Chord progression
|

7 Steps to Write Better Chord Progressions For Music Producers (Ultimate Guide to Chord Progressions)

Chord progressions are like the unsung heroes of music creation, the real MVPs! Picture this: they stroll into the songwriting party, casually setting the mood for your melody like a suave jazz pianist. They’re so versatile, they’ll even help you find your groove, like your personal rhythm therapist. And if you’re feeling fancy, they’ll whip up a bass line for you, too – talk about overachievers in the world of music creation! 

What is a Chord Progression?

If you’re new to music, a chord progression is simply the chords you use and how they evolve in the song. For the most part, your chords repeat for most of the song. In more advanced musical techniques your chords can change up and add other chords into them, but for the purposes of this article we are going to keep it simple. 

There are many different types of chords within a key. Major chord, minor chord, common chord, and diminished chord. A major chord is a chord in a major key, minor chord is in a minor key. A common chord progression is a chord progression that is “common” to two keys, which can be major or minor. A diminished chord is one where the chord is built from the root, the minor third, and diminished fifth.

Chords generally (but do not necessarily) come in triads, or three notes per chord. Progressions of chords could range from one chord to two chords (recommended minimum) all the way up to seven chords (excessive). 7 chords is excessive because if you are playing an 8-bar loop, you will go through all 7 then land back on the tonic. This isn’t bad, it just means that’s your one progression in the terms of an 8-bar loop.

 In basic chord speak, there is no need to write complex chord progressions, but your progressions can be theoretically unlimited. 

However, most popular songs use three chords or four chords. I prefer using 4 chords in a progression because as I build chords, I always think about creating 8-bar loops. Two or three chords could work as the two chords would just repeat, and the three chords could build tension to be released on the tonic chord, I suppose.

Reasons You Need to Know How to Write Chord Progressions

Progressions are easily one of the most important parts of a song. In fact, it’s one of the three essential elements of a song. The essential elements of any song are melody, rhythm, and chords! 

Learning how to make chord progressions you’ll understand how and why popular chord progressions tend to be better chord progressions and this will help you as a songwriter to write a song. 

Anything else just enhances the song. I use this example a lot, but those three elements are what allows one person with a guitar or piano to create full songs. Their voice is singing the melody, the notes they are playing lays down the chords, and the tempo at which they are strumming is the rhythm.

What I am saying is, learning chords and their progressions is an unavoidable aspect of music creation. 

Luckily, there are tricks that will help you as you go along and an expensive music theory degree is not necessary. Let’s get into it. 

Step-by-Step Instructions to Write and Use Chord Progressions

Progressions can be extremely challenging to perfect, but they are easier than they may seem at first. Writing really good chords is simpler than it sounds and the reason is because the work is already done for you. 

Chords are not copyright protected because there are only a finite number of possibilities that sounds good.

Choose a Key

This is pretty standard. The first thing you should think about when you sit down to write a piece of music is what key you want to be in. You will want to stick to one key at first. Borrowing chords and key changes is a complex topic for another time. 

If you write a chord progression in the wrong key, it will sound diminished, or muddied. This is known as dissonant, or commonly, off-key or “out of tune.”

When in the right key, chords naturally sound like they go together. This means they are diatonic chords.

Search for a Progression in the Key of Your Song

The first step towards finding a progression to use in your song is to use a search engine and look up chord progressions in the key you are searching for. 

Place Progression in Your DAW

After you have found a chord progression, place that progression in your DAW. The purpose of this is to experiment with the sound and make sure it has the right vibe that you are going for. 

You can do this by placing individual MIDI notes and stretching them to fill the bar. 

Choose A Sound for Your Progression

Find a sound that will allow you to hear every note of the chord and sounds pleasing to your ears. I personally always use a piano because I enjoy listening to piano’s, and think that they work really well for adding emotion into electronic songs. 

You don’t need to spend too much time on this step as you can change it later, but it’s easier to choose a sound like the piano to test your chords, than say…a dubstep saw preset in Serum. 

Voice Your Chords

Voicing is a term used to mean balance them out so they have a smoother transition. If your chords look too much like steps, then you will want to bring certain notes up an octave, or down to help smooth out the transitions. 

Some of your chords will then become inverted chords, which adds dynamic to your progression but they are still the same chord!

Optional: Raise Middle Note of Triad Up an Octave

This is flavor, but what I like to do sometimes is take the middle note of the triad and raise it up an octave from all of the different chords playing. It helps to open the chords up and cover more frequencies. 

