Chord progressions are the patterns that music composers use to put musical notes and chords together. When you write music, chord progressions are critical in writing songs that sound harmonious and have the desired tones.
If you look at Western harmonic music, you can see patterns emerge in the ways chord progressions are built. It is possible for any one chord to progress to any one of the other chords in a key; however, certain chord progressions are used more frequently than others. Why? Because they just sound better.
These natural patterns are pleasing to listeners and composers alike, and therefore they appear in popular music, classical, rock, jazz, and so on. Music theorists have taken note of those patterns and come up with a set of “rules” concerning chord progressions. These “rules” are immensely helpful in songwriting. The following tables show common chord progressions for major and minor chords, along with the corresponding chord names for key of C major and C minor.
Uppercase Roman numerals represent major chords; lowercase Roman numerals represent minor and diminished chords.
Common Major Key Chord Progressions Chord Chord in C Major Scale Leads to
I C Can appear anywhere and lead anywhere
ii Dm V or vii° chords
iii Em IV or vi chords
IV F ii, V, or vii° chords
V G vi chords
vi Am ii, iii, IV, or V chords
vii° B° I chord
Because minor scales offer some flexibility in the sixth and seventh notes of the scale, you have more chord possibilities to account for. For example, in a C natural minor scale, the chord built on the seventh note would be Bb major, but if you’re writing in the harmonic minor scale, that seventh chord would be a diminished B chord (B°). The parentheses around some of the chords indicate less commonly used chords, but they are still acceptable and they would work in the progression.
Common Minor Key Chord Progressions Chord Chord in C Minor Scale Leads to
i chords Cm Can appear anywhere and lead anywhere
ii° (ii) chords D° (Dm) V(v) or vii° (VII) chords
III (III+) chords Eb (Eb aug) iv (IV), VI (#vi°), or vii° (VI) chords
iv (IV) chords Fm (F) V(v) or vii° (VII) chords
V(v) chords G (Gm) VI (#vi°) chords
VI (#vi°) chords Ab (A°) III (III+), iv (IV), V (v), or vii° (VII) chords
vii° (VII) chords B° (Bb) i chord
Some of the most common chord progressions in popular music are I-IV-V-I, I-ii-V-I, and i-iv-V-i.
Like everything in music and art in general, you are the creator of your work, and you can decide whether you want to follow the rules or try something completely different. Just for fun, try playing, or just listening to some chord progressions to get a feel of how easy it can be to build a great song—or at least a halfway decent pop song.
Listen to the I-V-I (G Major-D Major-G Major) chord progression in G major.
Listen to the I-ii-V-I-iii-V-vii◦-I (CM-Dm-GM-CM-Em-GM-Bdim-CM) chord progression in C major.
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