Using Chord Charts to Learn Chord Theory

If chords mystify you, you need to get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-ebook Bundle. It includes “How to Harmonize a Melody”, as well as the incredibly useful “Chord Progression Formulas”, which will show you how to create dozens of progressions almost instantly.


Acoustic guitar - SongwritingFor most chording musicians (guitarists, keyboardists, etc.), a chord chart is mostly just a guide for getting your fingers on the right notes. But studying the chord charts of successful songs — songs that make a strong connection to audiences — can teach you a lot about how chords work. In that sense, a chord chart can teach you why, not just what.

Here’s a good way to start: Take the chord chart for a favourite song, and circle every pair of chords where the root (i.e., the letter name) of the second chord in the pair is a 4th or 5th away from the first note. This is significant, because when chords move by a 4th or 5th, it creates a strong progression, and you’ll notice that especially choruses will feature this kind of thing quite a bit.

Some songs have simple progressions that don’t really change from verse to chorus, such as with “Radioactive” (Imagine Dragons). It demonstrates that you don’t need much to create something catchy and memorable:

Radioactive Chords

Other songs have more elaborate chords, ones that have separate verse and chorus progressions, and that’s where you can really learn something. In “Just Give Me A Reason, you notice that the verse gives us a longer, more wandering progression than the chorus, and that’s to be expected. But you’ll also notice that in both the verse and chorus, strong two-chord sequences abound:

Just Give Me a Reason Chords

What is this showing? Mainly, it shows the tendency toward strong progressions in pop music, and that strong progressions, even though they are highly predictableare an important ingredient in the making of popular hit songs. Songwriters should not be turned off by that characteristic of predictability. With chords, predictability is usually a good thing.

Also notice something else: the way that a verse progression is “fragile” tends to be the result of avoiding overuse of the tonic chord. In “Just Give Me a Reason”, the tonic (G) chord happens fairly frequently in the first part of the verse, but happens hardly at all in the second half. When it does happen, it’s inverted (G/B). That avoidance of the tonic chord is an important part of building musical tension that’s released in the chorus.

In most songs, a verse will tolerate more wandering progressions that avoid an overabundance of strong 4th and 5th movement. In Paul Simon’s “My Little Town“, you still get the 4ths and 5ths in the verse, but what makes the verse progression fragile is the length, and the tendency to visit other keys. And even though the short chorus progression doesn’t show root movement of 4ths or 5ths, it still rates as strong, as the progression is highly predictable (its bass line is a simple descending scale), short and repetitive:

My Little Town Chords

For your own songs, my suggestion would be to make chord charts of your music, and then do what I’ve done above: circle the strong sequences of chords — the ones where the roots are a 4th or 5th away from each other. You should see it happen as a fairly common feature, and particularly in the chorus. If your chorus doesn’t happen to use many or any strong progressions, it needs to be short and repetitive.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “Creative Chord Progressions“)

Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , , .


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.