Chords and chord progressions in music are far easier to understand than most people think.
We look at the basics of theory in the simplest way possible to help you to be more capable of doing cool things.
What is here is deliberately not genre-specific. Harmony applies to all Western music from Mozart to Eminem. The differences are surprisingly small, so once you have the basics here, you can do a lot.
The companion video is essentially the same material but obviously much easier to hear. We encourage you to take in both as this will help you to understand the deeper concepts here.
What are chord progressions?
Chord progressions became the hot topic a while ago. Sadly, a lot out there is totally silly. When you Google “Chord Progressions”, you get lists of “The 10 Best” which is not doing anyone any good.
A chord progression is, at heart, not at all different from what it suggests: a progression of chords, one after the other.
Nowhere in that definition does it indicate goodness, rightness, betterness, layers of professionalism… Yet people add all these silly ideas.
What they are NOT?
I had a conversation with someone once who tried to suggest that a certain B singer was better than the Eagles because her songs used more complex chords than they did. OMG!
That is right up there with those VST and packs that for a low low (ridiculously high) price will do all the work for you, supplying all the good chords (and melodies) for your song.
These are not useful things and must be put aside immediately. Otherwise, the crutch stops you from walking; learning the basics that you need to do the real job of telling your stories in music.
Basics of music theory
People are afraid of harmony theory. I understand that. You look at the usual stuff presented and within moments feel like throwing yourself off the nearest cliff. All those lists, tables, and infographics. Not to mention the circle of filths! (sorry “fifths”)
Music theory is not your enemy. It will not kill your creativity. Theory merely explains why some things seem to work more easily than others.
When a creative artist is making music, they are not sitting there following charts that tell them what they can and cannot do next. They play what flows.
It is later that a Musicologist comes along and explains that their music is cool because they used a heptastich 74th into a trylogystic 4th with an inverted 2nd over a dominant sub harmonic. Yeah!
Once you understand the basics of music theory or harmony, it helps you to solve the inevitable issues or problems that arise as you are working. Where the word “rule” is used, it is a guide, not a rule which, if broken, will send you straight to the bottom of the charts.
Take for example, the rule about not stacking seconds is wise, as generally stacked seconds sound terrible. Right up until you are scoring a horror movie, whereupon the stack of minor seconds is just the ticket for making people feel the shrieking terror of finding a knife wielding fellow with a bad haircut in their shower; ree, ree, ree!
Music theory helps you to understand why a thing works or doesn’t. Harmony theory is explanation not prescription.
What are chords?
Chords are essentially any collection of notes played at once. By now, all possible configurations of notes played at once have been given descriptive names to help carry a conversation about them.
For example, if you hit a random pile of keys at once, especially in a rhythmic fashion, that is called a hammer chord. It is a technique often used by rock organists. Jon Lord of Deep Purple was famous for ’em.
The most commonly considered basic chord is the triad, which is the I+II+V notes in the scale. Let’s unpack that a bit before your brain leaves out the back door.
The key scale
Everything we do here will be in C major, which is easy to visualize as it is all the white keys on the keyboard.
Using another key or scale changes nothing really, just shifts things up or down a bit. You’ll understand that in time. There’s plenty you can do in good ole C Maj.
Before you get upset, this is merely the same information presented in several different ways.
The note names never change. The C key is always a C. The C Above is always C Above or a unison (same but not-same). The step from one key to another is always a semitone. We just don’t always use all the keys in a specific song. This is called a key scale.
Seeing we are in C major, the scale starts on C and follows the pattern:
Tone, Tone, Semitone
Tone, Tone, Semitone
Each of those leaps is called an interval. Intervals is the right word, because once we start changing keys, everything becomes relative – as in D Maj is: D-E-F Sharp-G-A-B-C Sharp-D, which is exactly the same pattern.
The relativeness of things in theory can make it confusing at first, but like math (which this really is), once you realize it is all patterns it makes sense and is perfectly adaptable.
The interval is counted as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 and counts only the notes used in that scale. Commonly those scale intervals are expressed in Roman numerals. The advantage of this is that the actual chord being defined can be noted as Major (III) or minor (iii) using capitals or smalls. Pretty elegant really.
Ignore that for now though, and simply work with the idea of interval and the note name, so an A chord is an A chord (regardless of whether that is really Maj or min).
Before you get upset about being hemmed in and having your creativity ruined, there is absolutely nothing to stop you from using C Maj as above, only raising the F to F Sharp, in which case the IV is on F# (leaving the white F unplayed).
I’m sure there is a name for this but who really cares, so long as we stick to that scale as we play and revel in the joy people get from our exotic sounding tune.
C major and a chord progression
Using the above, the first triad in C Major is C+E+G (I-III-V). If we then play F, F-A-C (IV-VI-VIII) we have a chord progression we can write out as I-IV, which is the chord based on the root C, followed by the chord based on the fourth step in the scale, F.
If we then add a third Chord in our progression, A A-C-E (VI-VIII-X) we have a chord progression that we note as I-IV-vi. The last chord step is written in smalls, seeing that chord is actually A min.
A Maj would be A-C Sharp-E, which breaks our scale, so we use the “flattened” C to keep with notes that sound comfortable in the song as a whole.
If we play that chord progression, note how it sounds scrappy or disconnected. The chords leap about a lot which is not comfortable or smooth. You can see that already from just reading the definition of those chords, as the A (VI-VIII-X) is reading a note 10 steps away from the root note (where it all starts).
While we can do that, if we want a smooth flow, we need to move the voicing of those chords. This is called using an inversion.
We will not get into all there is to know about inversions (more numbers), simply know that notes are not stuck in exact spots but can be shifted up and down by an octave without really changing the essential chord.
