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Here are five simple chord progressions to get you started writing beautiful new songs.
But first, a quick primer on the language of progressions. We talk about chord progressions using roman numerals based around the key of the song. That helps us identify the chords relative to one another, so that we can move chord progressions easily from one key to another.
We’re using three-note chords called triads to craft these progressions — specifically major (no symbol), minor (displayed with a “-“), and diminished (displayed with a “º”) triads.
To keep things simple, we’ll look at chords in the key of C, which means there are no sharps or flats (the black keys on the piano). So, here are our C major chords:
C major (C, E, G) = I
D minor (D, F, A) = II-
E minor (E, G, B) = III-
F major (F, A, C) = IV
G major (G, B, D) = V
A minor (A, C, E) = VI-
B diminished (B, D, F) = VIIº
The minor key made up of all white keys (known as the “relative minor” to C) is A minor. Here are the chords for A minor:
A minor (A, C, E) = I-
B diminished (B, D, F) = IIº
C major (C, E, G) = bIII
D minor (D, F, A) = IV-
E minor (E, G, B) = V-
F major (F, A, C) = bVI
G major (G, B, D) = bVII
So, we can analyze a series of chords by talking about it in a major key or a minor key. This is sometimes, but not always, determined by the first chord in the progression. Let’s check some out!
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1. One, Four, Five
I / IV / V / IV //
C / F / G / F //
This one originated in classical music and is present throughout all ages. This one’s also a staple among classic folk songwriters such as Bob Dylan (“Like a Rolling Stone”) as well as classic rockers such as AC/DC (“Shook Me All Night Long”), but is truly ubiquitous in the popular music idiom. While it almost always starts with I / IV / V, the fourth chord in the progression could be any of those three. Try messing around with all the options and see what sticks with you!
2. Flat Six, Flat Seven, One Minor
♭VI / ♭VII / I- //
F / G / A- //
This minor-key chord progression is great for pop and rock ballads, and can have a really epic and/or dark feel to it. These three chords can move to any position in the progression with a similar effect. Some great examples include Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan (but here’s Jimi Hendrix’s version), and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.
3. One, Five, Six Minor, Four
I / V / VI- / IV //
C / G / A- / F //
If you’re reaching for a pop mega-hit, this is your ticket to the Top 40. These four chords (in varying order) have been the basis of innumerable super-hits across popular music history, perhaps as best outlined by this video portraying just how many songs use them. Check it out and be prepared to be blown away.
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4. One, Six, Two, Five
I / VI / II / V //
C / A- / D- / G //
This classic progression provided the basis for many jazz standards in the earlier half of the 20th century — especially those with chord progression known as “rhythm changes”, but also provides a great basis for some classic folk and R&B songs as well. For the jazz side of things, check out the Gershwin classic, “I Got Rhythm” which started it all. Some later pop-side examples include “At Last” by Etta James, “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Tell Me Why” by the Beatles.
5. The Twelve-Bar Blues
I / IV / I / I /
IV / IV / I / I /
V / IV / I / V //
C / F / C / C /
F / F / C / C /
G / F / C / G //
This is the classic blues progression we know and love, from the true-blues likes of Robert Johnson to B.B. King, all the way through classic rock and pop bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, into today’s artists such as Gary Clark, Jr. and even John Mayer.
If you’re up against the great blank slate of starting a new song, hopefully some of these standard tools will come in handy. But remember, these are by no means all of your options! When it comes to getting ideas for new songs, the best thing you can do for yourself is to experiment and to trust your own ear. If what you come up with doesn’t line up with these progressions, that’s okay! In fact, it may be a good change of pace — these progressions have seen their fair share of airplay already!
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