Chord Progression Guide for songwriters
Chord progressions which can also be called harmonic progressions are the order or sequence of chords within songs, so simply put chord progressions make songs. Melodies and harmonies may be what we think of when we think of our favorite songs and the beats or rhythms that drive the songs, but it is the progression of the chords that makes the songs.
A group of chords artistically arranged can be like a magical roller coaster ride, filled with highs and lows, ups and downs, fast or slow. A true trip loaded with power and emotion. Happy or sad, romantic or divine, angry or silly anything goes. But which chords to use and in what order to use them can be a mystery. So understanding the keys and the chords in the keys will help you to write better songs.
The trick to understanding chord progressions, the keys and the chords in the keys is in the Roman numeral system using number names instead of using letter names. Have you ever been in a jam session and someone starts a song by saying “It’s a I- IV- V in A”. (I=1 IV=4 V=5) instead of saying “The chords are A, D, and E” And the numbers will always work the same no matter what key you are in, so a I-IV-V in the key of A will work the same as a I-IV-V in the key of F# or in the Key of Bb etc… So if we know how the Roman numeral system works, (and it is very easy) and how it relates to our keys and their chords than the numbers will tell us what chords are in the song or even what the actual chord progression is.
The Roman numeral system is applied to the seven notes in any major scale and the numbers are often called scale degree. Doe=1 being the first degree, Ray=ii being the second degree, Me=iii being the third degree, Fa=IV being the fourth degree, So=V being the fifth degree, La=vi being the sixth degree, Te=vii being the seventh degree and Doe=VIII being the eighth degree or 1 again being the same as the first but an octave apart in pitch. Some musicians prefer to use Arabic numbers instead of Roman numerals. Arabic numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 or 1again. Either one will work, Roman or Arabic.
Example; The 7 notes in the C Major Scale are C,D,E,F,G,A,B. Which in scale degree, using Roman numerals, represents C=I, D=ii, E=iii, F=IV, G=V, A=vi, B=VII. Now if we build a C major chord, we start on C, skip D and pick E, skip F and pick G which gives us C, E and G. Those 3 notes together form a C major chord. To build a D minor chord, we start on D, skip E, pick F, skip G, and pick A. Those 3 notes together form a D minor chord. And so on. For the chords in the key of A, we use the A major scale. For the key of E use the E major scale etc…
Chords with three notes are called Triads. Building chords using scale degree are also known as chord formula and or chord spelling. Included here is a chord chart with each chords scale degree for all 15major keys. The first notes or 1are the tonic or root and is also the name of each key. Major chords are in upper case Roman numerals and minor chords are in lower case Roman numerals and so are the diminished (dim).
A chord built from the F# note will give us an F# chord of some type (major/minor/diminished, etc.) and a chord built from the Bb note will give us a Bb chord of some type (major/minor/diminished, etc.) And a chord built from an E note will give us an E chord of some type (major/minor/diminished, etc.) And so on. Plus, notes may be added to or subtracted from any chord, which will change the voicing and the name of the chord.
Below is a major key chord chart for all 15 major keys.
Major Key Chord Chart
M m m M M m dim
1 2- 3- 4 5 6- 7
I ii iii IV V vi vii
C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
C# D#m Fm F# G# A#m Cdim
Db Ebm Fm Gb Ab Bbm Cdim
D Em F#m G A Bm C#dim
Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb Cm Ddim
E F#m G#m A B C#m D#dim
F Gm Am Bb C Dm Edim
F# G#m A#m B C# D#m Fdim
Gb Abm Bbm B Db Ebm Fdim
G Am Bm C D Em F#dim
Ab Bbm Cm Db Eb Fm Gdim
A Bm C#m D E F#m G#dim
Bb Cm Dm Eb F Gm Adim
B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#dim
Cb Dbm Ebm E Gb Abm Bbdim
- The above minus signs next to the numbers represent minor chords as does the small case roman numerals ( ii ) within the above text and the large case roman numerals represent major chords.
Some songs may have no chord change at all they simply stay on the 1 chord. They depend on the melody and the beat to carry the song and keep the listener interested. Such as Run through the Jungle, by Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). Still other songs may have only two chords. Such as Feelin Alright by Dave Mason. However, it is three-chord songs that are most common.
The chord progression may be selected to fit a pre-conceived melody, or it may be the chord progression itself that gives us the melody. But songs can have as many as four, five, six or much more chords within them. By juggling the chords in a key around, and how long we hold some or how fast we change to another and trying different rhythms, we can experiment, learn, have fun and improve our writing skills.