Frankly, I just think it sounds better. Chords written as triads tend to be too tight in both MIDI appearance, as well as their sound. Finding ways to separate them sounds really good, in my opinion.

Optional: Change the Length of Each Chord

Sometimes you want your chords to be entire bars length, other times you don’t. By changing your chords length, it adds some dynamic to an otherwise straight forward progression. 

Understanding How Chord Progressions Work Using Roman Numerals in Music Production

If you want to learn how to understand chord progressions, you will need to understand how they are written in Roman numerals as a way to order chords. You don’t have to use them in your own notes, but you at least need to understand how to write chords and chord progressions with their roman numerals in order to understand how they work in popular music. 

Roman Numeral Spin-Up

I am going to use the key of C major, as it is one of, if not the most popular key to write music in. Almost everyone knows this key, even non-musicians, from the Do-Re-Mi popularized in the Sound of Music movie from 1965! 

The numeral way of labeling everything is pretty simple once you understand how they work. But first, a very fast introduction to them.

1 = I or i, 2 = II or ii, 3 = III or iii, 4 = IV or iv, 5 = V or v, 6 = VI or vi, and 7 = VII or vii.

So the v chord is the minor fifth. The I chord is the major first. Make sense?

A common C major chord progression is: I – IV – V (C – F- G).

This means the chords within the progression are built off of the first note in the C Major Scale, the 4th note, and the 5th note. The C Major Scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then back to C. Each numeral represents a single chord in the key of C Major.

So, the progression would be I (C chord) which is C, E, G, IV (F chord) which is F, A, C, and V (G chord) which is G, B, D. Notice how the first and second chord share the note C, and the first and third chord share the note of G. This means that each chord has a somewhat similar sound and can blend together fairly pleasantly. 

If that makes sense to you then you’ve already won half the battle. Major chords are simply designated in capitals, and the key of a minor chord are designated in lower case. So, the IV chord would be the major 4th, and the vi chord would be the minor 6th.

Popular Chord Progressions in the Major Key

There are so many chord combinations and most of your favorite songs probably borrow from the same group of chords. Music works this way and they are popular because they sound good, not because it’s some shtick created by massive music labels that have 150 producers creating one song that some Pop Star will belt out and pretend they wrote it.

That will be the first thing you will need to really grasp. Popular doesn’t mean bad when talking chord progressions here. 

From rock music to jazz, chord progressions can be heard in different songs in both major and minor keys. Here are a few common progressions and their numeral labeling!

A Major

  • I – IV – V (A – D – E)
  • I – vi – IV – V (A – F#m – D – E)
  • ii – V – I (Bm7 – E7 – Amaj7)

B Major

  • I – IV – V (B – E- F#)
  • I – vi – IV – V (B – G#m – E – F#)
  • ii – V – I (C#m7 – F#7 – Bmaj7)

C Major

  • I – IV – V (C – F- G)
  • I – vi – IV – V (C – Am – F – G)
  • ii – V – I (Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7)

D Major

  • I – IV – V (D – G- A)
  • I – vi – IV – V (D – Bm – G – A)
  • ii – V – I (Em7 – A7 – Dmaj7)

E Major 

  • I – IV – V (E – A – B)
  • I – vi – IV – V (E – C#m – A – B)
  • ii – V – I (F#m7 – B7 – Emaj7)

F Major

  • I – IV – V (F – Bb- C)
  • I – vi – IV – V (F – Dm – Bb – C)
  • ii – V – I (Gm7 – C7 – Fmaj7)

G Major Chord

  • I – IV – V (G – C- D)
  • I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D)
  • ii – V – I (Am7 – D7 – Gmaj7)

Common Chord Progression in the Minor Key

Just like major keys, there are common progressions in the minor key as well. Let’s take a look.

