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How to make killer chord progressions

Knowing how to make chord progressions is essential to writing great music. A chord progression is like a chain of chords being played one after another. The harmonic movement from chord to chord can make a song feel cheerful, melancholic, ominous, magical, or any other mood you could think of. Make sure you read our guide on how to build chords before you progress to chord progressions.

Roman numeral analysis

All chords within a key have specific functions. Their relationship to each other is the reason you can play the same chord progression in different keys, with completely different chords, and yet convey the exact same emotion and movement.

An F major chord in the key of F major will have the same function as a C major chord in the key of C major. But a C major chord has a completely different function and feel in the key of F major than it does in the key of C major. This is why we need a different way of describing the chords other than C major, F major, etc. That is why we use roman numerals.

Chord chart.png

In this chord progression chart, you can see the roman numerals for all major and minor keys. The order of the chords is the same as the scale degrees, in which each note is the root of a chord. The roman numerals for major keys are at the top and underneath you can see the ones for minor keys.

On the left side, you can see all the major keys, and on the right all the minor keys. This is because each major key shares all the notes and chords with a minor key called the relative minor key. For example, the relative minor key of C major is A minor. The only difference is what note or chord that feels like “home”.

Chords in C major

  • C major I-chord.png
    C major
  • E minor iii-chord.png
    E minor
  • F major IV-chord.png
    F major
  • G major V-chord.png
    G major
  • A minor vi-chord.png
    A minor
  • B diminished vii-chord.png
    B diminished

Harmonic function

According to the German functional theory, there are three functions a chord can have – Tonic, subdominant, and dominant. It all boils down to how much tension the chord holds.

  • The I-chord is tonic and feels resolved and like “home”.
  • The IV-chord is subdominant and has a bit of tension that can be resolved by going to the tonic. You could also increase the tension by going to a dominant chord.
  • The V-chord is dominant and has the most tension that desperately wants to be resolved by going to the tonic.

The rest of the chords have similar functions. In the Viennese theory, these would have different terms since it’s not exactly the same but it also makes it more complicated.

  • The ii-chord is subdominant
  • The III-chord is tonic
  • The vi-chord is tonic
  • The vii°-chord is dominant

III and vi are tonic and feel fairly at rest, but they do not have the same “home” feeling the I-chord does. The more time you spend on tonic chords, the safer it will sound. If you spend too much time on the tonic it can sound boring and bland.

You can think about the subdominant chords as bridges between the tonics and dominants. By spending more time on subdominants, you can make it feel like you’re “traveling” more than you’re “arriving”.

The dominant chords are powerful tools to lead back to a tonic chord but it can also sound cliché. You can subvert expectations by playing subdominant after it instead. Avoiding them completely will result in never getting that feeling of clear resolution.

The change between tension and release is what makes a chord progression interesting. You can play with it to create chord progressions that feel like a roller coaster, calm and relaxed, or constantly on the edge.

Creating chord progressions

To put together a chord progression, all you have to do is place a few chords one after another. You don’t have to use all of the chords of the key. In fact, a lot of songs only use 2-4 chords. The most common progressions are made with I, IV, V, and vi. By placing these chords in different orders, you can get a lot of variation.

I-V-vi-IV — 4 chords progression

This is the king of chord progressions. It’s sometimes known as the 4 chords progression, because of a medley by the band The Axis of Awesome showing just how many songs use the progression.

vi-IV-I-V

You can easily change up the same sequence by starting from a different chord, for example, the vi-chord. This can be heard in “Faded” by Alan Walker and “Kids” by MGMT.