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Chord Progressions Explained - How to Write a Song With Instruments

November 22, 2023 | Tero Potila

Woman playing MIDI keyboard in Soundtrap

Every song uses chord progressions. In their simplest form, chord progressions are a series of different chords played in a particular order. They are the foundation of harmony in Western musical tradition, from the era of classical music to modern-day compositions.

Some patterns are more commonly used; the most popular chord progressions, such as I-V-vi-IV and bVII-I, can be found across various genres and styles of music. 

Developing an understanding of chord progressions can help you create captivating songs and analyze and learn from existing compositions more effectively.

We're going to take a look at the basics of chord progressions and their importance in music. With insight into the principles of the most common progressions, you'll be better equipped to unleash your creativity and take your skills as a songwriter, composer, or producer to the next level.

Understanding Chord Progressions

Chord progressions are a fundamental element of music theory. They create harmony and evoke emotions within a piece of music. Chord progressions are basic building blocks of music, and it's important to grasp the relationship between chords and the order in which they appear.

You'll notice that music often follows familiar chord patterns as you study different songs and genres. These patterns are built on scale degrees

The scale degrees refer to the position of a note within a given scale. For example, in the key of C major, the first scale degree (I) would be a C major chord, while the fourth scale degree (IV) would be an F major chord.

An uppercase Roman numeral indicates each major chord, while any minor chord uses lowercase numerals.

Here are a few important points to keep in mind:

  • Chord progressions are represented using Roman numerals, which indicate the scale degree on which the chord is built.

  • Some chord progressions are more common than others due to their inherent ability to create a sense of resolution or tension.

  • There are no strict rules for creating chord progressions, but becoming familiar with common patterns can help you develop your own unique sound.

Try experimenting with well-known chord progressions, such as I-IV-V (1-4-5) or ii-V-I (2-5-1). They are popular in many genres and serve as a great starting point for developing your chord sequence skills.

The ultimate goal is to create a musical narrative by arranging a series of chords to tell a story using emotion and the resolution of that emotion. The more practice you get, the more fluent you'll become in using chords to guide your listener through the musical story within your own songs.

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Major and Minor Chords

One essential core aspect to understand is the difference between major and minor chords. 

Major Chords

Major chords are often described as having a happy, uplifting sound. They are built from a major scale and include a root note, a major third, and a perfect fifth. For example, in the key of C major, the C chord consists of the notes C, E, and G. You can easily identify a major chord when you see chord names without "m" or "min" after the root note.

Select the root note to build a major chord from a major scale, then pick the third and fifth notes from the major scale corresponding to that root. 

Here are some examples of major chords:

  • C Major: C, E, G

  • D Major: D, F#, A

  • E Major: E, G#, B

Minor Chords

Minor chords have a more somber, emotional sound. They are built from a minor scale and include a root note, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. For instance, in the key of A minor, the A minor chord consists of the notes A, C, and E. You can recognize a minor chord when you see "m" or "min" after the chord's root note.

To construct a minor chord from a minor scale, select the root note and choose the third and fifth notes from the minor scale associated with that root. 

Here are some examples of minor chords:

  • A Minor: A, C, E

  • B Minor: B, D, F#

  • C Minor: C, Eb, G

As you practice and experiment with major and minor chords, you'll find that you can create an incredible variety of emotions and musical ideas. Understanding these chords will provide a solid foundation for your use of chord progressions and enhance your overall musical skills.

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Most Common Chord Progressions

I-IV-V Progression

The I-IV-V progression, also known as 1-4-5, is undoubtedly one of popular music's most widely used chord progressions. It is founded on a musical scale's first, fourth, and fifth notes, offering a simple and pleasing tonal quality appealing to the ear. 

For example, in the key of G major, the progression would be G - C - D. This progression is especially prevalent in genres like pop, rock, and blues. It's very simple to play, giving an excellent foundation for creating catchy songs that resonate with the audience.

Other Popular Progressions

Besides the I-IV-V progression, there are other chord progressions that you'll instantly recognize, which can also serve as a basis for countless songs across various genres. These include:

  • I-V-vi-IV: This chord progression, sometimes called "the four magic chords," appears across a variety of genres. An example in the key of C major would be C - G - Am - F.

  • ii-V-I: Popular in jazz standards, this progression utilizes the second, fifth, and first scale degrees and revolves around seventh chords. This progression would be Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7 in the key of C major.

  • vi-IV-I-V: Also incredibly popular in pop music, this progression is known for its emotional appeal and has been used in numerous hit songs. It typically follows a pattern like Am - F - C - G in the key of C major.

These are just a few examples of the most common chord progressions you'll encounter. As you continue to develop your skills and repertoire, you'll undoubtedly come across these progressions many times, and they'll become integral tools for crafting your own unique songs.

Chord Progressions in Various Music Genres

Pop Music

One of the most common chord progressions in pop music is the I-V-vi-IV. This progression can be found in many of today's favorite songs, giving the music a catchy, familiar sound. 

You can create countless melodies and hooks by combining these chords in different orders as a songwriter. 

