Writing chord progressions can be one of the trickier things about writing a music composition. It would seem that creating a harmonious chord progression is just a matter of applying a few hard-and-fast rules. It isn’t quite as simple as that—there are a lot of choices available, and the rules aren’t always hard and fast. In this guide, we’ll look at the more common chord progressions found in both popular songs and other types of compositions and the rules for using them.
Note: All examples are given in the key of C.
Comments: It doesn’t get much simpler than this, just the tonic (I) and subdominant (IV) cycled over and over.
Comments: If you can cycle between the tonic and the subdominant, why not the tonic and the dominant (V)? Like the first progression, the simplicity of this one makes it somewhat common in folk music and some forms of popular music.
Comments: This is probably the most common chord progression in popular music. When people talk about “three-chord rock and roll,” these are the three chords they’re talking about.
Comments: Similar to the previous progression, with increased tension from the dominant seventh chord.
Comments: A variation on the I-IV-V progression, but with an extra tonic (I) chord between the subdominant (IV) and dominant (V).
Comments: Same as the previous progression, but with increased tension from the dominant seventh chord.
Comments: A variation on the I-IV-V progression, in the form of a shift back to the subdominant (IV), which then forms a plagal cadence when it repeats back to the tonic. It’s a nice rolling progression without a strong ending feeling to it, which makes it a good choice for pieces that repeat the main melody line again and again.
Comments: This progression is another rolling one, good for repeating again and again. (That’s because of the ending plagal cadence—the IV repeating back to I.)
Comments: This progression has a constant upward movement, resolved with a perfect cadence on the repeat back to I. It can also be played with a V7 instead of the standard V chord.
Comments: This is a variation of the previous progression, with a soft plagal cadence at the end (the IV going directly to the I, with no V involved). As with all progressions that end with a plagal cadence, this progression has a rolling feel and sounds as if it could go on and on and on, like a giant circle.
Example: C-Am-Dm G
Comments: This was a very popular progression in the popular music of the 1950s, the basis of numerous doo-wop and jazz songs. It’s also the chord progression behind the Gershwin song “I’ve Got Rhythm” and sometimes is referred to (especially in jazz circles) as the “I’ve Got Rhythm” progression.
Comments: This is a variation on the “I’ve Got Rhythm” progression, with a stronger lead to the V chord (IV instead of ii). This progression was also popular in the doo-wop era and in the early days of rock and roll. The defining factor of this progression is the descending bass line; it drops in thirds until it moves up a step for the dominant chord, like this: C-A-F-G. You’ve heard this progression (and that descending bass line) hundreds of times; it’s a very serviceable progression. (You can also play it with a V7 at the end instead of a plain V chord.)
Comments: This variation on the “I’ve Got Rhythm” progression has more of a rolling feel because of the vi-ii-IV sequence in the middle.
Comments: This is another variation on the “I’ve Got Rhythm” progression, with an extra ii chord squeezed in between the final V and the return to I, and with the V chord played as a dominant seventh. By adding the ii chord between the V7 and the I (at the start of the following progression), almost in passing, it takes the edge off the perfect cadence and makes the progression feel a little smoother.
Comments: As this progression shows, you don’t have to start your chord progression on the tonic. This progression has a bit of a rolling nature to it, but also a bit of an unresolved nature. You can keep repeating this progression (leading from the V back to the IV) or end the song by leading the progression home to a I chord.
Comments: This progression is quite popular in jazz, played either with or without the sevenths. Sometimes jazz tunes cycle through this progression in a variety of keys, often using the circle of fifths to modulate through the keys. This progression is also frequently played at the end of a phrase in many jazz tunes.
Comments: This 12-bar progression is called the blues progression. The blues progression isn’t relegated solely to blues music, however; you’ll find this form used in many jazz and popular tunes as well.
PROGRESSION: I-IV-vii°-iii- vi-ii-V-I
Comments: This is called the “circle of fifths” progression, because each chord is a diatonic fifth above the following chord. This makes each chord function kind of as a dominant for the next chord, but in a diatonic function. The progression circles back around on itself, always coming back to the tonic chord.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to these common chord progressions. You can even take several of these common chord progressions and link them to create longer and more complex progressions. You shouldn’t feel constrained by length or by what sounds familiar. As the composer, you are in total control of the harmonic structure of your composition; think of chords as building blocks to create the sound you hear in your head. Happy composing!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition by Michael Miller