Learn the theory behind writing better chord progressions in this guideline that explores basic concepts and advice to help you make creative decisions when building chord phrases.
Students often ask how they can write better chord progressions. This simple guideline aims to help you write better chord progressions by introducing general theory and offering some basic advice to get you started down the right path.
Start with Triad Chords
In music theory, a major or minor triad chord is a chord having a root, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. At first, try keeping things simple by creating a chord progression using triad chords in whatever key you are working in. For example, C major has the notes C, E, G. The C minor chord has the notes C, Eb, G. This limitation will help you quickly make decisions about what kind of chords to use in a progression. The trick is to limit yourself which will help you make decisions easier.
C Major Chord
C Minor Chord
Begin and End with the Same Chord or Key
The key identifies the tonic note or chord and is described as a group of notes in which a scale is based on. A scale is an ordered set of notes typically used in a key. Often, popular music of the 20th century will begin and end in the same key because the notes and chords work together to create a sense of completeness when the tonic note or chord returns to resolve the progression. Using other notes and chords outside the key you’re working in creates varying degrees of tension that may sound incomplete or awkward. Resolving progressions using the same chord or key you started with will likely sound more pleasing and will transition better when looping chord progressions. However, this rule is not set in stone so feel free to experiment.
Move Freely Among Diatonic Chords
Every major and minor scale has seven individual chords called diatonic triads. Diatonic chords are the chords that are derived from only the notes of a key. Each key contains seven different notes. You can think of diatonic chords as a family of chords that are all related by the notes of a key. In addition, they all harmonically work together like one big happy family.
Let’s explore this further using the key of A minor as an example. A natural A minor scale has the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G. The tonic note is the root note of the scale which is A. Now that we know the key and all the notes in the scale, we can begin building the seven corresponding diatonic chords. Below are all seven diatonic triads in the key of A minor:
- Am – A, C, E
- Bdim – B, D, F
- C – C, E, G
- Dm – D, F, A
- Em – E, G, B
- F – F, A, C
- G – G, B, D
Tip: You can move freely around diatonic chords in your progressions. They are harmonically compatible. You just have to find the progression that works best for the track.
Using Non-Diatonic Chords To Spice Up Your Progressions
Let’s make things interesting and break the rules a bit by using a chord outside of the diatonic triads. Is that allowed? Yes. Will it sound good? Well, that’s up to you. There is a another category of chords called non-diatonic chords. These are major or minor chords that do not have notes belonging to the specific scale you are working in. Simply put, you can start from a diatonic major chord and move to any other major chord to add some dissonant variety. Just because a note isn’t in a part of a specific scale doesn’t mean that you can’t play it. Many famous jazz solos are great examples. Improvisers frequently relied on outside harmonies to add color to their solos. However, this technique works best when used seldom. In addition, it’s important to end the series of chords on one of the diatonic chords so that the chord progression resolves smoothly. For example, if you start with diatonic major you could move to any other major chord. Any major chord could potentially sound good. The trick is to end the series of major chords on one of the three a diatonic major chords. The same goes for minor chords. Make sure to end on one of three diatonic minor chords. Below is an example of an A minor chord progression with non-diatonic chords.
A Min | F Maj | D Min | Bb Min (Non-Diatonic) | Eb Min (Non-Diatonic) | D Min (Diatonic)
We know that chord progressions resolve best when the last chord is the same as the first chord, but what about the second to last chord? This chord is very important because it helps the music lead into the last chord and signify the end of the progression is coming. This is called a cadence. What’s the difference between a progression and a cadence? Well, progressions happen when one chord changes to another chord, and cadences are a type of progression used to signify that a section or phrase is coming to an end. Cadencing chords are also essential for releasing musical tension. In music, cadences are divided into four types according to their harmonic progression: authentic, plagal, half, and deceptive.
- Authentic Cadence: This is the most common and basic type of cadence. An authentic cadence comes in two varieties: a Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC) and an Imperfect Authentic Cadence (IAC). An authentic cadence is one that moves from a dominant chord to the tonic chord.
- Plagal Cadence: This is often called an “Amen” cadence because it’s commonly used to end many traditional hymns. It is described as being generally weaker than an authentic cadence. There is less tension and more of a feeling of relaxation.
- Half Cadence: This cadence is described as giving a feeling of pause and rest. There is also a feeling of incompleteness. The half cadence suggests that more needs to be said, either as a continuation or an answering phrase.
- Deceptive Cadence: This is considered a weak cadence because of the hanging or suspended feel it invokes. The effect of the deceptive cadence can be quite dramatic depending on what chord you actually land on. A tamer deceptive cadence will move to a chord that is still closely related to the tonic. A more dramatic shift will come from moving to a more distantly related chord.
Below is an example of an authentic cadence in C major.
- Cadence 1 progresses from a D minor to G major chord (IAC).
- Cadence 2 progresses from a G major to C major chord (PAC).
Test Drive the Root Notes of Your Progressions
One way to feel out the vibe of your progressions is by taking the root notes of all of the chords and playing them like a singable melody. If they sound good, then you probably have a great chord progression on your hands. Many people often like to start with this step to build a pattern and then go back and build up the chords.
A Min | E Min | D Min | C Maj | Eb Maj | G Maj | D Min | G Min | D Min | E Min | A Min
These basic guidelines are tried-and-true approaches for writing great chord progressions you can you as the main feature in a song or as the underlying force for all of the other melodic tracks. The next step is to learn how to bend them and discover new possibilities that will help define your own sound – that’s the fun part!
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