Chord Progressions – A Beginners Guide

Anyone who is interested in writing their own music, whether on guitar, piano, or any other instruments needs to understand the nature of chord progressions. This musical concept is the basis of all modern pop songwriting and even many jazz and classical performers. Anyone who knows a little bit of guitar or piano probably knows a few chords and can string together a few basic song ideas.

But what about the actual musical theory behind chord progressions? Understanding the underlying structure behind their creation, how they interact with melodies, and how to write them is an important way to become a better musician.

In this guide, you will learn about chord progressions, how they work, how to write them, and various forms of chord progression theory.


What Are Chord Progressions?

Before delving hardcore into chord progressions, it's a good idea to break down the theory behind chords. Chords are at least three musical notes in a scale played at the same time to create a rich harmony.

The simplest chords are typically on the first, third, and fifth note in the scale. For example, in a C major scale (which consists of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), the first, third, and fifth of the scale would be C, F, and A.

Playing those three notes would create what is known as a “C major chord.” It is called that because the root note (that which ties it to the key) is “C” and it is a major chord. In a C major scale, the C, F, and G chords are major while the D,E, and A chords are minor.

The B chord is diminished, which will be discussed in more depth below. This allows you to create a variety of harmonies and melodic shapes that can touch your listeners.

Noting Chord Progressions

Chord progressions are basically a series of chords in a scaled played in a particularly order to create a harmonic and tonal base for the song's melodies.

For example, in a song in C major, a typical chord progression could include the C major chord, the F major chord, and the G major chord. This progression is known as a I, IV, V progression and it is one of the most popular in all of music.

Denoting chords is typically done via Roman numerals. Uppercase numerals (as in the case above) denote major chords while lower case (such as iii and vi) denote minor.

The numeral is decided based on the location of the chord on the scale. For example, a D minor chord in a C major scale would be noted as a ii.

Chord progressions are designed to serve as a harmonic base for the melody of a song. In a simple song, a chord progression will follow the root note of the melody.

For example, in a song like “Eight Days A Week” by the Beatles, the chords of “D, E, G” coincide with the melody that John Lennon sings underneath the chords.

Vocal Melodies And Chord Progressions Can Match

Sometimes the vocal melody will perfectly match the vocal melody. Examples of this include songs like “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks or “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. The singer in both groups sings the melody implied by the chord progression in time with the progression. Most chord progressions don't match the singing so perfectly.

How Do Chord Progressions Work?

How Do Chord Progressions Work-2

​The easiest types of chord progressions work by creating an interesting harmonic bed for melodies and by sharing a few notes. For example, in the “D, E, G” progression of “Eight Days A Week,” the D chord is made up of a D, a F sharp, and an A. The E chord includes an E, a G sharp, and a B. The G chord contains a G, a B, and a D.

​While the use of a G and a G sharp in this song creates a little dissonance, it is resolved by the how many notes the G chord shares with the D chord and the E chord. It shares one note with the D and another with the A, including the first note of the D chord and the last note of the E chord.

​Sharing notes like this helps the song hold together more fluently by creating a shared harmony. It also helps the song move back towards the root note of D. As the G chord contains a D, it makes melodic and harmonic sense for the song to progress back to the beginning D chord.

Don't worry if this all sounds confusing or mathematical: most chord progression theory is automatic once you've mastered the basic progression concepts.

​So basically you need to think of chord progressions as your guide through the song and its melody. If the melody is a man walking down the street naked and alone, a chord progression clothes him and puts him on a bus.

As they move through a song, they will continually reflect the key and will change properly when the key or melody of the song changes.

​Not All Chords Will Continue Three Notes

​So far, we've talked strictly of triad chords or those made of three notes. These are the simplest chords to understand on both the guitar and the piano, but they aren't the only types of chords you can make.

For example, if you play a C major chord and add a B note at the end, you are playing a C major seventh. Seventh chords of this type are more common in jazz because they are harder to resolve.

​Why? The proximity of the B and C notes creates a natural disharmony that creates a dissonant chord that longs to be resolved. As a result, seventh chords like these are best left to skilled composers.

They can still be fun to play around with, though, and adding a seventh chord to a simple progression can add a little flavor. More complex chords such as ninths and elevenths are a little too complex for beginners.

But What About Guitar Chord Progressions?

​Guitar-playing readers may be protecting that most of the chords they play on their guitar consist of five to six strings on the guitar. Doesn't this make the chord more complex than a triad or a seventh? Not because most of the notes being played on the guitar are simply doubling notes already played.

