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Understanding chord progressions to write better songs

Let’s say you’ve got a melody you’re proud of, but you don’t know what to do with it. Understanding chords and chord relationships can help you go from a rough idea to a finished song faster than you think.

In this article, I’m going to break down what chord progressions are, how to find and put them together quickly, as well as show you some quick ways of spicing things up.

Behind the insights

Aaron Cloutier, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a producer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator with over 16 years of experience in the music industry.

As a professional songwriter, I’ve self-published numerous solo projects and collaborated with artists ranging from Ill Nino to Sir Christopher Lee.

I’ve also worked as a freelance songwriter for companies such as Songfinch and Songlorious.


Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What are chord progressions?

I think the simplest way to describe a chord progression is by defining it as a group of different chords that sound good together. That’s it.

To go a bit further, though, I’d like to add that if done “right” (which is subjective), the combination of these chords, along with the order they are put in, will have a sense of movement to them.

A start and finish, if you will. As if telling a story.

They serve as the musical foundation for your melody to sit on top of and can even change how said melody sounds depending on what chord combinations you use.

These progressions can be assembled by choosing different chords found in the same parent key or by borrowing chords from different keys altogether, but we can get into more complex stuff at another time.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be showing you how to use every part of the buffalo by understanding all seven chords you have at your disposal in any given natural major key.

Let’s dig in.

Understanding what chords are in a key

Knowing what kind of chords are at your disposal in the key you’re writing in is essential for expanding your vocabulary and depth of understanding as a musician and songwriter.

In this section, I’m going to briefly discuss the different types of chords found in a major key and the moods often associated with them to help you make more informed songwriting decisions based on the feelings you’re trying to convey with your music.

A brief word about triads

Triads are chords that are made up of just three notes found in any natural major scale.

Without getting too heavy into the theory right now, there are three different types of triads that can be found in a major key.

  • Major (happy).
  • Minor (sad, melancholy).
  • Diminished (tense, scary).

Let’s take, for example, the key of C major to show you what I mean.

As we know, when we spell out a C major scale, we have the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

What’s cool is, if we harmonize this scale in thirds (building off of every third note from the root note), we are left with these chords: C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished (Bm7b5).

From this collection of chords, we can explore using different combinations to create what are known as chord progressions.

Most commonly used chord progressions in today’s music

This can widely vary depending on genre, so for the sake of this article, I’m going to center on more contemporary genres like pop, rock, R&B, country, and hip-hop.

Here are the most common progressions in pop, rock, country music, and beyond:

1-5-6-4 (C-G-Am-F)

In the pop and mainstream rock genres, the most commonly used chord progression, without a doubt, has to be the 1-5-6-4.

It has been used in countless hit songs from artists ranging from U2 and Green Day to Beyoncé and Journey, as well as a host of others.

Some examples of 1-5-6-4 found in popular music include “When I Come Around” by Green Day and “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

If you play a 1-5-6-4 progression on your instrument of choice, you’ll notice that when you reach the end (the F chord, in this case), your ear is ready for that C major chord again.

This is because the C major chord is the “tonal center” of the chord progression. Meaning all roads lead back to this chord.

1-4-5 (C-F-G)

Debatably, the next most commonly used chord progression in contemporary music is the 1-4-5. It has been a staple in genres ranging from blues and pop to rock and country.

Some examples of 1-4-5 can be found in songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop” by Ramones (1-4-5, 1-4-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-4-5) as well as the verse of “Good Riddance” by Green Day.

There have been some interesting ways artists have rearranged 1-4-5 to put a slight twist on an old classic, resulting in songs such as “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens, which adopts a 1-4-1-5 progression.

Variations on 1-5-6-4

The following are some examples of how to take the standard 1-5-6-4 progression and tweak the recipe ever so slightly as to avoid the trap of writing a generic-sounding progression.

“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, for example, replaces the 5 with the 4 and vice versa to a surprisingly different sounding progression of 1-4-6-5 as heard here:

“Stand By Me” by Ben E. King and “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam opt for a 1-6-4-5 progression, which immediately creates a sense of yearning with the inclusion of a minor chord so early in the song.

Things lighten up quickly, however, as the rising action of the 4 followed by the 5 chord, leads back to the 1. An incredibly effective combination.

6-4-1-5 (Am-F-C-G)

The sadder cousin of the 1-5-6-4 chord progression, 6-4-1-5 instead scrambles the order the chords occur in while making the minor “6th” chord the progression’s tonal center.

What this means is that no matter what other chords are involved, anything starting with a 6 is going to sound like some version of sad.

To hear examples of 6-4-1-5 in popular music, check out the chorus of “Africa” by Toto as well as the chorus of “Numb” by Linkin Park.

