There are so many different elements of a song that can grab the listener – moving lyrics, creative production elements, catchy melodies and hooks – but we can’t forget that a great chord progression can make all the difference.
The exciting thing about chord progressions is that even though there are progressions that have been used in countless songs throughout history, there is always a way to put your own fresh take on them.
Once you have an understanding of simple chords that are easy to learn on guitar and piano, you can start arranging them into different progressions to write melodies and lyrics on top of.
With this guide, you’ll learn about some of the most well-known chord progressions and ways to utilize them for writing your next great song!
Understanding the relationships between chords
Depending on the key, just one chord can mean very different things within the context of your chord progression. For example, the C Major chord is the I chord in the key of C Major, but it becomes the IV chord in the key of G Major. Each key has its own sequence of chords – but once you figure out the patterns of that sequence, you’ll be a pro at forming progressions!
Each key has what is called a “I chord” (Roman numeral I or i) or the “tonic chord,” which is based on the first note of the diatonic scale in that key. For example, the tonic chord in the key of D Major would be a D Major chord. The tonic chord in the key of D Minor would be a D Minor chord. You can find the tonic chord used in almost every pop song out there – most popular chord progressions either start on the I chord or resolve to it.
From there on, you can move through each scale degree to find a new chord. Depending on whether the key is major or minor, those chords and the quality of them (quality meaning major, minor, diminished) will vary. Once you have mapped out the chords of a key and/or scale, you can use them to form your chord progression.
We’ve mapped out these scale degree patterns to help you speed up the process –
Assembling a chord progression
If you’re just starting out with chord progressions, there are plenty of options to start out with. Again, although these progressions have been used in many other songs, the fun part is getting to put your own take on them by adding unique melodies and lyrics!
I – ii – IV – V
This is actually one of the first chord progressions I ever learned on guitar, and it has been used in countless songs. It starts out on the major I chord (like many other progressions), then moves on to the minor II chord, the major IV chord, and then finally the major V chord, which will resolve back to the I chord when repeating the progression.
Resolving from the V chord to the I chord is a very common element in pop music, popularized in jazz chord progressions such as ii – V – I. It creates a satisfying and comforting tension and release. You may not realize it, but our ears naturally want to hear that resolution back to the familiar I chord – that’s why progressions like this are so popular.
You can hear this progression in songs such as one of Taylor Swift’s earlier hits, ‘Our Song’ –
For another similar option starting with the I chord and ending with the V chord, you can replace the ii chord with the minor iv chord:
I – vi – IV – V
This progression sounds very similar, but the minor VI chord can provide a different color and resolution, depending on the sound you’re going for.
For an example of this progression, you can listen to ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police –
I – V – vi – IV
This is another commonly used chord progression that utilizes common diatonic chords of the major scale. It starts out on the major I chord, then moves to the major V chord, the minor VI chord, and finally the major IV chord, which resolves to the I chord.
Instead of resolving from the V chord to the I chord, it resolves from the IV chord to the I chord instead. This is another popular way to resolve back to the I chord that is also often referred to as a “plagal cadence.”
This progression can be heard in songs like Jessie J’s break-out hit, ‘Price Tag’ –
i – VII – VI – V7
This progression is quite different from the other progressions we’ve listed for two reasons – (1) it’s in a minor key, and (2) it utilizes the dominant V chord, which is a great tool for minor chord progressions.
It starts off with the minor I chord, moves to the major VII chord, the major VI chord, and then finally moves to the dominant V chord, before resolving back to the minor i chord. Although a dominant V chord is not diatonic to the natural minor key (in the diatonic natural minor, the v chord is minor, not major or dominant) – many pop and jazz songs in a minor key will include a dominant V chord. This creates a more dramatic resolution back to the minor i chord, again giving the listener that tension and release.
You can hear this progression in Christina Aguilera’s 90’s hit, ‘Genie in a Bottle’ –
Building your own chord progressions
Now that you have an understanding of diatonic chords and scale degrees, you can mix and match chords to find the progression that’s right for you. And don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to what’s diatonic – there are plenty of great songs out there that venture out of the diatonic realm to add a unique sound and arc to their songs!
Allow yourself to experiment with chords and play around with what sounds good to you. One of the best things about songwriting is that there are no rules – let your ideas, emotions, and creativity fuel your songwriting and chord progression construction. With these chords in your toolbox, you’ll be able to create something amazing!