by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:
There’s nothing random about a good chord progression. Starting on any chord, descending by 3rds will give you a great one to try.
Let’s use the key of A major as our example. Starting on the tonic chord (A), then allowing the progression to descend by 3rds, you’ll come up with a progression that works really well:
A F#m D Bm… then finish with E A
I think you’ll find that the progression isn’t quite as strong when done in reverse:
A C#m E G#dim Bm D… finishing with E A to get you out of the cycle.
The descending version of the progression feels more natural, and each successive chord feels instinctive and expected, in the best sense of those words. The ascending version feels random and forced. Here’s why:
Chords are classified by what we call their function. The I-chord (A) is a tonic chord, which feels like “home.” The V-chord (E) is a dominant chord: it likes to move to I. The IV and ii chords (D and Bm) are predominant chords: they like to move to dominant chords. Beyond the predominant chords are “the other ones”: iii-chords (C# minor) like to move to vi-chords (F#m) because of the root movement of a 4th. In general, vi-chords like to move to predominant chords. If you put all of what I just said in a chart, it would look like this:
PreDom: ii (Bm) IV (D)
Dom: V (E) vii (G# dim)
Tonic: I (A)
The best way to read this chart is from top to bottom. In other words, start on the I-chord, then leap to any chord in that list, and move downward. You’ll always get a progression that works, and that is very strong. In the chart above, the chords nearer the bottom of the chart are more common and more used than chords nearer the top in most genres of music composition.
Pop music has a lot more leeway to do progressions outside of what this chart suggests, and in fact, in order to keep your music from being too predictable and boring, you’ll want to come up with progressions that don’t actually follow this chart all the time.
But back to the descending-by-thirds progression. It works better than the ascending-by-thirds progression because the ascending version is contrary to almost all of the natural tendancies of good chord progressions.
The descending progression (in Roman numerals) is: I vi IV ii V… all reflected nicely in the chart.
The ascending progression is: I iii V vii ii IV… feeling a fair bit random because it doesn’t click very well with this chart.
Try using that chart above to rate the strength of your progressions. You’ll find that because the chart basically gives you strong progressions, those progressions will work better with choruses than with verses. And as I say, if you stick with this chart 100% of the time, you’ll wind up with very predictable, and perhaps boring, progressions. Balance predictable with innovative, and your songs should be fine.
If you’d like more information about chord progressions, including pages of progressions you can use right now in your own songs, read about Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books.