Another often-used chord progression in popular songs is the famous I-vi-IV-V progression (C Am F G in the key of C).

Classical Music

In classical music, chord progressions tend to be more complex and varied. The harmony in classical compositions often follows a logical and structured pattern. Some well-known classical progressions include:

  • The circle of fifths (I-IV-vii°-iii-vi-ii-V-I)

  • The descending thirds (I-vi-IV-ii)

  • The ascending stepwise (I-ii-iii-IV)

These progressions provide the framework for many pieces and often convey a sense of emotion and drama in the music.

Rock Music

Rock music features chord progressions that are typically simple and repetitive but powerful and emotive. You'll often hear power chords (root-fifth-octave) and two or three-chord progressions in rock songs. Some common progressions in rock music are:

  • I-IV-V (e.g., C F G)

  • ii-IV-V (e.g., Dm F G)

  • I-V-vi-IV (e.g., C G Am F)

These progressions create a strong and energetic foundation, making it easy to build memorable melodies and solos on top of them.

Blues Music

Blues music is known for its distinct sound and chord progressions, often emphasizing each chord's "blue" or flattened notes. The most famous blues progression is the 12-bar blues, which follows an I-IV-V structure.

In a key like C, the chords would be C, F, and G. 

The 12-bar blues progression has become a foundation for many other musical genres, particularly in Western music.

Extended and Special Chords

7th Chords

These chords add an extra note to basic triads, resulting in a more complex and richer sound. There are various types of 7th chords including:

  • Major 7th (maj7): Formed by adding the major 7th interval to a major triad (1-3-5-7)

  • Minor 7th (m7): Formed by adding the minor 7th interval to a minor triad (1-♭3-5-♭7)

  • Dominant 7th (dom7 or 7): Formed by adding the minor 7th interval to a major triad (1-3-5-♭7)

These extensions provide greater depth and variety to chord progressions.

Borrowed Chords

Borrowed chords, also known as modal interchange chords, occur when you incorporate chords from a parallel mode into your progression. For instance, if you're writing in C major, you can "borrow" chords from C minor to introduce different colors and emotions. Common borrowed chords include:

  • The ♭III chord (e.g., E♭ major in C major)

  • The ♭VI chord (e.g., A♭ major in C major)

  • The ♭VII chord (e.g., B♭ major in C major)

Experiment with these borrowed chords to create a unique and unexpected sound in your chord progressions.

Diminished Chords

Diminished chords are built from the root, minor third, and a diminished fifth (1-♭3-♭5). These create tension and dissonance and can be used:

  • To transition between chords by acting as a passing chord

  • To provide a feeling of tension or suspense in a chord progression

A common application of a diminished chord is the vii°, which can be used to resolve back to the tonic (I) chord. For example, in C major, the vii° chord is B diminished (B-D-F).

Secondary Dominants

Secondary dominants are chords that function as the dominant (V) chord of a diatonic chord other than the tonic (I). They are great for temporarily shifting the listener's ear to a new key center. To construct a secondary dominant, you would create a dominant 7th chord a perfect fifth above your target chord.

For example, in the key of C major, if you want to emphasize the A minor (vi) chord, you can insert E7 (E-G#-B-D, the V7 of the A minor key) before it. In this case, E7 is the secondary dominant of A minor.

Utilizing secondary dominants can add interest and movement to your chord progressions.

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Using Chord Progressions on Instruments

Now that you've grasped the essentials of chord progressions, let's look into how you can apply this knowledge to instruments to elevate your songwriting.

  1. Melodic Interpretation: Experiment with different instruments to play the melody of your chord progressions. Whether it's a guitar, piano, or a synthesizer, each instrument brings its unique timbre and character. This is a great way to add depth and emotion to your music, making it more engaging for your audience.

  2. Harmonic Variation: While chord progressions provide the backbone of your song, introducing harmonic variations through the instrumental arrangement can add complexity and interest. Try incorporating arpeggios, inversions, or extended chords played on instruments like a keyboard or a string section. This is an easy way to create subtle nuances and elevate your composition.

  3. Rhythmic Dynamics: Experiment with rhythmic patterns and accents on instruments like drums, percussion, or even a rhythmic guitar. This can give your composition a dynamic feel, making it more engaging and memorable.

  4. Instrumental Solos: Featuring an instrumental solo within your song can provide moments of epxression and creativity. Whether it's a guitar or a keyboard improvisation, they can break up the structure of your song and captivate your audience's attention.

  5. Texture and Layers: Instruments allow you to play with the texture and layers of your music. Experiment with the arrangement by adding different instruments or loops at various points in your song. For example, start with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and gradually introduce layers of strings, bass, drums or electronic elements to build intensity.

The key to effective instrument integration is in balance; Make sure each instrument serves the overall emotional narrative of your song without overpowering the core elements.

About the author

Tero Potila is a professional music composer and producer. His career combining knowledge and experience from music, TV, film, ad, and game industries gives him a unique perspective that he shares through posts on teropotila.com.

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