For example, a typical G major chord on a guitar contains a D note, two B notes, and three G notes. Even though the extra G notes are in higher octaves, the chord is still harmonically a triad.

​Guitar chords like these are designed to be simple for the guitar player to play while providing a nice rich tone. So while it sounds complex and harmonically dense, it's actually very simple.

However, by moving a few singers you can change to seventh and ninth chords or even minor chords. That said, guitar chord theory is too complex to discuss in-depth here, so it will be saved for another day.

​How To Write Chord Progressions

​Writing chord progressions requires you to pick a key and to understand the notes in that key. For the sake of simplicity, we will stick with the C major scale. It has not only already been mentioned here, but is one of the easiest to understand as it lacks any sharp or flat notes.

When you've chosen a key (as we've done here), break down the notes in the key, which are “C, D, E, F, G, A, B” for this particular scale.

​Now you need to apply the basic major chord interval to the scale. A major scale breaks down its chords in this way: major, minor, minor, major, major, diminished. Minor scales are different because they follow the pattern of minor, diminished, minor, minor, major, major.

​Understanding Minor Scales

​The best way to think of minor scales is as a flip scale of a major. For example, the A minor scale includes the exact same notes as a major scale, but the root note is an A and the chords follow suit with the minor pattern.

The minor scale of a major scale always starts on the sixth note of the major scale. Understanding this makes it easier for you to move back and forth between various scales.

​Writing Your Progression

​After choosing a scale (and understanding its relative minor), you should start writing your chord progressions. The most common will start on the root chord of the scale. This immediately sets a simple tonal base and makes it easier to build the song. The melody of the song is likely to start on this root note as well, setting an early precedent for the song.

​In most popular songs, this initial chord will be played for at least one bar or more in the song to create a harmonic base for the melody. When you want to change chords, you should make sure that the melody matches the chord to which you are about to change.

For example, if you want to play the IV of the C scale (the F major), the note which you sing as you change the chord should be an F.

​Adding The Next Chord

​Next you can change the chord to a new one to indicate the change of melody. The chord you choose is entirely up to you, but if you're moving in a I, IV direction already, playing the V next isn't a bad step. This would be the G major in our chosen scale.

​The length of time you play each chord in your progression will be decided based on your composition, so experiment here a little. You've probably heard a lot of songs where the chords stay stable for four bars or so and then change.

This is a simple progression that works because the movement between these three chords is pleasing to the ear and lacks dissonance.

​Changing Things Up

​However, that doesn't mean you have to play totally by the rules when writing chord progressions. There's no reason you can't play a I, iii, ii chord progression, which would be the C major, E minor, and D minor chords in our scale. This progression isn't as popular because it creates a cluster of notes that are very close to each other.

For example, the C major and E minor chord will share the E and the G notes. While sharing one or two notes isn't a bad idea, sharing too many can simplify the harmony.

​However, you can use this chord progression if you like it and if you come up with an interesting melody for it. The choice is yours when writing music, but understanding the rules before breaking them is crucial to avoiding writing sloppy music. It won't make you seem edgy or experimental if you break rules without understanding them: just amateurish.

​If you are interested in a cool chord progression you don't seem often in pop songs, you could try a ii, I, vii progression. This is a very popular jazz progression and would consist of the D minor, C major, and B minor of the C major scale. It's a little more complex than a basic I, IV, V progression and allows you to create more intricate melodies.

​Chord Progressions Chart Guide

​If you have a good memory, you can write your chord progressions and memorize them. However, most people will need a good chord progression chart to not only memorize their chords, but to expand the types they play. There are many different guitar chord charts available on the market today, almost too many to sort through.

​Ultimate Chord Chart

One of the best of these is “The Ultimate Guitar Chord Chart” by the Hal Leonard Corp. Available on online store for under four dollars, it offers dozens of different chord progressions which you can use in your songs. It also shows chord shapes and indicates how you can move them across your guitar. While this book is typically appropriate for guitar players, it can be used by just about anyone.

Piano Chords And Progressions

For piano players, “Piano Chords & Progressions:: The Secret Backdoor to Exciting Piano Playing!” is a great guide. Written by Duane Shinn and available for about $13 on web store, it offers players an insight into complex piano chords and showcases how to write compelling and interesting chord progressions. They delve deeply into progression theory and expand on how to create intriguing songs.

EarMaster 6

On the software front, there are multiple options. Two of the best include “EarMaster 6 Pro,” a $60 program that offers lessons in identifying chord intervals, chord inversions, chord progressions, scales, and much more. 

