A student of mine asked me one time about chord progressions when writing a song. So, I have researched this subject matter to develop a substantial article about chord progressions. Of course, I have been penning songs for almost ten years for various artists. In my long years of writing songs, I have learned to understand that chord progressions play a critical role in creating a song. So, in a way, this article will benefit upcoming songwriters too.
When writing songs, sometimes, I come up first with the lyrics. Afterward, I improvise the melody using patented chord progressions. On some occasions, I first strum a patented chord progression until I come up with a specific melody. Then, I pen the lyrics to the tune.
What are Chord Progressions, Then?
When you play the guitar, you will notice that certain chords go well together and form a patented sequence. This patented series of chords would then make a music piece. Songwriters call this chord progressions. These chord progressions determine the flow and unfolding of music.
Chord progressions play a crucial role in the song’s narrative, and if you unwittingly alter or shift one chord in the pattern, the song’s story would change. Thus, when you write music, it will help to be mindful of these chord progressions.
With the right choice of chord progression, songwriting will become easy for you. Right chord progression would also enable you to put together the other track elements of the song, like basslines and melodies. Moreover, you will find it easy to patch together the song’s details if you have a base upon which to start your songwriting endeavor.
Harmony and Chord Progression
You will never achieve harmony in a song if you do not follow the right chord progressions. So, whether you’re a pop, rock, jazz, or blues songwriter, you should first choose the sequences of chords to have a base on which you can work.
As you improve as a songwriter, you will discover that not all chord combinations sound well together. Unless you want your songs to have a dissonant sound, it will help if you follow the patented and accepted chord combinations. These patented chord progressions are proven to produce the needed harmony in a song.
Types of Chord Progressions for Songwriters
A critical look at the most famous songs would reveal that they always follow the same chord patterns. You can check the most popular bands like the Beatles, Everly Brothers, Beach Boys, Nirvana, and U2, and you will discover that they had used the following patented chord progressions:
1) The Three-chord Progressions
Some songs follow the most basic chord progressions of I-V-IV and the I-IV-V. This chord progression is a typical three-chord progression. It is a standard chord pattern that you would often see in many popular songs.
The song Devoted to You by the Everly Brothers, for example, has this pattern. One of the biggest hits of Pearl Jam, the Yellow Ledbetter, also has this chord pattern. Moreover, the first hit of the Beatles, Twist, and Shout, also has this pattern. So, this chord progression is relatively common, and you’ll get tired listing down many popular songs with this chord pattern.
If you are new to guitar or piano playing, you will find joy once you’ve learned the chords of D, G, and A. or G, C, and E. Yet, you’ll get doubly delighted once you discover that you can play many famous songs with these three chords.
Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling, for example, has a three-chord pattern likewise. It is super easy to play using a guitar. Another song with three-chord progression is Justine Timberlake’s Can’t Stop The Feeling. Its chords are C, Am, and F.
Of course, three-chord songs allow you to get a comfortable grip on the chord changes. So, when you are just embarking on your first songwriting endeavor, you can use the three-chord progression to make your first song.
2) The Four Chord Progressions
If you belong to the Veteran or Gen X, you might have come across some popular songs of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. You will see that the most popular songs during those times carried four-chord progressions. The Beatles, for example, had many pieces with four-chord progressions.
Moreover, the Beatles’ dynamic duo, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, had penned hundreds of their popular songs using four-chord progressions. Let It Be, It’s Only Love, In My Life, and many more of their songs, for example, bear that patented four-chord progression.
Even Hoobastank’s The Reason follows that patented four-chord progression. Adding to the list is U2’s With or Without You, which comes with that patented four-chord pattern of D-A-Bm-G.
3) The I-IV-V Progression
This chord progression, referred to as I-IV-V chord progression, comes with the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords. These chords are like the sacred trinitarian chords that form the most vigorous chords you can ever have.
Our ears naturally seek to hear this chord progression. This chord pattern usually starts with the tonic and then moves to the subdominant chord as it creates tension with the dominant chord. Then, it reverts to the tonic chord.
If you intend to create an up-tempo pop, rock, or country song, it will help if you use this chord progression pattern. The reason for this is that it brings in a high-energy and catchy transition and tune that you would surely love.
4) The I-V-vi-IV Progression
This patented chord progression is another pattern that you should know when writing a song. It is like the I-IV-V progression but is shuffled a bit by introducing the minor vi chord. This insertion of the vi chord makes it a bit emotional and more profound. This is because the addition of a minor chord usually adds a sadder note to a chord progression.
This chord progression provides more leeway for more improvisation than the I-IV-V pattern when writing the vocal lines. This chord progression is also more versatile and can support various melodies.
Other Useful Chord Progession Techniques
How To Produce Good-sounding Chord Progressions?
Songwriting is like storytelling. You start with the intro and then build the emotional drama along the way. Then, you reach the apex of the conflict and try to resolve that conflict in the end. Similarly, when you write a song, you start setting the mood, leading your listeners to the conflict. Afterward, you transition to the resolution of the dilemma.
Your choice of chord progression can either help in the buildup of the drama or not. So, it will help if you carefully choose your chord progression when writing a song and follow these two tips:
First, Create That Home Base!
You can use the tonic chord as your home base or the point of return or resting place for the key. Afterward, you can build power by clearing the path toward the tonic or the resolution. Just like in the creation of a good story plot, you can first create a stable base or set up the mood, then make a departure from that setup to create the necessary tension that will lead back to the resolution and stable base.
It will help to remember that the chord progression should create that suspense and dissonance using that strategic movement away from the tonic. Then, it is further amplified by the movement back towards the tonic.
Consider the Natural Blend and Order of Chords
As you further enhance your songwriting skills, you will discover that some chords naturally seem to blend well with certain chords, as if they gravitate around each other. You can further understand this phenomenon if you carefully study the Circle of Fifths.
You will also intuitively learn that some chords seem to go together naturally. Using your ear, you can discover these chords and develop the chord progression that fits your song well.
Maximizing the Use of Chord Progressions in Your Songwriting
All the learnings you get about songwriting will never turn you into a Paul McCartney or a John Lennon. Yet, this lesson about chord progression will help you understand some rudiments of songwriting.
When I first began writing songs, I used to follow a method of finding the right chord progression for my new song first. When I have zeroed in on the right chord pattern, I set my hand to write the lyrics. Finding the right chord progression helps me come up with good melodies and lyrics.
I got acquainted, however, with a friend who afterward became the lead guitarist of my band. This friend has a different method of writing songs. He would first write the lyrics and then find the right chord progression for those lyrics, which is opposite my writing style method. Though we both have different songwriting approaches, we jived well and produced some of our band’s best songs.
There is a third songwriting method that we were able to develop as we collaborate in writing songs. This method involved combining the two methods of songwriting mentioned above. This method, of course, is also handy in coming up with good music. However, in all these three songwriting methods, chord progressions will always play a critical role in completing a song.