With most good chord progressions, there is a sense that the progression is making one chord (the tonic) sound like a kind of musical target. As each chord happens, you hear that tonic chord approaching, and when it finally happens it sounds musically satisfying. Example: C Dm G Em Am Dm Gsus4 G7 C (I ii V iii vi ii V4 V7 I) .
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What makes the C chord sound so satisfying? Mainly it’s the number of times in the progression that a chord is followed by one whose root is five notes lower. Take a look at that example progression above and notice how often the downward movement of a 5th (or upward movement of a 4th, which is the same thing in music) happens:
In that sense, you could create a good pop genre chord progression by doing the following:
- Start on the tonic chord.
- Jump to any other chord from your chosen key that you like.
- From there, move down 5 notes (or up 4 notes) and use that chord.
- Keep choosing chords with a root that’s lower by 5.
- End your progression with a V-I.
Of course that’s not the only way to do progressions, but you know it will work every time; it’s creating what we know as the circle of 5ths progression. Once you’ve got a progression working, like our example progression above, you can then substitute certain chords in order to create something more inventive:
C Dm G E/G# Am Bb Gsus4 G7 Am
Those kinds of progressions are going to work in practically any section of your song. Most of the time you’ll choose a different progression for each section, so if your song is comprised of, let’s say, a verse, chorus and bridge section, you’ve got three progressions, like these three samples:
Verse: Am G Am G F G Dm Em (optional repeat)
Chorus: C Dm G Em Am Dm Gsus4 G7 C
Bridge: Am Dm Am Dm C F Dm E7 | Am Dm C F Dm F Gsus4 G
So now you have three progressions that you like. You may make some changes to those as your song evolves, but those are the ones that represent the way you want your song to go.
The question is: How do you make sure that one progression will move smoothly to the next one?
Creating Strong Transitions
Just as within a chord progression you want to be sure that one chord moves easily to the next, you simply need to look at the final chord or two of one section, and make sure that they move easily to the first chord of the next section.
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In our example progressions above, you see that your verse progression dwells mainly on minor chords from C major. That’s nice, because it will contrast beautifully with your mainly C major chorus progression. The verse ends on an Em chord, and the first chord of your chorus is a C. Moving from Em to C is fine, though there are smoother ways to do it.
So let’s say that you opt to repeat that verse progression. The second time through it, you want to look for a smoother way to get to C major, which means not ending on an Em chord. To get to C major, you might find that ending your verse on a G or G7 chord is a good way to do it. That’s the root movement of a 5th down or 4th up that I’ve been describing.
In this case, simply swapping the Em for a G7 will work fine, because the chord before that Em is Dm. Now you’ve got Dm going to G7, and that’s a really strong way to go. That means your entire verse progression will be this:
Am G Am G F G Dm Em |Am G Am G F G Dm G7
You’ve now created a workable transition from your verse to your chorus.
A Strong Transition Into the Bridge
Bridge sections usually follow the second occurrence of your chorus. Song bridges often explore other key areas, contrasting with the chorus, and that’s what happens in our sample progression. We’ve had a chorus that sits strongly in C major, and now we’re moving to a bridge that explores the key of A minor.
So how do you transition from C major to A minor? Don’t worry too much about it! Bridges often work well when they leap to the new key as a kind of surprise. In fact, you might do well to start your bridge where you’d normally hear the last chord of your chorus. That would give you this:
Chorus: C Dm G Em Am Dm Gsus4 G7 | C Dm G Em Am Dm Gsus4 G7 |
Bridge: Am Dm…
You’ll notice that your bridge section ends with the chords Dm-G7, and that is a perfect transition back to C major for the final chorus repeats.
Experiment, and Let Your Ears Be Your Guide
Because a transition is meant to smooth out the seams between sections, you’ll find that a smooth transition might be just a bit too predictable for your tastes, so feel free to experiment. Sometimes jumping to a new key, or to some sort of surprise chord, is a great musical feature.
In The Bee Gees song “Paying the Price of Love” (1993), they leap abruptly from the opening key — G major — to a new key (A major), right at the beginning of the second chorus. They don’t create a smooth transition, they simply jump, and it’s a powerful moment. (To hear this, start listening around the 1’45” mark):
G Bm C D G Bm C D |A C#m F#m…
A final thought
There are no rules when it comes to chords, but there are certainly strong principles and guidelines. When chords sound disorganized or aimless, it’s usually because it’s lacking tonal direction, and that happens when that root movement of a 5th or 4th is lacking.
You can strengthen any weak moment in a progression by finding ways to create that all-important movement of a 4th or 5th.
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