Understanding Chord Progressions
Chord progressions are a series of musical chords used throughout a song. They sit under the melody and are responsible for creating harmony in much of Western music.
If you’re new to songwriting, chord progressions can seem incredibly confusing – with so many chords to choose from, how do you know which ones to put in your music?
Luckily, most songs use extremely simple chord progressions that repeat many times throughout. The same chord progressions are also used in many different songs.
This video demonstrates many popular songs that all use an identical chord progression:
Amazing, right? That video contains two pieces of immensely useful information:
All of those songs use the exact same chords but sound very different
Even though those songs had the same chords, the way they are played and the topline melody are what makes each song unique. This is an important concept for you to grasp as a songwriter.
There are only four chords used.
Four is a very common number of notes to use in a song.
How You Can Use Chord Progressions in Your Music
Start by mapping out a progression that sounds good for the genre and theme you are writing. This can take a good amount of experimentation and will probably involve some time at your piano, guitar, or production software.
Don’t feel like you need to be overly experimental. It’s okay for your first songs to be in the key of C and use chord progressions that are basic. Start with a four chord progression that changes every two bars (many famous songs have been written using a progression just like this, so don’t feel like you’re holding yourself back).
Tip: When writing your verse, prechorus, chorus, and bridge, you’ll likely want to make changes to your chord progression, otherwise the harmony in your song will be too repetitive.
Popular Chord Progressions
The Standard Chord Progression: I V vi IV
This is the most standard progression of all. It has been used in dozens upon dozens of hits because…well…it just sounds good. It’s the chord progression used in the above video.
I V vi IV
Rihanna – California King Bed
Journey – Don’t Stop Belivin’
All American Rejects – Dirty Little Secret
The Beatles – Let It Be
U2 – With Or Without You
The Resolving Chord Progression: vi V IV V
This chord progression is a bit different, having two V chords in it.
The repeating V makes the vi V IV V progression excellent for transitioning on.
vi V IV V
Adele – Rolling In The Deep
Knife Party – Rage Valley
Skrillex – Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites
Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal
Queen – I Want To Break Free
For a different sound, try using a I chord in place of the vi chord to create the I V IV V progression.
The Meaningful Chord Progression: I IV vi V
Get ready to dump a whole bunch of seriousness on your listener with the I IV vi V progression.
I IV vi V
Kelly Clarkson – Breakaway
Boston – More Than A Feeling
Bryan Adams – Summer Of 69
Jason Derulo – Trumpets
Taio Cruz – Dynamite
The Transitional Chord Progression: I V6 vi V
Rather than letting tension resolve, this chord only adds to it which makes it an interesting progression to place near the beginning of a passage.
I V6 vi V
Lady Gaga – Speechless
One Direction – Live While We’re Young
Travie McCoy (feat. Bruno Mars) – Billionaire
Christina Perri – A Thousand Years
ABBA – Mamma Mia
The Simple Chord Progression: V IV I V
There’s nothing complex about this chord progression. All you have to do is start on the fifth, end on the fifth, and sound awesome in the middle.
V IV I V
Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
Train – Drive By
Green Day – 21 Guns
Johnny Cash – Ring Of Fire
A Very Helpful Resource
Hooktheory.com shows the chord progressions used in many famous songs across a variety of genres. It’s worth spending some time on that site exploring how the pros have done it!