12 Chord Progression Characteristics that Music History Teaches Us

All chord progressions, regardless of genre, work pretty much the same way. Here are 12 features of progressions common to all music.

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Guitar Chord ProgressionsIf pop music is your only area of interest, you might be forgiven for thinking that the way chord progressions work is the result of pop music history. But in fact, the way we use chord progressions is practically unchanged from the way they were used in the early 1600s, and certainly since the time of J.S. Bach (1685-1750).

What follows is a list of 12 tips — you might say characteristics — for creating and using chord progressions. If your interests expand to other genres outside pop music (and I certainly hope they do), you’ll see that these characteristics pertain to all chords regardless of the genre or style.

  1. A strong progression is one that points to one particular chord as being the tonic chord – a kind of “home base.” It’s usually easily identified by ear, especially in very strong progressions like: C  Am  Dm G  C (C is the tonic.)
  2. A fragile progression is one in which the tonic chord is not so easily identified. The strong sense of tonality is usually pleasantly vague, as in this progression: Em  F  Bb  Dm (It’s hard to identify a tonic, though it doesn’t necessarily bother us that we can’t.)
  3. Strong progressions work well in choruses, but actually they will work well in any section of a song, including the bridge.
  4. Fragile progressions are the kind that work well in verses and bridges. The characteristic twists and turns partner well with lyrics that describe or intensify the story.
  5. Chorus progressions are usually shorter and stronger than verse progressions.
  6. Many songs in verse-chorus format will feature mainly minor chords in the verse and switch to major for the chorus. It’s a good way to create some harmonic variation in the overall sound of a song.
  7. A chord progression, taken in its entirety, can exhibit signs of both strength and fragility along its length. So progressions can be seen as “mostly strong”, “mostly fragile”, or changing as it proceeds.
  8. A predictable chord progression is not necessarily a bad thing. Since chords are simply one partner in a larger partnership of song elements, you’ll find that songs can be very creative and innovative while still using a pleasantly predictable progression.
  9. Every key, whether major or minor, has seven naturally-existing chords that can be found by building triads above each note of the scale. Any chord that doesn’t naturally exist in a key is called an altered chord.
  10. Chords that place a note other than the root (i.e., the letter name) of the chord at the bottom is known as an inverted chord. In pop terminology, it is often referred to as a “slash chord”, owing to the way it is notated: F/C is called “F slash C”, meaning that an F major chord should be played with C as the lowest sounding note.
  11. When chord progressions are transposed to other keys, all chord functions will transpose as well. This means that a progression in C major can be transposed to D major by moving all chords up a whole tone. The progression, and all of its functions, will be the same as the original progression.
  12. Harmonic rhythm refers to how long a chord is held before moving on to the next one. It is an important part of the design of a chord progression. There is usually a predictable pattern in use in every song.

Because the way we use chords is essentially identical to the way famous composers (Bach, Mozart, Brahms, etc.) used progressions, it can be interesting to take the chords from a favourite classical tune and write a new melody over them.

If you’d like some ideas for where to start with this, check out this post I wrote a couple of years ago.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“Essential Chord Progressions”Essential Chord Progressions give you hundreds of progressions you can use as is, or modify to suit the songs you’re working on. If all you need are some chords to get you going, check out this ebook collection. Read more..

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3 Comments

  1. Hi. Interesting post, but in 40 years of studying theory, I’ve never heard anyone teach chord progressions without mentioning the intervals (Roman Numeral) so the reader instantly knows the tonic, sub dominant, dominant, etc. of the progression.

    • For the readership of my blog, those who know Roman numerals will usually know how to translate the examples to other keys by using that technique. For those with less understanding of chord theory, I find the use of specific examples (Dm-G instead of ii-V) is more user-friendly. In all my printed materials, including my video music theory course, I refer to Roman numerals. In that sense, I’m thinking of an article like this as one for immediate use of songwriters, not as a lesson in music theory per se.

      Thanks very much for writing,
      -Gary

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