Creating Good Progressions: It’s All About Chord Function

Considering a chord’s function makes it easy to create tons of progressions, almost instantly


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Piano Keyboard - Chord SubstitutionsGo 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.

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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
  • 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.


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  1. Pingback: Identifying the Section of a Song That Isn’t Working | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  2. HENCE THE PHRASE Substitution By Function, not using the cliché progressions

    used by most Wanna Be Writers Something The Beatles were very good at

    Just Substituting one chord can make a difference in the finished result

  3. This is a great article – exactly what I was looking for!
    I’ve bee struggling with song writing all my life (i’m 42) and have always had to collaborate with other people in order to get songs written from ideas that I’ve had. I recently passed grade 8 music theory and now have a much better understanding of scales and chords etc but was still left wondering how chord structures ‘should’ be formed – everybody that I ask says ‘There are no rules’ as if cord sequences are completely random!

  4. Hey Gary,

    Great article, I learned some new stuff.
    I’ve read quite a lot of these now but I’m still unsure about some things.
    You write that it’s important to know the functions of the chords, but in this article you only name the functions without telling how the work. The only function I see explained is that dominant want to go to tonic.What about the other functions, e.g. subdominant or submediant? Are there no “guidelines” for how you move between chords as long as you somehow do a Tonic-dominant-tonic progression?


    • Hi Thomas:

      It’s true that some functions, like the dominant function, make a clearer “demand” for how chords move. Other functions, like the subdominant or submediant chord, have a greater freedom to move where they’d like. A rule of thumb I like to follow is this: if the issue of where a chord should move next isn’t clear, opt for moving to a chord whose root is a 4th or 5th away. So let’s say you’re working out a progression in C major, and you’ve played an Am chord. The submediant function doesn’t demand that you move anywhere in particular, so you will almost always be safe having your next chord be Dm or Em (a 4th or 5th away).

      The dominant function tends to be one that finishes up a progression (V-I), and so another way of looking at that is to say that the closer a chord progression is to finishing, the stronger (i.e., the more predictable) the function of the progression is. For other non-dominant chords, like ii, iii, vi, etc., you’ve got more freedom to move wherever your ears dictate, and that’s a good thing.


  5. Dear, Gary

    I recently discovered your page and I love your articles!
    Thanks to this one, I’ve finally found a lot more interesting chord progressions. However, does this also apply to minor keys?


    • Hi Sean:

      Yes, most if not all of the points raised in this article refer to minor keys as well. The only difference is that in pop songwriting, writing in a minor key gets brought together with writing in a minor mode, like the Aeolian mode. It’s a bit long to go into that here, but generally speaking, you can take the chords in this post and change ‘G’ to ‘Gm’ or Bb. Then, it will usually work to change Am to Ab. From a chord function point of view, most of these progressions have equivalents in minor.


  6. Am contains two notes (A and C) that are also in F so can Am be considered a potential substitute for F?


    SUBDOMINANT: IV, ii, vi

    If not, then why not.

    Thx. Don.

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