Some Tips on Writing Chord Progressions

Most music is given a sense of depth and dimension by the sequence, or progression, of chords which underpin the melody. This guide will demonstrate how a chord sequence can be assembled by following well established techniques. Understanding how chord sequences work is obviously a useful thing if you want to write your own songs, but it also makes learning other peoples’ songs much easier too. This guide is aimed at musicians with the technical skills needed to play chords and string them together into songs, but who feel they need guidance when it comes to understanding what does, or doesn’t work, and more importantly… why.

It is impossible to fully understand how a chord progression is constructed without having a little knowledge of certain aspects of music theory, which will be covered as we go along. You will probably find that these little snippets of music theory knowledge will lead to a greater understanding of other aspects of music too, not just the process of writing chord progressions.

Let’s begin by setting out what a chord sequence actually does. At its heart the chord progression in a piece of music provides a sense of momentum, a feeling that the music is “going somewhere”. It also adds the majority of the emotion to a tune. You’ve probably noticed that a minor chord sounds “sad” or “sombre” and major chords by comparison sound “happy” or “uplifting”. Without these, and other, chord types many pieces of music would lose much of their power to evoke an emotional response in the listener.

Establishing the “Feel” of a song

The overall “feel” of a piece of music is determined by a quality defined by the chord sequence. We refer to this general “feel” a chord sequence imparts by the term “tonality”. The tonality of a piece of music is dictated by the chord within the chord progression which creates a sense of resolution. What I mean is that if the sequence of chords, played one after another, creates a sense of “direction” or “movement”, then at the point in the music where that movement seems to come to rest, the progression has “resolved”. The chord upon which this happens is the tonal centre or “tonality”.

Think of the tonality a bit like the musical “centre of gravity” of a piece of music i.e. the chord around which all the others seem to orbit. Because the arrival of this chord acts to resolve any sense of movement in the music and make it sound “at rest”, this is the chord which will set the overall mood of the piece. A chord sequence which has plenty of happy sounding major chords in it will still have an overall sad or melancholy mood to it if the tonality chord happens to be minor, and vice versa.

Most musicians instinctively know what the tonality of a tune is, but use the slightly different term of “key” to refer to it. We’ll be looking at exactly what a key is later, but for the moment let’s just say that most of the time when someone says “it’s in the key of…” what they are actually referring to is the tonality.

So, the job of the chord progression is to set the overall mood of the piece of music, and give it some sense of momentum. Let’s begin to look at how these goals can be achieved. We’ll begin by establishing exactly which chords are most likely to work well together. The strongest relationship between any group of chords is the one between chords which happen to be made up from notes of a shared, or common, scale.

By far the most widely used scale is the common-or-garden major scale. This is the sequence of notes generated by ascending the following pattern of steps:

Tone; Tone; Semitone; Tone; Tone; Tone; Semitone.

(Tone = 2 frets/Semitone = 1 fret)

If you begin this sequence of steps on, say, the note of G you get the following series of notes:

G (tone) A (tone) B (semitone) C (tone) D (tone) E (tone) F# (semitone) G

This means that a major scale beginning on a G note (or a “G major scale”) contains the notes:

G A B C D E F# (no need to repeat the G on the end)

Each of these notes can be turned into a chord. We’ll skip exactly how this is done for now, but suffice to say that because of the different distances between the notes of the scale (some are a tone/2 frets apart & some are a semitone/1 fret apart), this means that we get different chord types generated from each of the notes in the scale.

Using the notes from the G major scale, we get the chords shown below:

G major, A minor, B minor, C major, D major, E minor & F#m7b5

This collection of chords is referred to as the key of G major, and the pattern of chord distribution: major – minor – minor – major – major – minor – m7b5, is the same in every key. Obviously, there are other chords which can be derived – a whole world of “sus4”, “7th”, “major 7th” chords and many others, but for now we’ll keep things nice & (relatively) simple by using the chords which tend to occur most frequently.

If you wanted to know the chords in another key, say E major, then first of all, figure out what notes you would land on if you went up the “Tone; Tone; Semitone; Tone; Tone; Tone; Semitone” step pattern mentioned earlier with E as your starting note. Then play a major chord based on the 1st note (E, obviously), a minor chord based on the 2nd note, a minor chord based on the 3rd note, a major chord based on the 4th note, and so on.

