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Chord progressions are the bedrock of music, so whether you are a beginner or advanced musician, you will want to learn how to create and use them. They can hone your skills, broaden your repertoire and help you take your listeners on an emotional journey.

What is a chord progression?

A chord progression is at least two chords played in sequence. The pattern of chords is often repeated during a verse, chorus, or bridge of a song. The chord progression is based on the key and the scale of the song. First, the musician must establish a key or group of pitches that is the foundation for the song. Major and minor keys have seven note scales, and these notes of a scale can be combined to form chords. A scale is a specific sequence of notes that is arranged by an ascending or descending order of pitch. The scale may use whole tones, semitones, or a combination of both. For example, in the key of C major, the scale contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (all the white notes.) The distance between two notes is called an interval.

What is a chord?

A chord is two or more different notes played simultaneously. Most basic chords are triads, which are made of three notes:

  1. A root note
  2. A third, which is four semitones above the root
  3. A perfect fifth, which is seven semitones above the root.

Triads can also be used to build more complex chords, such as seventh and ninth chords. These are made by adding notes above a triad. The intervals between the notes determine the quality of the chord. Examples of different qualities of chords include:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Augmented
  • Diminished
  • Major Seventh
  • Minor Seventh
  • Dominant Seventh

The essence of these chords differs. Generally, major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad, and diminished chords sound scary.

How does a chord progression work?

In its simplest form, a chord is typically three notes played together. However, these are not just random sets of notes. They help define different sections of a song, as well as develop the overall structure of a song. The chord progressions take the listener on an emotional journey. Therefore, most songwriters use more than one chord in a song.

It is not necessary to use all the chords of your chosen key. Many well-known songs only use about four chords. To create a chord progression, you have to place a few of these chords one after another, in whatever order you choose. Composers often write chords in Roman numerals. This allows a musician to play the same chord progression in another key or scale. Capital letter numerals represent major chords, while small letters indicate minor chords.

The “I” chord is the root chord and the key name. For example, the “I” chord in the key of C is the C chord. It is the “home” chord. As the music moves through different chords, the listener feels various levels of tension and release. Therefore, the “I” chord is important because all the other chords want to resolve to it. Moving away from this chord creates tension. Most progressions will also end on the “I” chord.

The IV and V chords are farther away from “home.” They tend to have more energy. It is essential to understand that chords have different feelings. They may feel resolved or tense.

Common chord progressions

It is a good idea to learn a few common chord progressions that can be used to play many songs. For example, the first, the fourth, and the fifth (I – IV – V) chords sound good together in a progression for most types of music. For instance, in the key of C, the I-IV-V chord progression would consist of the chords C, F, and G. In the key of G major, this progression would become G-C-D. Another common chord progression is the I-V-vi-IV. In the key of C major, this progression would consist of C – G – Am – F.

Many patterns often appear in genres such as popular music, rock, jazz, and classical music. Using chord progressions is a fun and instructive way to experiment with your music.