Variations on the chord progression can be heard at the additional examples below:

  • 6-5-4: “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix
  • 6-5-4-5: end of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
  • 6-1-4-5: “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry

Alternatives to standard chord progressions

If you feel like you’ve exhausted every possible avenue with the typical chords found in a single key using more common methods such as the aforementioned, the next step I suggest to try out would be exploring modal chord progressions.

What this means, in essence, is that a different cord in your parent key would be the tonal center, or in other words, the focal point for your progression.

I should tell you at this point that if you’ve read this far, you’ve already encountered two of the seven “church modes” of the major scale.

The first two we’ve covered so far are the Ionian mode, also known as the natural major scale (see all the “happy” chord progression examples shown above), followed by the Aeolian mode, also known as the natural minor scale (see all the “sad” chord progression examples shown above).

Now, let’s explore a bit more nuance in the emotional spectrum of a few other modes and their respective progressions.

For the sake of this article, all featured modes belong to the parent key of C major. In other words, each modal chord progression uses the same chords found in C major but just in a different order.

If that sounds confusing, just start with exploring these different chord progressions and I can go more in-depth about what the modes are in a future article. Be sure to drop a comment if you’d be interested!

Also, I’ve included the moods that are often associated with these modes to give you a head start on what to try out first based on the vibe of what you’re trying to write.

Dorian mode

Mood: Melancholy. Often referred to as “happy minor” or “funky minor.”

Chord progressions in D Dorian:

  • 1-4-1-7-1 (Dm-G-Dm-C-Dm)
  • 1-7-1-7-1 (Dm-C-Dm-C-Dm)
  • 1-4-2-5-7-1 (Dm-G-Em-C-Dm)

A great example of the use of Dorian in popular music would be the music of Carlos Santana. Check out the songs “Oye Como Va” and “Evil Ways”.

Also check out “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak as well as “The Payback” and “Sex Machine” from James Brown.

Phrygian mode

Mood: Dark/intense (dramatic minor).

Chord progressions in E Phrygian:

  • 1-2-3-1 (Em-F-G-Em)
  • 1-5-1-2-1 (Em-B7-Em-F-Em)
  • 1-4-1-2-1 (Em-Am-Em-F-Em)
  • 1-3-7-1 (Em-G-Dm-Em)

“Sober” from Tool as well as “Would?” from Alice in Chains are great examples of the use of Phrygian in a chord progression.

Lydian mode

Mood: Light/whimsical (quirky major).

Chord progressions in F Lydian:

  • 1-2-1-2 (F-G-F-G) modulate a whole step up and repeat 1-2-1-2 (G-A-G-A) then go back down 1-2-1-2 (F-G-F-G)
  • 1-2-1-2-4-5-4-5-1 (F-G-F-G-Am-C-Am-C-F)
  • 1-6-2-5-1 (F-Dm-G-C-F)

“Head Over Heels” from Tears for Fears is a great example of how to use Lydian in a chord progression as well as a melody.

Mixolydian mode

Mood: Ethereal (sad major).

Chord progressions in G Mixolydian:

  • 1-7-1-7-1 (G-F-G-F-G)
  • 1-6-4-5-7-1 (G-Em-C-D7-F-G)
  • 1-4-1-7-1 (G-C-G-F-G)
  • 1-2-4-7-1 (G-Am-C-F-G)

“Sweet Child o’ Mine” from Guns N’ Roses as well as “Sweet Home Alabama” from Lynyrd Skynyrd are great examples of the use of Mixolydian in a chord progression.

Locrian mode

Mood: Tense/ominous (diminished).

Chord progressions in B Locrian:

  • 1-5-1-5-1 (Bo-G-Bo-G-Bo)
  • 1-3-1-2-1 (Bo-Dm-Bo-C-Bo)
  • 1-5-1-5-1 (Bo-G-Bo-G-Bo)
  • 1-3-7-1 (Bo-Dm-Am-Bo)
  • 1-7-1-7-1 (Bo-Am-Bo-Am-Bo)

The verse of “…And Justice for All” from Metallica as well as the verse to “Painkiller” by Judas Priest are great examples of the use of Locrian in a chord progression.

There’s even a hint of Locrian found in the excellent “Army of Me” by Björk.

In closing

Now, I know you might be thinking that everything I’ve just shared is a lot to chew on right now.

My suggestion to you is that if you have a melody that’s all written and ready to go, take some time to passively listen to it.

What kinds of feelings does it bring up? Is there even just one or two chords that come to mind as you listen back? Grab a pen and paper and write those down.

Experiment with chord combinations taken from this list to get started, but above all, trust your instincts and let go of expectations. Just treat it like an experiment.

Thanks for reading!