A Minor

  • i – VI – VII (Am – F – G)
  • i – iv – VII (Am – Dm – G)
  • i – iv – v (Am – Dm – Em)
  • i – VI – III – VII (Am – F – C – G)
  • ii – v – i (Bm7b5 – Em – Am)

B Minor

  • i – VI – VII (Bm – G – A)
  • i – iv – VII (Bm – Em – A)
  • i – iv – v (Bm – Em – F#m)
  • i – VI – III – VII (Bm – G – D – A)
  • ii – v – i (C#m7b5 – F#m – Bm)

C Minor

  • i – VI – VII (Cm – Ab – Bb)
  • i – iv – VII (Cm – Fm – Bb)
  • i – iv – v (Cm – Fm – Gm)
  • i – VI – III – VII (Cm – Ab – Eb – Bb)
  • ii – v – i (Dm7b5 – Gm – Cm)

D Minor

  • i – VI – VII (Dm – Bb – C)
  • i – iv – VII (Dm – Gm – C)
  • i – iv – v (Dm – Gm – Am)
  • i – VI – III – VII (Dm – Bb – F – C)
  • ii – v – i (Em7b5 – Am – Dm)

E Minor

  • i – VI – VII (Em – C – D)
  • i – iv – VII (Em – Am – D)
  • i – iv – v (Em – Am – Bm)
  • i – VI – III – VII (Em – C – G – D)
  • ii – v – I (F#m7b5 – Bm – Em)

F Minor

  • i – VI – VII (Fm – Db – Eb)
  • i – iv – VII (Fm – Bbm – Eb)
  • i – iv – v (Fm – Bbm – Cm)
  • i – VI – III – VII (Fm – Db – Ab – Eb)
  • ii – v – i (Gm7b5 – Cm – Fm)

G Minor

  • i – VI – VII (Gm – Eb – F)
  • i – iv – VII (Gm – Cm – F)
  • i – iv – v (Gm – Cm – Dm)
  • i – VI – III – VII (Gm – Eb – Bb – F)
  • ii – v – i (Am7b5 – Dm – Gm)

The Famous Chord Progression

While there are many different chords as you can see, there is one particular chord that spans across all keys. It is not a new chord, requires no chord changes, and the chords together make a very satisfying and pleasing sound to the human ear. If progressions could take over the world, this progression would, and it probably has because it’s in everything. 

It has been used in music under the name of bands from the Beetles, to the Eagles, from Pop Stars like Rihanna to Taylor Swift, and EDM Artists from Alan Walker to Excision. It’s everywhere. 

I-V-vi-IV

The I–V–vi–IV progression is the most famous Chord Progression around. It is the right chord progression to choose when you don’t know what you want to do and have writers block, even if you’re just messing around. It’s a way to write a s song without having to do too much thought about the progression.

The chords are played across all keys, both major, minor or diminished. 

Key Considerations to Successfully Make Chord Progressions Every Musician Should Know

One of the biggest things that will set your chords apart from others is the sounds that you choose to use. Everyone everywhere is basically using the same chords. You need to figure out ways to make them different than the status quo. 

The other thing to consider is that when the chords become too complex, they just sound ugly and like the mess they are. So sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution. 

What I have described is very basic level chord progression writing, there are many more advanced techniques. One thing that I like to do is use MIDI files to find out what chord progressions professionals are doing and see if there are any techniques I can use in my own songs. 

Taking it to the Next Level: How to Use Your Chords To Build the Rest of Your Song

As I said earlier, chords can help you build your entire song. By using the chords you placed down you can create a melody you’ve never heard before, your bass line, and help set your rhythm. 

For your melodies you can take the chords and chop them up into pieces. 

For your bass line you can simply take the bottom note and duplicate it and drop it down an octave. 

Lastly, for rhythm you take the chords and chop them into different length notes like quarter notes or eighth notes. 

Alternatives to Creating Your Own Progressions

Just steal a progression. Pick a song you like and take its progression from a MIDI file and build off of that. As I mentioned earlier, chord progressions aren’t typically copyrighted. 

Harmonically speaking everything has been explored before. There is little under the sun that hasn’t been done in this regard, and perhaps you will find something that hasn’t but you, me, and everyone else will probably be shocked. 

Everyone does it, all of the time. 

Wrapping Up and My Experience With Chords

Chords are one of my favorite parts of music creation. They hold the keys to so much potential in my opinion. Chords are beautiful backdrops to every song, and in my opinion are the foundation of the song in which everything else is built upon. They are the skeleton that holds that body in place, while the rhythm is the heartbeat keeping everything else alive. The melody is thoughts. 

However, I also find creating chord progressions a bit frustrating because you WANT to come up with something new, and you sort of can by adding some emphasis, voicing your chords, suspending your chords and adding some bass to them. Ultimately, though, harmony has been deeply explored and it is likely even if you create something brand new sound wise, the pattern that enables the progression has been done somewhere.

I created a list of tips that I update regularly to help beginners or other music producers with random reminders of things to know. I hope it helps!

Similar Posts