Note: this content was originally featured in the 7 Day Songwriting Challenge – a course created by Jamey Cummins and Alex Ballentine at Eastside Music School. We’ve made it free with the hopes that curious songwriters might learn something new. If you find this post useful and would like to learn more, please consider enrolling in lessons at Eastside Music School. we offer in person lessons in Austin, TX and virtual lessons worldwide.

Chord Progressions don’t have to be overly complex. In fact, most of what you hear in Pop music consists of 4 chords or less. In this video, Eastside Music teacher Jamey Cummins teaches a crash course in writing chord progressions. You’ll learn: How chords are built, how to write chord progressions, and he’ll take a look at common chord progressions found in popular music. There’s even a challenge at the end of the video to write your own chord progression.

How Chords are Built

Every major scale is a combination of whole steps and half steps beginning and ending on the same pitch.

For every note of that scale we can build a chord by stacking every other note in the scale. By stacking the root, 3rd and 5th of a chord we get what’s called a “triad”. For example, if we combine C (root), E (3rd) and G (5th), we get a C major chord. By following this logic we end up with the following chords in the key of C.:

Note that some chords are major and some are minor. This has to do with the pattern of whole and half steps that comprise a major scale.


In order to make these triads playable on guitar, we must shuffle the notes order of some chords. We can also add “doubled” notes in various octaves for a fuller sound. What follows are the chords in the key of C in”open” position on the guitar. These are very common chord shapes and a must know for most guitar players and songwriters.

How Chords Work (Harmonic Tendencies)

 

When it comes to chord progressions, the sky’s the limit. There are no hard and fast rules, and if it sounds good to your ears, it works! But there are few tendencies to keep in mind to help your chord progressions function logically. What follows is an explanation of how chords tend to function in a major key. Remember, these are only guidelines. Some of the greatest payoffs in music occur when a chord progression surprises the listener with the unexpected!

 

 

Chords in the Key of C

 

 

Where they “tend” to go:

 

I->anywhere

ii->V

iii->vi

IV->V

V->I (can go to vi)

vi->ii

vii->I

 

Note: This example is in the key of C, but the principles outlined above will work in any key. Herein lies the value of using roman numerals (also called the “Nashville Number System”). Once you understand how chords function, you can apply the system to any key.

Common Chord Progressions

What follow are some of the more common chord progressions in popular music. This is just a starting point. For a more traditional sound, you could use one of the following progressions. In order to achieve a less common sound, try a completely different combination of chords.

1) I IV V progression. Most commonly used in Blues, Folk and Country

2) I V vi IV progression. Probably the single most common pop chord progression

3) I vi ii V progression. Widely used in jazz and pop music.

Challenge: Write your own chord progression

Your first challenge is to write your own Chord Progression. Review the video and written examples (if necessary) and put those ideas into action! If you’re not sure where to start, refer to the Harmonic Tendencies section for ideas. But remember, there’s no hard and fast rules. If it sounds good to you, it works!

You’ll want to write at least two chord progressions, one to be used for a verse, and one to be used for a chorus. It’s a good idea to stick to the key of C for now. Remember, if the progression is out of your vocal range when it comes time to craft a melody, you can easily change the key by using a capo.

Comprehension Check:

  1. What are the minor chords in a major key?
  2. What chord progression is commonly used in Blues, Folk and Country?
  3. What chord progression is often used in Pop tunes?
  4. What is the formula for a major scale?