“Stairway to Heaven”, and 5 Other Killer Minor Key Progressions

Check out these 6 minor progressions… They’ll work in verses, choruses, or anywhere you need them.

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Led Zeppelin- Stairway to HeavenThe main deciding factor in choosing a key for your song is the vocal range. The reason is obvious: you need the song to be singable! If your song is in a major key, it’s easy enough to find the 7 chords that naturally go with that key. Simply take the major scale and build chords above each note. If the song is in a minor key, you do the same thing. But with minor keys there is a difference: you might be talking about a minor key, or you might be talking about a minor mode. Because of that, coming up with minor chord progressions gives you tons of possibilities.

Check out the following minor progressions. Each one has a short description of what’s going on, and why it works. They are all transposable. Chord progressions are not protectable by copyright, so you can use them in your own songs. Remember, though, that the more distinctive a progression is, the more difficult it is to use it and call it your own. Honestly, it’s going to be tricky to use “Stairway to Heaven’s” progression, but there are ways, particularly if you approach them with a completely new tempo or different instrumentation.

  1. “Happy Together”: Am  G  F  E  Am. The second-last chord, ‘E’ , makes this a tonal, as opposed to a modal, progression. You hear this progression in “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” from Jesus Christ Superstar, during the “…But if I die” lyric, as well as The Turtle’s “Happy Together.”
  2. “Hotel California”: Bm  F#  A  E  G  D  Em  F#. This progression, in the key of A minor, features what is called a chord progression sequence. A sequence means that a short pattern is set up, then repeated at a higher or lower pitch. In this case, we get two chords that descend by a 4th (Bm to F#). It’s then sequenced a tone lower, starting on A, then again on G, before rising to the dominant chord, F#.
  3. “All Along the Watchtower”: Am  G  F  G. A simple modal (Aeolian) progression that starts on Am, descends to F and simply reverses. It can repeat forever, and it’s exactly what Dylan does in “Watchtower”.
  4. “Stairway to Heaven”: Am  C #5+7/G#  C/G  D/F#  Fmaj7  G  Am. The famous opening progression from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. The progression is built at first on a descending bass line, which then rises once it hits F. (Many online chord progression sites erroneously name the second chord as an augmented G# chord, but that’s incorrect. It’s complex, and could have several possible names, but the most accurate is an augmented chord on C with an added major 7, in 2nd inversion (i.e., G# on the bottom.)
  5. “California Dreamin’: C#m  B  A  B  G#sus4  G#  A  E  G#  C#m  A  G#sus4  G#  C#m. Starts in C#m, modulates via the A chord to E major, before quickly returning to C#m.
  6. “Incense and Peppermint”: Em  A  Em  C  Em  A  Em  C || Em  Ebm  D  A. This progression features an odd chord movement of Em to Ebm. Descending roots by semitones are tricky to make work, particularly in minor. This progression is actually in the mode of E Dorian, which accounts for the major chord on A.
There’s a common perception amongst most people that major keys are happy ones, and minor keys are sad. However, this is a stereotype that doesn’t really hold true. You can hear very happy music in minor keys, and as a songwriter, you should be looking for ways to break out beyond predictable stereotypes.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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