Considering a chord’s function makes it easy to create tons of progressions, almost instantly
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10 e-book bundle. Write smarter – Tap into your creative mind.
Go on almost any forum that answers music questions, and you’ll find an enormous number of questions relating to chord progressions and how they work: What chord follows this one? How do I choose chords? What are Roman numerals? How can I create better progressions? To create a progression that really works well means considering the function of the chords you’re using. Here’s how considering chord function helps you create progressions.
When we talk about a chord’s function, we’re essentially talking about what we should follow it with. Here’s what I mean. In the key of C major, the C chord is the tonic chord. The chord built on the 5th note, G, is the dominant chord. Those two terms, tonic and dominant, are technical terms that describe chord function.
Do you like starting your songwriting process by working out chords? That’s a process that can work well, but also comes with some dangers. So get the full story with “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” Buy it separately, or get it at a discount price as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.
Centuries of music practice have created the circumstance that dominant chords like to move to tonic chords. That’s what we mean about the function of a dominant chord: its function (or, its purpose) is to move to the tonic chord. That’s why you see G or G7 followed by C so much. It doesn’t mean that every dominant chord you use must be followed by a tonic chord. Sometimes you want to shake up the predictable nature of music and do something unexpected.
But when it comes to chord progressions, too much innovation can leave your music feeling unstructured and confusing. My opinion is that if you want to create an imaginative progression, start with something predictable and modify that.
For music in major keys, there are 7 notes that naturally occur, which means that there are 7 chords that belong to any key. For each chord (the key of C major is used below), we have a technical name:
- TONIC (I): A chord built on the 1st note of a scale: C
- SUPERTONIC (ii): A chord built on the 2nd note of a scale: Dm
- MEDIANT (iii): A chord built on the 3rd note of a scale: Em
- SUBDOMINANT (IV): A chord built on the 4th note of a scale: F
- DOMINANT (V): A chord built on the 5th note of a scale: G
- SUBMEDIANT (vi): A chord built on the 6th note of a scale: Am
- LEADING TONE (vii): A chord built on the 7th note of a scale: Bdim
Those technical names, tonic, supertonic, and so on, are what we mean by chord function. But instead of thinking of those seven functions separately, we can group them together into 3 simple categories: Tonic, subdominant and dominant.
The tonic chord is, of course, the I-chord. But you’ll notice that occasionally a vi-chord can serve as a kind of substitute for the I-chord. There are several reasons for this, one being the context in which the chord is used. But another reason is that the vi-chord and the I-chord both share 2 notes. In C major, a I-chord uses the notes C-E-G, and a vi-chord uses the notes A-C-E.
Similarly, the subdominant chord is the IV-chord. But a ii-chord can often serve as a nice substitute for the IV-chord, mainly because the ii-chord (D-F-A) shares two notes that occur in the IV-chord: F-A-C).
So thinking that way, we’ve now got 3 major groupings of chords:
- TONIC: I, iii, vi
- SUBDOMINANT: IV, ii
- DOMINANT: V, iii, vii
You’ll notice that some chords can “function” in different ways; for example, the iii-chord can act as a tonic substitute, but also as a dominant substitute, depending on context.
So given that quick background to how chord function works, I’ve listed some standard chord functions below, and then given several chord progressions that fit. In that sense, every progression listed under each function category has a similar sound, but yet all sound a little different:
- C G C
- C G Am
- C Am G C
- C Am G Am
- C F C
- C Dm C
- C F Dm C
- C Dm F C
- C F Am
- C Dm Am
- Am Dm C Am
- C G F C
- C Em F C
- C Bdim F/A C/G
- C G Dm Am
- Am G F C
You can see that I’ve written only some of the possibilities. Each progression in each category has a similar sound, depending on how you substitute chords. Notice also that you can extend chord progressions by following one chord with another of the same function.
The lesson here is that chord progressions work well if you think about their function. Considering chord function allows you to make some really nice substitutions without worrying about whether your new progression still works. Once you’ve got a progression that’s successful, substituting a chord with another one of the same function should mean that your progression will still do well.