Tips ‘n Tricks: Chord Progression Guidelines for Songwriters

A bad chord progression can bring cause an otherwise excellent song to fail. Here are some basic tips for creating good progressions.


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Piano KeyboardWhen songwriters go looking for a “killer” progression, what they’re really looking for is something that’s unique, and something that really clicks with the melody. But uniqueness can sometimes, or often, lead to shaky progressions. Whether we like it or not, what makes progressions work is a good dose of predictability. It’s OK to have moments where strange, unpredictable things happen, but strong progressions that are mainly predictable are the ones that really grab attention.

For many songwriters, however, all they’re looking for is something that they know works. Every time. Check out the following chord progression tips & tricks. They’ll give you a basic idea for why good progressions work, and how to fix bad ones.

  1. Your song’s chord progressions will usually need to have an obvious harmonic goal. In other words, if your song is in A major, the chords will work together to make the A chord sound like the tonic.
  2. The strongest progressions use chords whose roots are a 4th or 5th apart, and strongly indicate the key of your song. That’s why the circle of fifths progression is so strong, and so often used by composers of all types of music.
  3. So-called “fragile” progressions are ones where the intended key is not clearly indicated by the chords you’ve chosen. For example, if your verse is harmonized by moving back and forth between Em and Dm, it’s not really obvious what the key might be (C major? E minor? A minor (aeolian mode?), etc.) Fragile progressions are by no means bad. In fact, they can be quite lovely. But fragile verse progressions are best followed up with stronger chorus progressions.
  4. Predictability in chords is not a negative quality. It’s why they’re called progressions, and not successions. Especially in pop song genres where you want to build a large audience base, you want your chords to be mainly predictable (strong), with only occasional moments of surprise.
  5. The tonic chord is usually the most common chord in a progression. The V-chord is next in popularity, then the IV-, vi- and ii-chords. The iii-chord and the vii-chord are usually least used.
  6. A melody that uses only the notes of a major or minor scale can be harmonized by using the I-, IV- and V-chords. In other words, if your song is in A major, and the notes you sing all come from that scale (A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#), the melody can be harmonized with the A, D and E chords.
  7. To make a chord progression more creative, consider diatonic chord substitutions as a first option, altered chords as a second option. In other words, if you want a more creative option to a standard I-IV-V-I progression, try substituting the given chords with others from your chosen key. So try I-ii-V-I, I-ii-iii-I, etc. If that doesn’t work for you, try some altered chords (i.e., chords that require sharp or flat adjustments: I-bVII-V-I, I-iv(minor)-V-I, etc.
  8. Avoid consecutive chords where the melody note is the same as the bass note. In other words, if your melody starts with the three notes A-C#-E, avoid using I-iii-V (A  C#m  E) as your progression.
  9. Create chord progressions that allow the bass line to move independent of the melody. It feels natural to hear bass lines moving in contrary motion to the melody, but here are 2 other options: bass line moving obliquely (i.e., the melody repeats the same note while the bass moves) and in similar direction (i.e., both bass and melody moving in the same direction, but by a different interval.
  10. Use chord inversions (“slash chords”) to smooth out a jumpy bass line, or to add “interest” to a boring progression. Don’t simply throw chord inversions into the progression with no good reason for them. Inversions work best if there’s a reason. And the best reasons are to fill in a leap (i.e., change C  G  Am to C  G/B  Am), or to add interest by avoiding the same chord over and over again (i.e., change C  C  C  F to C  C/E  C  F)


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. I really love music because it does so much for me. Anyway, I am starting out to write my own songs for the main reason that I can do anything I want with them without restrictions. These advices will certainly help me come up with great compositions. Thank you.

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