The Power of a Progression That Doesn't Start On the I-Chord

Gary EwerBy Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Taylor Swift - MineYou can measure the success of your song by whether or not people are humming it to themselves long after they’ve heard it. Think about that; people don’t hum chord progressions. They hum melodies, they tap out rhythms, they sing lyrics, but they don’t dwell on chords. Chords are what we use to support melodies and lyrics. That’s why you can get away with chord progressions that are, on their own, run-of-the-mill. So if you’re looking to make your latest tune a potential hit song, stop focusing on chords and start thinking about forward momentum.

You’ve been successful creating forward momentum if you find that your verse is begging for a chorus. There are standard ways to do this, allowing your melody to rise throughout your verse to meet a higher-pitched chorus being chief among them.

You’ll also find that fragile progressions – the kind that don’t strongly or obviously point to one chord as the tonic (key) chord – tend to make listeners want to hear something stronger and more obvious.

Taylor Swift’s new single, “Mine”, demonstrates a way to take a fragile progression and make it really want and need the chorus: use a very simple progression that doesn’t start on a I-chord, and in fact avoids it altogether.

The verse of “Mine” uses a progression that simply toggles back and forth between the IV-chord and the V-chord. The great thing about this relationship is that it’s practically begging for a resolution to the I-chord, but it doesn’t happen, at least not until we’re well into the chorus.

The harmonic tension created by the dominant chord (V-chord) always moving back to the IV-chord instead of resolving to the tonic chord is well-known in music circles. Even non-musicians are fairly well-acquainted with the sense of musical frustration that results.

But that musical frustration is actually forward momentum by another name. Any time we avoid normal musical resolutions, we entice the listener to keep listening, waiting for the eventual resolution.

The verse progression of “Mine” would win no awards: C  D  C  D  C  D… But that simple progression builds tension and continues through the pre-chorus, building song energy as it goes.

The chorus features a more harmonically satisfying, more pleasantly predictable set of harmonies: C  G  D  Em…, and it’s what songs with fragile verses need.

So try avoiding the I-chord in your verse progressions, and you’ll be pleased with the energy that results. Here are some examples of verse progressions to try, all in G major. Experiment with varying tempo and frequency of chord changes. Repeating each progression would probably give you a full verse progression:

Am  C  Am  D  Em  C  Dsus  D

Em  C  Em  F  C  Am  Dsus  D

C  Bm  Am  Bm  C  Bm  Am  D

C  Em  C  D  C  Am  Bm  C

Bm  C  Em  D  Bm  C  Em  D

Consider starting each chorus on a G chord, and your listeners will get an immense feeling of musical satisfaction that comes from that anticipated resolution.


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  1. Man, this is such a good idea and one I struggle with but am trying to master.

    I would also add that the king of all “fragile” songs has to be Rhiannon, which NEVER resolves!

    One more tid bit: here is a GREAT talk in which the speaker, Benjamin Zander, plays Chopin and shows how Chopin would save resolutions for the very end. I have to admit, this video changed my songwriting for the better, I think. Here’s the link:

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