Right then, back to the key of G major… You’re probably OK with most of the chords mentioned, but just in case you need any help, here are the diagrams necessary to play them all:

gmajchords

That F#m7b5 chord isn’t as scary as its name suggests once you realise it is nothing more than an A minor chord with your thumb wrapped around the top of the neck to grab an F# bass note. F#m7b5 is, in fact, simply an Am chord with an F# bass note played underneath it. Now that you know this, you can work out, quite easily, how to play any min7b5 chord simply by using the same principle at work here – play a minor chord 3 semitones (frets) above the root note stated (Am is 3 semitones above F#), and with any luck, if you’re playing in a band context, you can leave the bass note to the bass player. Simple little “cheats” like this, which turn difficult, scary sounding chords into much more accessible ones are one of the many benefits of a rudimentary knowledge of music theory.

Anyway… on with the chord progression stuff. If you take any random combination of the chords in the key of G major, placed in any order you will get a reasonably pleasing sound – it is impossible to make any of these chords sound out of place with any of the others.

You could just write a chord sequence by pulling the names of the chords out of a hat and stringing them together in the random order they come out. However, remember what I said earlier about “tonality” – one chord in particular which defines the whole feel of the progression? It helps to begin with an idea of what kind of song you’re wanting to write (happy/sad/laid-back/funky/rockin’/ballad etc. etc.) and work from there.

Let’s imagine that you want to write a slow-ish song exploiting the slightly sombre sound of the Am chord. A minor is your chosen tonality, in other words. There are many ways of establishing any given chord as the tonal centre of attention in a chord sequence, but the simplest is to put your chosen tonality chord right at the beginning of the progression. Then all the chords which come after it will be heard in relation to this initial chord, and will hopefully gravitate back towards it.

If we take the chords found in the key of G major (G major, A minor, B minor, C major, D major, E minor & F#m7b5) and construct a chord sequence from them where Am is the tonality we could end up with something like this:

cs1

Note that I haven’t used all the chords found in the key of G major: there’s no “rule” stating that you have to use everything that may be available. However, we still have a chord sequence firmly planted in the key of G major – there are other keys which contain each & every chord in this sequence, but there is only one key which contains them all – G major.

A Brief Explanation of Modes

You should also note that even though the key of our progression is G major, its tonality is A minor. This apparent paradox between something being in the key of “x” but having a tonality of “y” is the basis of the whole topic of modes. A comprehensive look at this topic is beyond the scope of this guide, but briefly…

It is possible to take a major key and emphasise any of the chords found in that key. Generally speaking, when we say “emphasise” we mean make the chord in question the central focus of proceedings (the tonality). There are seven basic chords in any key, as we saw earlier:

major – minor – minor – major – major – minor – m7b5

In the example chord sequence we saw earlier it is the 2nd chord (Am) which is the tonality. Any time we use the 2nd (II) chord in a key as the focus of a piece of music written in that key, we are said to be in “The Dorian Mode”.

Each chord within the key will have its own mode name. See below:

  • If the tonality chord is the 1st chord (I) in the key, the mode is Ionian
  • If the tonality chord is the 2nd chord (II) in the key, the mode is Dorian
  • If the tonality chord is the 3rd chord (III) in the key, the mode is Phrygian
  • If the tonality chord is the 4th chord (IV) in the key, the mode is Lydian
  • If the tonality chord is the 5th chord (V) in the key, the mode is Mixolydian
  • If the tonality chord is the 6th chord (VI) in the key, the mode is Aeolian
  • If the tonality chord is the 7th chord (VII) in the key, the mode is Locrian

You could, therefore, look at the chords in the key of G major as being…

The G major Ionian Mode

The A minor Dorian Mode

The B minor Phrygian Mode

The C major Lydian Mode

The D major Mixolydian Mode

The E minor Aeolian Mode

The F#m7b5 Locrian Mode

Depending on which chord was the tonality of the chord sequence in question.

And that, in a nutshell, is what modes are all about, at least in the context of chord progressions, anyway.

OK, back to our example chord sequence which the brief explanation of modes tells us is in A minor Dorian…

This may be exactly what we wanted and fulfil all of the requirements we had in mind when we set about writing the song. If so, then that’s fine but what if we wanted to add some more colour by including some different chords. Chords not found in the parent key of G major, for example? How can we gain access to some more chords?

