The Futile Search For The Killer Chord Progression

Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle, and kick-start your songwriting career!

Music and keyboardIt may surprise some to know that no one goes around singing chord progressions to themselves. In the list of things that go together to make a song, a chord progression is one aspect that simply needs to work. It doesn’t need to move the earth, heal diseases or make flowers grow. It simply needs to work. In the songwriting world you frequently hear the term “killer chord progression,” but the best progressions do their work almost entirely from the background.

And yet you will still find songwriters who think that there is an elusive progression lurking around the corner. That if only they could identify it, they’d be writing the next number 1 hit with it.

Chord progressions don’t work that way, for several reasons:

  1. A good chord progression is a like a good parcel of land upon which we build a house. The best land should be pleasing to the eye, and appropriate to build a house (i.e., create a song) on it. So while Mount Everest is undeniably a killer piece of real estate, it’s hard to build anything on it.
  2. A good chord progression has the ability to easily support the melody. As I say, we don’t go around singing chord progressions to ourselves. But we do sing melodies. The search for a killer melody should be our pursuit, more so than a killer chord progression.
  3. A good chord progression represents a musical journey. Most progressions, particularly ones we find in song choruses, describe a musical voyage away from and toward the tonic chord. The faster the tempo, generally speaking, the less adventurous that journey should be. Save more complex progressions for slower tempos. This has been a guiding principle of musical composition for at least 300 years, and still applies today.
  4. A good chord progression partners with other song elements, and stays out of the way. The world’s best songs, the ones that sit atop most “Best of…” charts, usually use plain, almost mundane, progressions, with melody, lyrics, and performance taking a much more important role. (“Hey Jude”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Imagine”… If you’re looking for killer chord progressions, you’re going to be disappointed. Those progressions are so good because they managed to stay out of the way.

Far be it from me to say that a good progression is not important, and that’s certainly not what I mean by the futile search for a killer chord progression. I know that some songwriters get stuck at the chord progression stage of writing, and it’s why I’ve written two collections of them.

But don’t assume that progressions are anything more than a nice piece of contoured land: It’s got to be beautiful, but it’s got to be possible to build something on it.

If you want your songs to be memorable, it’s the melody and lyric that you need to be concentrating on. Get those working with your chord progression, and you got the makings of a song that will really grab attention.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
Follow Gary on Twitter for notification of website updates and daily songwriting tips

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle will show you how to write great songs, harmonize your melodies, and give you hundreds of chord progressions in the process.

PURCHASE and DOWNLOAD the e-books for  your laptop/desktop


NEW: Advanced Chord Progressions in HD, with sound samples, for your iPAD!

Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , , .


  1. I do think some songs hang from original progressions. This can make them stand out from the crowd. Examples – Arcade Fire ‘Rebellion’ has a stand out A D A F#m which is presented by a thundering 4/4 bass riff and makes you think ‘why has no one done this before.’ The Pretender by the Foo fighters is a stupendously simple Am D/F# F progression that is both original and brilliant. Karma Police by Radiohead has a fantastic progression in G which includes the substitution of a F chord to really add something special.

    • I think I agree with your thought that some songs are quite notable for the uniqueness of their chord progressions, but I still think that those unique progressions need other elements to be supporting the progressions. The songs you mention are great songs not just for the chord progression, but for everything else working with it. The Arcade Fire progression, for example, is certainly not unique: I IV I vi. But the bass line really gives it power, and so it’s the bass that makes the progression “killer.”

      Thanks very much for your thoughts on this.

  2. If chord progressions had to be brilliant to make a hit, “Apologize”, “No One”, “Don’t Stop Believing” and about 200 other tunes would have been blunders with their “unimaginative” 1-6-4-5 :).

    It just has to feel right. If you feel like slipping in a diminished chord in there – go for it – but don’t do it because your muso friends think that otherwise your stuff is too “predictable”.

  3. Hey Gary, spot on blog post once again!

    However, I find Imagine’s chord progression quite killer, like a 5 star restaurant’s desert course haha

    In the pre-chorus, his downward moving bassline is tastefully used, but that’s not the one that pulls my heart strings. In the chorus, man, I just couldn’t figure out (upon initial hearing) how he made a major chord sound so sad. That III7 chord really packs a punch, and I think it’s the diminished half of that chord that gave me the impression of sadness, despite it being a bright chord.

    Ah, I guess it doesn’t really make it a “killer” progression, as described in your blog, but it was one that really caught my attention harmonically.

  4. Pingback: The Futile Search For The Killer Chord Progression (via The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog) | PianoPlonker

  5. Hi Gary
    I just heard the first single of the new The Strokes album on the radio, #3 on this week’s charts, and acclaimed as a return to form for the group after years of disappointing releases. However, the chorus is built around a power progression. I thought of your blog, and yes, I really felt they brought something new to the table with use of melody over the standard power progression. In your opinion, is this a necessary evil? Is it only our knowledge of music that prevents us from being able to appreciate this kind of songwriting the way normal people would? If we reward songwriters who rely on power progressions, should we not expected to be treated similarly, and judged solely on our melodies & overall song construction?

  6. I Agree with you completely. The chord progression is like the backbone. You need it to function, but no one finds you any more attractive of a human being because of it! This is my fist comment by the way and just want to say you blog is great and is really helpful to self taught musicians like myself. So Thank you, from the bottom of my heat and keep up the good work!!

  7. Pingback: Songwriting Link of the Day April 6, 2011 | Creative Music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.