak it, remove it, add another chord, or leave it. After going through all the chords in the song, you now have your own unique chord progression!
Let’s say I chose the chord progression C-G-Am-F as our base to start with. After placing it in the song, I find the first chord too plain, so I changed it to C Major 7 chord (Cmaj7). Next, I’ll keep the G Major chord. The A minor chord that comes next sounds a bit boring, so I’ll change it to A minor 7 chord (Am7). Before we go to the last chord, I’ll add an E minor chord (Em) for extra “flavor”. Then for the final chord, I think an F Major add9 chord (Fadd9) is perfect for this song. So, we end up with the chord progression: Cmaj7 G Am7 Em Fadd9.
If you’re just starting out, the above example may be quite confusing. Don’t worry! You can start with the common chord progressions first. Over time try learning new chords and new variations. Once you gain enough experience, you’ll be able to design your own chord progressions with ease!