Our A, with its top note 10 scale steps above the root or center of the piece is a bit of a stretch, so we might take the top note of that chord and drop it exactly one octave to play the chord as E-A-C. That is called first inversion.
By moving where the notes sit in each chord in the progression, we can create a smoother flow. This image shows the same essential chords in a chord progression of I-V-VI-IV (C-G-A-F). It is really leaping about and not elegant to listen to.
The second round has some voicing within the chords moved to create a more even flow. The third round is the same again, only note how even the results look. This is how this chord progression is most commonly written and played.
This, however, isn’t the only right or the proper thing to do. We can use any of these chord voicings if they suit our purposes. If you want a somewhat erratic rising feel, the first “naive” voicing is possibly perfect, especially if you move the final F above the chord.
Which leads me to my favorite thing about theory…
Throw away the rules
While people love to impose rules upon each other, the reality with harmony is that you can do whatever you want so long as you are getting the results that you need.
Therefore, there are no rules other than: do what it takes to get where your song needs to go.
The moment that you hit a problem, think on what the advice is. See how the first voicing for the chord progression above created an issue of disconnectedness.
Understanding that we can change voicing lets us use some options to solve the issue or find another progression or key scale that suits our story better. Just be sure that whatever choices you make are elegant in the situation.
The hair-waving rat, tat, tat bit in the middle of Metallica “One” is super there. If we did exactly that in the middle of a Celine Dion weepy, it may be technically correct, but it doesn’t feel elegant in the situation.
Therefore, we take the parts of the idea that work and adjust them until they suit the situation.
One of the things that helps music to flow well is the cadence. There are tomes on cadences, but the perfect cadence is enough much of the time. Simply put, cadence is how the notes flow.
This means that if you want a nice ending on the root of the piece (home is always comfortable after a journey), you can use the chord just under the root) which is just like totally dying to resolve to the root, e.g. in C Maj the B chord (B-D-F) of C Maj (C-E-G) feels both glorious and complete.
If you contrast the feel of this progression with this one which finishes with a perfect cadence, you can feel the sense of completion.
The only change is the second-last chord, which uses that magical tritone (or Devil’s chord) to enhance resolution.
Music without cadences feels incomplete. Incomplete music is unsatisfactory, meaning we don’t want to come back and do it again.
As an example, if I write a story: A Hobbit went for a beer. And that’s it, it finishes there. Is it a great story? No, seeing nothing happened and there is no ending (poor beerless Hobbitses).
The cadence helps add tension that we resolve. Be sure that your music balances tension with release. Music is broken when there is nothing but tension that goes nowhere at all. That is no longer tense but annoying.
Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” is a great use of tension and release. There is not actually a lot going on, but by using the same chord over and over (tension), broken by a cadence (release), the song feels like a freight train interspersed with celebration.
You can stop here or learn the very basics of orchestration. Not adding orchestra plugins, but by taking your chords and using them to extrapolate bass and a melody.
Once we have a working chord progression, we can add other parts that work surprisingly easily.
There is nothing that we must do, or cannot do, but the structure that we have given ourselves with a key scale and chord progression help us to understand what will feel good.
Starting with bass, because it is stupid simple, we can copy those chords into a new clip for a bass sound to play. Often that means dropping those notes by 1 octave, but depends on tuning of the instrument used. Remove all but the lowest notes and you have the bassline.
You can play the root notes of the chords themselves if you like – remember we re-voiced these chords – but these “bottom” notes are safe and super easy too.
These provide a nice sense of solidity to the piece. You can get jiggy with the rhythm if you like. Just be sure not to fight with the main rhythm of the piece, or it starts to feel un-glued in a way that no amount of compression will ever fix. This very simple bass line will work better than one that is blundering around.
Melody is generally more open to variety than the bass, but again that is up to you. In some songs the bass part is more complex than the melody. If it works, it works. Just don’t outclever yourself.
Here I added a melody (or top line – call it a melody please) which works around the chord voices. Sometimes using chord voices (safe), and other times using notes in the scale that change the actual voicing of the chord (tense).
Note how some of the melody notes are two scale steps above the top note in the chord; this is essentially extending that chord into a more complex chord, like maybe a 7th which is more colorful than the simple C-E-G with the addition of a D, which is a bit tense.
If we want, we can even use non-scale tones like an F Sharp. This is best used as a passing note as it will be a bit uncomfortable, but if done well for the situation, might just be the magic moment that people hope for.
Again, be aware of that cadence at the end of the section and piece so that it remains effective. Here I use F-B-C to do the perfect cadence thing for a nice resolution that gives comfort.
Avoiding the cadence (in any form) would make the piece feel unfinished, leaving the listener feeling incomplete – and therefore unlikely to come back.
It is right for chords to be a thing of discussion as they are really the center of all music, whether we use them or not.
If we wrote only the bass part above, we are implying a chord progression, as does the melody alone. Putting the bass and melody together gives further weight to the chord progression, even if the chords are never defined directly – or played.
This means that if you ignore your chord progression, you may be creating situations that deliver more confusion than confidence in your listener as the skate shoes don’t match the business shirt.
People may not say “Oh your chord progression is odd”, they merely don’t come back as the music felt weird to them. Fine if you were shooting for weird, not so much otherwise. Such is the power of chords.
This music theory thing will feel odd at first. Sliding scales always are, like algebra – all that X2-Y=Z stuff is unsettling at first, seeing it seems to describe nothing but madness.
Once you realize that this is merely patterns, like the way counting 1-10 applies whether the number starts at 1 or 12,458, it all makes sense.
You don’t need a lot of harmony theory to make good of use of it. Everything above is enough to make most rock and pop songs – even with a nice bit of simple orchestration.
Again, we encourage watching the video, as while it covers the same material, you can hear the different results as we move things around.