Users will learn how to transcribe melodies and rhythm, how to master sight-reading, and can listen back to their lessons in real time. This is a great way to learn progressions and improve your music skills.

Guitar Pro 6

For those who are writing music, “Guitar Pro 6” is a great way to keep track of and arrange your songs. It includes a variety of different instruments, MIDI-playback, multiple input methods, a useful chord chart, and the ability to export your songs to mp3 and WAV playback. 

This particular program is useful for skilled players or those who have mastered basic chord progressions and want to learn more about songwriting.

More Examples Of Chord Progressions

We've already discussed some basic chord progressions, such as I, IV, V and ii, I, vii. Now let's take a look at some common and popular chord progressions that show up in a lot of songs.

Perhaps the most popular of these progressions is the “Don't Stop Believing” progression which goes: I, V, vi, IV. Dozens of songs, including “Let It Be” by the Beatles and “No Woman No Cry.” use this one. Other commonly popular chord progressions will be listed below.

50s Progression

One of the most popular progressions in all of 50s pop was the I, vi, IV, V progression. Listen to “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King for a classic example. Other uses of this progression include “Baby” by Justin Bieber.

It is popular because it contains mostly major chords, but the use of the minor sixth creates a little bit of intrigue. When played in a C minor scale (C, D, E flat, F, G, A flat, B flat), it would contain a C minor chord, an A flat major, an F minor chord, and a G minor chord.

Smoke On The Water

Deep Purple's hit “Smoke On The Water” uses a chord progression that is well-known to classic rock fans. “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath also use this progression.

Another famous example is the much-covered folk song “House Of The Rising Sun.” It is interesting because it never actually plays the root chord of the song, instead going: ii, IV, V. This creates an interesting tension that never resolves.

Wild Thing Progression

A variety of early riff-based songs used this three chord progression to great effect. It is I, IV, V. The list of songs that use this progression is almost impossible to chart.

It's probably most prevalent in the song “Wild Thing” by the Troggs, though the Young Rascals used it well in “Good Loving.” A more modern example is “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. It consists of “E, A, B” throughout the whole song, yet it works.

Pachelbel Canon

One of the most popular pieces of music ever, the chord progression in Pachelbel's Canon has become very heavily used. It is somewhat complex: I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, IV, V. It contains every chord in the scale but the ii and the vii (two chords that often cause dissonance).

In a D minor scale (D, E, F, G, A, B flat, C) it would contain a D minor chord, an A minor chord, a B flat major, an F major, a G minor, a D minor, a G minor, and an F minor.

​The Blues Progression

​Perhaps the most abused progression is that which is played on nearly every blues song. It is called the “12-bar” progression because it goes through 12-bars of the song before it is finished.

It contains I, IV, I, V, I. “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry is a great example of this progression, though if you've heard more than a handful of blues songs, you've heard it before.

​Sweet Home Progression

​Songs that want to start out with a little distance from the root chord often play the V, IV, I progression. It breaks apart from the “Wild Thing” progression by starting on the fifth and progressing down to the one.

It is a fun way to vary songs and is a particularly cool way to invert a riff during the middle of a song. Songs that use this include “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “I Can't Explain” by The Who, and “Sweet Child Of Mine” by Guns N Roses.

Other Important Chord Considerations

  • Before ending, it is important to touch on inversions and a few other simple chord ideas. Inversions consists of taking one or more note in a chord and moving it. For example, a simple C major chord (C, E, G) inverts by moving the C up an octave.
  • This creates a new chord structure (E, G, C) that is harmonically the same, but which starts on a different note and adds a new flavor to a progression. You can invert a chord twice (such as G, C, E for a second C major inversion) before you've simply moved to a new octave.
  • Another way to change up your chords is to diminish or augment a note. Diminishing means dropping the note a half-step (so from a G to an F sharp). And often uses to shake apart the shackles of conventional chord progressions. Augmenting is the opposite (moving a note up a half-step) and used for the same reason. It also utilizes to move a song towards a new by introducing a common note between the chords of the keys.
  • Fully understanding the nature of chord progressions and playing around with ideas like seventh, ninths, diminished, and augmented chords you can create fascinating songs that not only stand out from the crowd, but which challenge your musicality. Have fun and don't forget to keep playing around with these basic ideas.

Final Word

Chord progressions are a great way to have fun with music and become a skilled composer. Mastering the art will take some time, so don't worry about getting too complex or difficult right away.

Just play around with the simple chord progressions listed above until you have an instinctive feel for how they connect. This fun and exciting journey is one that every musician must take.A music sequencer is also a useful device that can help you gain more comfort.

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