Modal Interchange or “Pitch Axis”

One way to add new chords to a progression is to take pot luck and try some other chords randomly & seeing what fits & what doesn’t. But let’s not rely on guesswork, let’s take a more logical approach…

The chosen tonality of the chord sequence is A minor, right? Well, let’s see if there are any other places  where we can find an Am chord, other than the key of G major, and of course, there are.

Shown below is a list of all twelve major keys, with all of the main chords in each key shown. At the bottom of the table you can see the names of the modes listed too. Just as a way of getting your bearings with this table, take a look at the key of G major & you should see that the names of the modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian & Locrian) correspond to the chords of G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em & F#m7b5 as we established earlier.

Key of…

Chords in each key…

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

C major

C

Dm

Em

F

G

Am

Bm7b5

Db major

Db

Ebm

Fm

Gb

Ab

Bbm

Cm7b5

D major

D

Em

F#m

G

A

Bm

C#m7b5

Eb major

Eb

Fm

Gm

Ab

Bb

Cm

Dm7b5

E major

E

F#m

G#m

A

B

C#m

D#m7b5

F major

F

Gm

Am

Bb

C

Dm

Em7b5

Gb major

Gb

Abm

Bbm

Cb

Db

Ebm

Fm7b5

G major

G

Am

Bm

C

D

Em

F#m7b5

Ab major

Ab

Bbm

Cm

Db

Eb

Fm

Gm7b5

A major

A

Bm

C#m

D

E

F#m

G#m7b5

Bb major

Bb

Cm

Dm

Eb

F

Gm

Am7b5

B major

B

C#m

D#m

E

F#

Gm

A#m7b5

Mode

Ionian

Dorian

Phrygian

Lydian

Mixo-

Lydian

Aeolian

Locrian

Now let’s look to see where else the Am chord can be found. You should be able to see that Am, as well as being the II (Dorian) chord in the key of G major, is also the III (Phrygian) chord in the key of F major, and the VI (Aeolian) chord in the key of C major. The next table shows these three keys together:

Key of…

Chords in each key…

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

G major

G

Am

Bm

C

D

Em

F#m7b5

F major

F

Gm

Am

Bb

C

Dm

Em7b5

C major

C

Dm

Em

F

G

Am

Bm7b5

Mode

Ionian

Dorian

Phrygian

Lydian

Mixo-

Lydian

Aeolian

Locrian

Just to reiterate, the Am chord occurs in each of the keys mentioned (G major, F major and C major). If you write a chord sequence with an Am tonality in the key of G major, as we have established, you would be in the Am Dorian mode. Likewise, if you were to write an Am chord sequence using chords from the key of F major, you would be in the Am Phrygian mode, and a chord sequence based around Am using chords from the key of C major would be in the Am Aeolian mode.

One fairly obvious way that you can expand the palate of chords available to write your Am chord progression, is to include chords from the other Am modes. Here is our original A minor Dorian chord sequence once again:

cs1

And here it is again with some additional chords taken from the Am Phrygian & Aeolian modes (F taken from A minor Aeolian, and Bb taken from A minor Phrygian):

cs2

Playing this new version illustrates the difference that going to the other modes of your chosen tonality chord can make.

Make sure that when you do add a chord from a different mode that you don’t end up using one which is present in your existing mode anyway – for example I could have added a G chord from Am Aeolian or a C chord from Am Phrygian, but as both of these chords are already present in the original mode of Am Dorian it would not be a way of exploiting the different sounds available from the other two modes.

This technique of moving freely between the different modes of the same tonality goes by several different names. One musician who is a great exponent of this compositional device, Joe Satriani, has referred to it at “Pitch Axis” which is quite descriptive but it also goes by the name of “Modal Interchange”. Whatever it is called, it is a staple, tried & tested way of producing great sounding chord progressions. Try it for yourself:

  • Pick a tonality chord.
  • Look up (in the table we saw earlier) which keys it can be found in.
  • Write a chord progression using chords from two, or even three, of the keys that your chosen tonality chord inhabits (any chords you don’t know can be looked up in the chord dictionary at the end of this guide).

Notice that you don’t have to even think in terms of mode theory if you’re not comfortable yet with that kind of thing. However, there are benefits to knowing your modes, & hopefully you’ll have seen that they aren’t as scary as you possibly imagined, so I’d definitely advise that you get to grips with the topic at some point.

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching

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