Getting Chords in the Right Order

Good chord progressions are not simply one nice chord following another. There is a musical logic behind good ones.

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Songwriting - bass guitarThere is a reason why we call them chord progressions, and not chords successions. Something that progresses implies a kind of logic. That logic equates to predictability. And we know that with good chord progressions, there is a heavy dose of predictability. We like it that way.

The way we use chords today in pop songs is no different than the way they’ve been used for centuries. If J.S. Bach were to come back to life today, he may be flabbergasted by the electronic instrumentation and performance style (not to mention the lyrics!) but he’d get the chord progressions right away.

Just as in his day, we know that for any given key, there are seven naturally-occurring chords. Beyond that, we make use of what are called altered chords, ones that don’t exist naturally in the key, but require additional sharps or flats.

In G major, the seven chords are: G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim. They are, of course, transposable to any key you wish. Then for altered chords, you’ll find that the flat-VII (F), flat-III (Bb) and the major chord built on the 3rd degree (B) are quite common.

But just because you know that the majority of chords you use are going to be chosen from those seven does not mean that  you’ve got a good chord progression. Many songs from the 50s and early 60s used G-C-D7, or G-Am-D7 as their progression. I don’t know of any that used Bm-F#dim-C.

So how do we get chords in the right order? What does it mean to have a chord progression “make sense”?

The tonic chord, the one representing the key your song is in, acts like a kind of musical anchor, requiring (most of the time) that progressions use it as a tonal focus. That means that many of your progressions will start and/or finish with that chord.

That tonic chord sounds the strongest when it is approached by a chord whose root is a 4th or 5th away from it. So G-C is strong and musically secure, because the bass note moves from G up a 4th to C. If you want to extend that short G-C progression to be something longer, you’ll find that opting for chords whose roots are a 4th or 5th away from each other produces the strongest progressions.

That’s why the so-called circle-of-fifths is so successful and strong. You start on a tonic chord, leap to any chord you want, and then keep moving up by 4ths or down by 5ths until you reach the tonic chord again. Here are some examples of progressions that rely on the circle-of-fifths:

  1. C  Dm  G  C
  2. C  Am  Dm  G  C
  3. C  Em  Am  Dm  G  C

The success of the circle-of-fifths is not meant to imply that only root movements of 4ths and 5ths are acceptable in music; far from it. In most progressions, you’ll want to take interesting side-journeys, where even just temporarily the sense of tonic might be veiled a little. But once you’ve wandered, it is usually time to strengthen the progression once more.

So here are some progressions that start strong, move into an ambiguous area using altered chords, before strengthening again and revealing the original key in an unambiguous way. The green chords are the ones that emphasize the original key of G major, and the red ones are places where the tonality wanders away. So for each of the following, you’ll see that the beginnings and endings are green (original key), while the middle is where the wandering takes place:

  1. G  D  Em  F  C  Am A7  D7  G
  2. G  D  F  Bb  F  C  Em  D  G
  3. G  Em  Am  Bm  Bb  F  Am  C  G

You’ll notice that getting from a green area to a red area is done relatively smoothly. The same goes for transitioning back to the green area at the end of each progression.

If you like creating complex chord progressions, the trick is to provide a musically sensible way for the listener to get back to the tonic chord. That means that you can allow for strange chords typically near the middle of a progression, but then look for ways that allow the progression to get back to the original key.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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