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Chord Progressions 101: How to Arrange Chords in Your Songwriting

Chord Progressions 101: How to Arrange Chords in Your Songwriting

Nothing’s more important for songwriters than mastering the art of writing chord progressions.

It’s a key part of learning music theory!

Skills like chord building and knowing how to listen for chords in the music you listen to are important, but neither matter unless you can put the right chord in the right place in your progressions.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with how to build chords, read our chord building tutorial before checking out chord progressions.

With the limitless possibilities chords provide, it can be hard to get started or tempting to write the same boring progressions over and over again.

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In this article, you’ll learn what chord progressions are, how to keep your progressions fresh, and how to use them in your songs.

What are chord progressions?

Chord progressions are series of two or more chords used in a piece of music. The chords in a progression are represented by roman numerals and are determined by key.

From Beach House to Beethoven, chord progressions determine how a piece of music unfolds over time.

Preview of youtube video

From Beach House to Beethoven, chord progressions determine how a piece of music unfolds over time.

They also play a big part in the narrative of your song. A certain chord at a certain time in a chord progression can drastically change the narrative of your song from happy to sad or dark to light with one simple chord choice.

One major, minor or diminished chord can’t do much storytelling on their own. But even simple, repetitive progressions of chords have the power to convey a complex array of emotions and musical ideas.

There are happy chord progressions, sad chord progressions, simple chord progressions and very complex chord progressions.

With a good chord progression as your base, other elements of your track—like lead melodies or basslines—become much easier to come up with based on the chords you’ve chosen and where they sit.

If you’re wondering how to write a song and don’t know where to start with your arrangement, chord progressions are absolutely the way to go.

Even simple, repetitive progressions of chords have the power to convey a complex array of emotions and musical ideas.

But if you’re new to writing, or just don’t have a strong music theory background, understanding how chord progressions work can get tricky.

Don’t you worry! This article is here to help.

Roman numerals in music

Because all the note-to-note relationships in music are permanent, you can use symbols as a time-saving shorthand to understand how chords work in your music.

Roman numerals are the symbols most commonly used to describe how chords work within keys. Keys in music are sets of notes built on repeating patterns—think major and minor.

Preview of youtube video


Here’s the good news if you’re not particularly fond of complicated music theory concepts: All of music’s major and minor keys feature the exact same repeating sequence of chords.

Memorize just two sequences, and you’ll have an easy way to understand chord progressions.

Memorize just two sequences, and you’ll have an easy way to understand chord progressions.

Chords in major key

Let’s start with major keys. The Roman numeral sequence for chords in major keys look like this:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Chord-Progressions-Major-Chord-Progression-Chart-1.jpg

As you can see from the handy chart, if we’re using C major as an example, our simple progression would look like this:

C—Dm—Em—F—G—Am—Bdim

This example shows you chords in the key of C, but this group of chords is found in every other major key as well.

Large Roman numerals like the I, IV and V represent major chords. The smaller ones, like i, iv and v represent minor chords, and that small one at the end with the circle next to it represents a diminished chord.

Chords in minor key

The Roman numeral sequence for chords in minor keys look like this:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Chord-Progressions-Minor-Chord-Progression-Chart-1.jpg

Let’s use A minor this time. Your chord progression in A minor would look like this:

Am—Bdim—C—Dm—Em—F—G

The sequence of chords in minor keys has the same types of chords as majors but in a different order.

Popular chord progressions in music

Chord progressions like the 12-bar blues can be found all over popular music.

The 12-bar blues is built on the I, IV and V chords, and everyone from punk bands to jazz composers have used some form of the progression in their music.

Here’s the chords in the key of C Major:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Chord-Progressions-Keys_CMajor-12barBlues.gif

Listen for the chord progression in this 12 bar blues jam and pick out the changes in chords.

Preview of youtube video

Then there’s the pop punk progression. Don’t let the name fool you, this progression goes wayyyyy beyond pop-punk and ‘pops’ up everywhere in a ton of famous songs.

This chord progression staple is built on the chords I–V–vi–IV. Here’s what the chords look like in the key of C Major:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Chord-Progressions-Keys_CMajor-1-5-6-4.gif

It can be heard in “Let It Be” by The Beatles, Green Day’s “When I Come Around” and countless other hits.

Preview of youtube video

How to use chord progressions in your songs: Getting started

Depending on the type of music you make, your chord progressions can range from simple, repetitive and predictable to complex and even a bit erratic.

Chords fit together in many different ways. You can make sense of them once you understand how the circle of fifths works.

It’s not super common, but there’s plenty of songs out there built on just two repeating chords. If you’re new to songwriting, I recommend starting with the simple route by building a chord progression with just two or three chords.

Giving yourself the time and freedom to explore putting chords together is the only way to write something that works. Use the charts above to play some basic progressions, then start building your own based on what sounds good. There’s no real rules for progressions, it’s up to your ear in the end.

Hot tip: If you’re looking for help with writing better and more interesting chord progressions try out ChordJam Lite—this chord progression generator is easy to use and works in any DAW. It comes bundled with yearly LANDR Studio subscriptions, opening access to mastering, music theory classes, distribution, premium plugins, samples and much more!

Theory is great for explaining why music works the way it does, but nothing can substitute the incredible musical intuition of your own ears.

Expanding your progressions

This article shows you how to understand chord progressions that stay within one key, but music would be awfully boring if songwriters and composers used only one key per song.

Once you understand the basics, try experimenting with key changes and chord variations on your own.

The information in this post isn’t an end point—far from it. Instead, it’s a starting point for your songwriting… Where you go after is up to you.

Theory is great for explaining why music works the way it does, but nothing can substitute the incredible musical intuition of your own ears.

So as soon as you’re comfortable, try pairing together chords from unrelated keys and write down what chord combinations you resonate with—your songwriting will grow in no time.

 

 

Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

@Patrick McGuire

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