- Now that we've made our way through the building blocks of harmony, notes, intervals, triads, and the basics of scales, we can finally begin our discussion of chord progressions. From this point on, I'll be referencing real song examples for each new concept. After all, you're here to learn music theory for songwriters, right? Therefore I encourage you to listen to recordings of the songs I reference throughout the course. A chord progression is a series of chords that aims mainly to establish the sense of a tonality founded on a key or tonic.
More simply put, chord progressions are the songwriter's way of leading the listener to and from their sense of home. Since we know all the various triads that exist in the major scale, let's take a look at some of the most common major scale chord progressions. The focus of most common chord progressions is to establish the tonic of a key and reinforce its scale. As far as modern songwriting goes, major scale chord progressions are more than enough. In 20th and 21st century popular music, a large majority of songs never leave the key they start in.
The type of key may vary, from major to minor, but once it's established, it tends not to stray. And when I say popular, I don't mean pop music. This is true in all genres, from pop to rock, country to hip hop, electronica to punk and beyond. What does this tell us? Thousands of great songs have been written without ever leaving the key. The major scale alone possesses a wealth of harmonic information at your creative disposal. For the upcoming examples, I'll be using the Roman numeral names of chords based on the major scale that I covered earlier.
If this seems foreign to you, please refer to the video on Triads: The basics of chords. Here are several major scale chord progressions widely used in popular music. These chord sequences have become so commonplace they might be considered tropes, dare I say fundamentals of songwriting. For clarity, I will demonstrate these progressions with triads in root position in the key of C major. I-IV-V, or C major to F major to G major.
(plays chords) These three chords are the foundation of all modern popular music since the advent of rock and roll. The list of songs that use these chords in succession, or slight variants of them, is endless and stretches across all genres. Just a few famous and very recognizable uses of the I-IV-V progression include the choruses of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", Ritchie Valens' "La Bomba", Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Night", Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again", the Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones", and the verses of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and Billy Joel's "River of Dreams".
The I-IV-V progression was handed down to rock and roll through rhythm and blues and originated with the blues. (plays chords in a syncopated rhythm) (plays chords in a syncopated rhythm) Let's hear that on the guitar. (plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) Let's add a chord to the I-IV-V progression, the minor vi.
(plays chords) (plays chords) I-vi-IV-V can be referred to as the doo-wop progression. It's a signature chord motion of 1950s and early 1960s doo-wop songs. It's best recognized in Ben E. King's classic, "Stand By Me" or the Penguins' "Earth Angel", but you'll hear it in songs as recent as Justin Bieber's "Baby" and Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls", which is built on a sample of "Stand By Me".
These songs have something of an old-school feel to them due to the pervasiveness of the progression in doo-wop music. (plays chords) (plays chords) (plays chords) (plays chords) And here's a way to play that chord progression on the guitar. (plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) Let's take a look at another common chord progression, I-V-vi-IV, or C major to G major to A minor to F major.
(plays chords) (plays chords) The I-V-vi-IV progression has emerged in the last three decades to be one of the most common in popular music. Here is an abbreviated list of famous songs that use the chord motion I-V-vi-IV in the chorus or verse. It's pretty staggering. Alphaville's "Forever Young", Green Day's "When I Come Around", Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'", James Blunt's "You're Beautiful", "Where is the Love" by the Black Eyed Peas, Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours", Train's "Hey, Soul Sister", Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight", John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads", Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi and Poker Face", U2's "With or Without You", Maroon Five's "And She Will Be Loved", Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry", and the Beatles' "Let It Be".
The list goes on and on. (plays chords) (plays chords) (plays chords) Let's hear that on the guitar. (plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) You could make the argument that by writing a song with this chord progression, you're increasing your odds of having a hit.
The next chord progression I'm going to play is the ii-V-I. (plays chords) (plays chords) The ii-V-I progression is commonly referred to as the ii-V-I turnaround. A turnaround is a word frequently used in jazz to describe a chord progression that leads from one section of a piece to another. While there are a variety of turnarounds in jazz music, the ii-V-I is by far the most common. The ii-V-I also functions to temporarily imply passing tonalities and that the progression can serve as a smooth way to transition between keys.
Songs that use the ii-V-I as the primary chord progression typically come from the first half of the 20th century and are part of a collection of songs referred to as The Great American Songbook. There are countless famous songs that use the ii-V-I progression as their primary motion. A few examples are Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll", Joseph Kosma's "Autumn Leaves", Erroll Garner's "Misty", and Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are". (plays chords) (plays chords) (plays chords) Here's one way to play that chord progression on guitar.
(plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) There are also longer, more complex chord progressions that feature the ii-V-I at the heart of them, the most famous of these is the I-vi-ii-V heard in George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm". (plays chords) (plays chords) (plays chords) Let's hear that on the guitar.
(plays chords on guitar) (plays chords on guitar) Now, I'm not trying to discourage you from using these chord progressions. I feel it's invaluable for a songwriter to know and understand trends in popular songs. It can help you avoid cliches in your writing. Conversely, by using these chord motions in one of your songs, you gain access to the listener's cultural unconscious. This can make people feel like they've heard a song before even though it's brand new, which can be a good, or bad, thing.
There are plenty more chord progressions that surface time and time again in pop songs.. Rather than list them all here, the goal of this course is to show you how the harmonic motion, the sense of tension and release within these progressions, and others, works. And one of the best and clearest examples of tension release in a chord progression is the cadence.
Professional musician Julian Velard starts the course with the building blocks of harmony: notes, scales, intervals, chords, inversions, and basic chord progressions. He then goes into voice leading—showing how to move from one chord to another by changing just one or two notes—and reviews common song forms, from the familiar verse/chorus/verse of pop to the simple verse of the blues. At the end of each chapter, Julian explains the songwriting techniques shown in the chapter within the context of his own original commercially released songs.
- Understanding scales, intervals, and keys
- Triads or three-note chords
- Triad inversions
- Common major-scale chord progressions and cadences
- Voice leading
- Song form elements such as verse, chorus, bridge, hook, and more
- Using common song forms in songwriting