10 Chord Progression Questions and Answers

Ten very commonly-asked questions regarding chord progressions. Which ones have stumped you?

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Synthesizer keyboardI do a fair amount of looking about at music blogs and forums online, just getting a handle on the kinds of questions people are asking about music and how it works. Without a doubt, questions about how chord progressions work far outnumber other music theory-based questions.

So if you’re in the dark when it comes to the how and why of chord progressions, here’s a list of questions similar to ones I’ve read on forums recently. (As it will explain below, a chord’s “quality” is a term that is used to describe the fact that it is major, minor, diminished or augmented.)

  1. What’s a chord symbol like Cm7 actually telling me? A chord symbol tells you 3 things: Root, quality, and added tones. A chord root is the “bottom” of a triad that is in 1-3-5 format. The quality of a chord refers to whether it’s major, minor, diminished or augmented. Added tones are simply notes, like 7ths, 9ths, etc. If the chord you are playing is Cm7, ‘C’ is the chord root, ‘m’ is the quality (minor in this case), and ‘7’ is the added tone. A chord symbol by itself is always considered to be major, with no added tones. So the chord C is a c-major chord, with no added tones.
  2. What does a slash mean in a chord symbol? Whatever comes before the slash is the chord that should be played. Whatever comes after the slash is what the bass player should play: it’s telling you what the lowest note of the chord should be. So Cm7/G means you should play a Cm7 chord, but play a G in the left hand of the piano, or voice your guitar chord so that G is the lowest note.
  3. Are all ii-chords minor? In major keys, all I-chords are major, all ii-chords are minor, iii: minor; IV: major; V: major; vi: minor; vii: diminished. In minor keys, all i-chords are minor; ii-chords: diminished; III-chords: major; iv-chords: minor; V-chords: major or minor… it’s up to you. VI-chords: major; VII-chords: major.
  4. Can I change chord qualities from major to minor, etc., and have the progression still work? It does not often work to change chord qualities. Just because C  F  G7  C works does not mean that Cdim  Fm  Gm7  Caug will.
  5. If I transpose my chords to a new key, are all the major chords still major, and minor chords still minor? Any chord progression can be transposed to any key. When you transpose a progression to a new key, the chord qualities will stay the same. So if you transpose this from the key of Eb major: Eb  Fm  Bb7  Eb to the key of C major, the resulting progression is: C  Dm  G7  C. The second chord is still minor.
  6. Can I follow Gsus4 with Am? A sus chord usually needs to be resolved to its basic triad form before moving on. So this progression is good: C  F  Gsus4  G  Am. This progression is not: C  F  Gsus4 Am.
  7. As long as I use the seven chords that belong to a key, can I use them in any order? Chord progressions work best if they emphasize one chord as the tonic. This is especially true of chorus progressions, and less necessary with verses. Verse progressions can wander a bit, but even wandering progressions need to “get back home.” Using them in any order doesn’t necessarily work. See next question..
  8. Which chords are the most common ones in any given key? The I, IV, V and vi-chords are the most commonly used chords in pop music. And in fact, you’ll probably notice, once you start looking at chord charts that the IV and V-chords are actually more common than the tonic chord. Beyond those four chords, the ii-chord and iii-chord are next in popularity.
  9. Why does the chord A sound OK in my song that’s in G major? Shouldn’t the A chord be an Am, because it’s a ii-chord? When minor chords are changed to be major, it becomes an altered chord. An A chord in a song that’s in G major is called a “secondary dominant” chord. When you change major chords to minor, such as in the progression G  C  Cm  G, that Cm chord is called a “modal mixture”, or “borrowed chord”, because it’s borrowing the Cm from the minor key.
  10. How can I make my chord progressions sound stronger and less random? Stick to the 7 basic chords from your song’s key, and use lots of root movement of 4ths and 5ths. So this is good: C  G  C  F  Dm  G  C. This is wandering a bit too much for comfort: C  Em  Bdim  F  Dm  Em  C. If your progression is sounding a bit too random, try switching weird chords for ones that move a 4th or 5th from the previous one, or move by a 4th or 5th to reach the next one. So you can take the complex progression C  Em  Bdim  F  Dm  Em  C, change that Bdim to Am, and the progression greatly improves: C  Em  Am  F  Dm  Em  C.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle$95.70 $37.00 (and get a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“) The bundle includes 4 ebooks that specifically deal with chord progressions.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Pingback: Chord Progression Basics for Songwriters | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

    • You’re absolutely right, inasmuch as I didn’t really say that correctly. I really should have said that it doesn’t often work to randomly change chord qualities. (Sometimes I should give a blog post a read-through just one more time! :)) And you’re also right that the ear is the ultimate guide; if it sounds good, do it, as you say.

      Cheers!
      -Gary

  2. Pingback: Best of the Web 8/4/13 | notes from the shore

  3. Hey Gary,

    Fantastic post as usual! I’m going to respectfully disagree with number 6:

    “This progression is not: C F Gsus4 Am”

    I think we can say that, for modern listeners, the sus chord has evolved beyond it’s unstable roots in centuries past. Much like the extended harmonies, altered chords and deviations from traditional chord scale (modal interchange), sus chords have become consonant “colour” chords that can stand on their own without the implied resolution.

    I personally think that the above progression sounds fantastic and would work very nicely in a lot of genres. Making the last chord into an Am7 is even tastier! 😉

    Cheers, and thanks so much for all the posts!

    Dave

    • Hi Dave:

      Thanks very much, I appreciate your comment. As you will know, there are no rules with music, even though from time to time it’s most useful to state things in strong terms, such as I did with number 6 in this post. I do get what you’re saying, especially regarding the various colours that altered chords can offer, with no particular requirement that the chord resolve. This happens most commonly with chord “planing”. I did a post quite a while ago on this (“Chord Progressions Can Come Alive – with PLANING“).

      But in the progression I’ve put in number 6, if you hear the sus4 chord as not having a particular need to resolve, it would be because you hear the specific note ‘C’, which exists in all those chords, as an inverted pedal point, which doesn’t necessarily need to resolve. But for most songwriters, not resolving a sus4 chord will wind up being frustrating to the listener, though ultimately it’s up to personal preference.

      Thanks as always for your comments!
      -Gary

  4. Great article Gary! I wish you could do one of these on how to find the best chords to use to support a melody you come up with. Nobody seems to be able to tell me how they harmonize a melody. Most of the times they say it’s just gut feeling coming from playing a zillion songs. Is there a theory to follow? And after finding a chord progression, how and when do you add chord qualities?

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