7 Ways a Great Chord Progression Strengthens a Song

A good chord progression’s best quality is that when it works well, you hardly even notice it.


Piano keyboardIt’s not easy to attribute the success of a song to just one song element. As you hopefully know, all components of a song must work together to ensure its success. It is, however, possible to attribute the failure of a song to one element. You can have a great lyric with a fantastic melody and a catchy hook, but if the chords aren’t working, you’ve got a dud, and that’s for sure. But what makes a chord progression fail, and how do you fix it? A good chord progression actually strengthen’s your song’s underlying structure.

Of all the various elements of a song, the chords will benefit from being somewhat predictable, though hopefully not excessively so. While in songwriting predictability will often get you labelled as a copycat, a healthy dose of predictability in your chord choices actually works well for you. You want the chords most of the time to be doing what your audience expects them to do — to go where they expect them to go.


Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, and learn the 11 principles crucial to any songwriter’s success.

So what are the things you should be doing with chord progressions to make sure that they’re benefitting your song? Check out the following 7 tips:

  1. Use the circle-of-fifths in your progressions. A progression becomes stronger when the roots of adjacent chords move by 4ths of 5ths. That means that a progression that features a Dm going to G is going to be strong because the notes D and G are a 4th apart.
  2. Keep progressions simple. Creativity can be good, but if you’re worried that your progression is confusing your audience, it’s far better to keep progressions simple and allow other elements (melody and lyric, for example) to be the creative part.
  3. Keep chorus progressions short. A song’s chorus needs to sound catchy and memorable. So melodies need to be repetitive, and chord progressions should be short and simple.
  4. Most progressions should have a clear harmonic goal. That means that a chord progression should sound like they exist to make one chord sound like the most important one. In most cases, chord progressions, especially chorus ones, should point to the tonic chord as the most important one. Verse progressions, however, often point to the dominant chord — that builds momentum.
  5. Be careful how you use altered chords. An altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally exist in your song’s key. They can be really powerful and useful, but they can also pull the listener out of the song’s key and lead to confusion. Once you’ve used an altered chord, look for ways to move back to diatonic chords (i.e., chords that exist naturally in your song’s key.) To learn more about altered chords, read this article.
  6. Be careful how you use chord inversions. An inverted chord means that you’ve placed a note other than its letter name in the bass. They’re often called slash chords, and they’re great for creating a bass that moves in interesting ways. But chord inversions can make your progression sound erratic if they’re used improperly. Most of the time, a chord inversion should be used to smooth out a jumpy bass line. If you find that you’re inverting chords just for the heck of it, it’s better to simply avoid their use until you’ve got a good reason to use them. Elton John is one songwriter who uses chord inversions intelligently, so check out any of his songs for good examples.
  7. Try a bass pedal point. A pedal point means keeping the same note in the bass while the chords change above it. It helps glue a chord progression together. The bass pedal point doesn’t even need to be in the chord, so this works just fine: C  F/C  G/C  C.

If you just want some standard progressions that really work, check out these ones. They all feature altered chords and inversions, and use root movement of 4ths and 5ths extensively:

  1. C  F  Dm  G  E7  Am  C/G  G  C
  2. C  G/B  Am  Gm7  F  C/E  Dm  G  C
  3. C  G  Am  Em  F  G  C
  4. C  A/C#  Dm  B/D#  Em  F  G  C
  5. C  Am  C  C7  F  D/F#  C/G  G  C


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Follow Gary on Twitter 
Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. Last thing and I’m done, I promise. As you did mention the circle of fifths, I should note that the song, yellow is contained perfectly within the key of B major and the chords are certainly not ambitiously experimental or unpredictable. So they follow in many ways what you’re advocating. But they are certainly fuller than your standard triad and their unique voicings are huge part of that songs appeal.

  2. Not to sound combative. I’m only on the site cause I find your insights invaluable. And I bet you’re right when it comes to what appeals to most listeners. Just voicing my own taste I suppose. And great melody is something to behold. Would you consider a chord sequence like Dave Matthews “crash into me” to be an example of the occasional exception to this idea? It does seem to steel the show in that one particular pop song.

    • Hi Charles:

      Thanks for your thoughts. You might be misunderstanding my thoughts on the role of chord progressions. While it’s true that most people don’t hum chord progressions as they walk down the street, that is certainly not to say that a beautiful chord progression isn’t contributing to the beauty of the music. In fact, it’s quite possible that the chord progression could be the most noticeably beautiful part of a song. Having said that, however, its role is almost always to provide a vehicle for other song elements. When you hear beautiful chords, such as in “Crash Into Me”, we especially notice them in that case because they form an important part of the song’s intro. Chords, voicings and harmonies are most noticeable in the intro because that’s the part of the song that often (or usually) has no lyric and no melody to get in the way. It’s difficult for me to comment with any authority on what listeners find appealing. Some focus on harmonies, others value melody over all other elements. Some gravitate to the lyric. Of all of those song components, a song’s chords will not suffer from being overly predictable, like melody and lyric will suffer.

      So I certainly wasn’t trying to make the case that creative chord progressions aren’t important. Some of the best music in the world incorporates very imaginative chord progressions. But it is equally true that some of the best music uses standard, predictable progressions.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, I appreciate it.

  3. I understand and agree that melody is what people, especially people who are not musical, tend to remember about a song or hum as they walk down the street. But I, and I’m sure I’m in the minority, find well placed beautiful chords more noticeable than any sequence produced by a monophonic instrument such as a voice. I’m glad when the melody serves a beautiful chord well rather than the other way around. I actually remember when and where I heard the second chord to the song Yellow, an F#6 barre chord with the high e string tuned to D#, and getting chills. If I could hum a chord sequence like that. I would.

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.