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11 Emotional Chord Progressions Every Producer Should Know

11 Emotional Chord Progressions Every Producer Should Know

Music plays a lot of different roles in our lives.

But at the end of the day music is about emotion. The best way to connect with your listeners on a human level is through honest, emotionally rich work.

Conveying the right emotions when you write songs isn’t easy. But some chord progressions can evoke powerful feelings right away.

Today we’re sharing five distinct moods you can create in your songs using emotional chord progressions.

To get the most out of this article, you’ll need to have some basic music theory knowledge like how to build chords and Roman Numeral Analysis. Take a second to brush up if you need a refresher.

Hot Tip:

The quickest way to start using these progressions in your DAW is to download the free MIDI pack with this article. It contains ready-to-go chord loops featuring all the progressions in this list.

Get the free Emotional Chord Progressions MIDI Pack

Epic chord progressions

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From the hero’s journey to music that reflects the power of nature, epic chord progressions turn your songs’ emotional intensity up to eleven.

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Our first progression is the active ingredient in a huge number of hit tracks—for a good reason. Each chord adds a new layer to its satisfying emotional arc:

I-V-vi-IV chord progression

 

This progression can be heard across many musical genres, from John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads to The Cure’s A Letter To Elise:

The Cure's A Letter to Elise is particularly epic.

The Cure's A Letter to Elise is particularly epic.

But epicness can occur wherever there’s heightened emotion. One progression that never fails to tug at the heartstrings is the unique cycle of chords found in Pachelbel’s canon:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Emotional-Chord-Progressions_Schema-2-I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V-.jpg

Pop artists from Vitamin C to Oasis and Belle & Sebastien have brought this stately yet epic emotional chord progression into modern music:

Don't Look Back in Anger by Oasis riffs on the classic Pachelbel's Canon chords.

Don't Look Back in Anger by Oasis riffs on the classic Pachelbel's Canon chords.

Sad chord progressions

Sadness is an unavoidable part of life. But it’s also the basis for lots of great music.

What sounds sad changes from person to person, but there’s a few common chord progressions that signal sadness right away.

Some chord progressions have strong associations with a specific era.

Some chord progressions have strong associations with a specific era. This one is sometimes called the “50s progression:”

50s progression

It’s especially common in doo-wop music and classic love songs from the era of pop crooners:

Unchained Melody from The Righteous Brothers is particularly associated with this doo-wop inspired chord progression style.

Unchained Melody from The Righteous Brothers is particularly associated with this doo-wop inspired chord progression style.

Try the 50s progression if you want to evoke some classy sadness and nostalgia.

Here’s another one that’s sure to give you the blues:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Emotional-Chord-Progressions_Schema-4-i-V42_IV6-VI-i.jpg

Don’t let the inverted chords or slash chords in this progression fool you—it’s based on a simple descending bass line.

Minor chords and downward motion combine with a slow tempo to create an atmosphere of loss and despair:

While My Guitar Gently Weeps by the Beatles uses this downward spiraling progression.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps by the Beatles uses this downward spiraling progression.

A variation of this descending minor progression can be heard on Led Zeppelin’s rendition of Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You

Get the free Emotional Chord Progressions MIDI Pack

 

Cool chord progressions

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Luckily, there are some chord progressions that can bring a sense of coolness to your tracks.

From slowed down jams to meditative tracks, many “cool” chord progressions are inspired by complex jazz harmonies.

From slowed down jams to meditative tracks, many “cool” chord progressions are inspired by complex jazz harmonies.

Here’s an example:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Emotional-Chord-Progressions_Schema-5-i-VII-IV-IV.jpg

This chord progression appears in Chris Isaak’s windswept country torch song Wicked Game.

The major IV chord is borrowed from the parallel major, providing an unexpected yet stable resting place for the moody harmonic sequence:

Chris Isaak wanders through sad places with this chord progression

Chris Isaak wanders through sad places with this chord progression

This next one has been a staple chord progression in pop music over the past two decades.

By turning the V chord into a minor, it subtly surprises listeners to create an interesting mood:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Emotional-Chord-Progressions_Schema-6-I-v-v-ii-.jpg

Coldplay uses this progression in multiple songs, including Clocks:

Clocks from Coldplay uses this wistful, yearning chord progression.

Clocks from Coldplay uses this wistful, yearning chord progression.

Some chord progressions are closely associated with specific genres.

The ii-V-I progression is the backbone of almost all of the standard tunes in jazz. But the ii-V-I shows up in many different genres for it’s smooth and nostalgic feel.

These days you’ll often hear it in the jazz-influenced chord changes in lo-fi hip-hop.

Depending on how you use it, ii-V-I can sound sophisticated and cosmopolitan or cozy and comfortable due to its naturally strong dominant-tonic relationship.

Here’s how the ii-V-I is built:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Jazz-Chord-Progressions_Major-Two-Five-One.jpg

And here’s a track that shows how great it can sound in a modern tune:

Sunday Morning from Maroon 5 generates a skippy, fun-loving energy with this unique chord progression.

Sunday Morning from Maroon 5 generates a skippy, fun-loving energy with this unique chord progression.

Weird chord progressions

Every once in a while, it helps to build a song on a weird chord progression.

Borrowing chords from other keys is a great way to play on your listener’s expectations and put them in a weird place.

Get the free Emotional Chord Progressions MIDI Pack

Borrowing chords from other keys is a great way to play on your listener’s expectations and put them in a weird place.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Emotional-Chord-Progressions_Schema-7-I-vi-Vvi-V-I-.jpg

This progression uses an unexpected major chord to add some nice tension. The Arcade Fire use this progression for their song The Suburbs:

This odd use of a major chord helped Arcade Fire add some nostalgic energy to their track The Suburbs

This odd use of a major chord helped Arcade Fire add some nostalgic energy to their track The Suburbs

Happy chord progressions

Happy means something different to all of us. But in musical terms, predictable progressions with major chords reflect contentment and happiness.

There’s nothing more straightforward than a simple progression based on I, IV and V:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Emotional-Chord-Progressions_Schema-8-I-IV-V7-IV.jpg

But simple progressions like this feel amazing when used well:

To make things more exciting you can try a progression with a little more tension like this:

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Emotional-Chord-Progressions_Schema-10-I-II7-IV-I.jpg

In this example, II7 acts as a predominant chord for a gospel style cadence.

This extra tension produces an expectant sound that can feel like giddy excitement that builds as the progression develops.

Ever the master of gospel-inspired pop, Cee Lo green puts the II7 to work in Forget You.

Ever the master of gospel-inspired pop, Cee Lo green puts the II7 to work in Forget You.

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Another progression that can sound unexpectedly happy is the 12-bar blues.

I know what you’re thinking. Why is a blues progression doing here in the happy chord progression session?

Get the free Emotional Chord Progressions MIDI Pack

This progression was born from the blues and is now featured in countless songs from many genres.

Instead of “happy” or “sad,” this progression is a blank musical slate that’s easy to create with.

12 bar blues progression

The verse sections of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love are great examples of the 12 Bar Blues progression in action:

The Beatles knew how to use the blues.

The Beatles knew how to use the blues.

Emotional intelligence

These emotional chord progression examples are a great start, but you’ll need to present them in a compelling way if you want to connect with listeners.

Instrumentation, music production, and storytelling go a long way in music.

There’s no perfect formula for making emotionally impactful music, so you’ll need to experiment to see what works for you!

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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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