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Music is an intensely personal art form. We here at Soundfly believe that there’s no single right way to compose, produce, orchestrate, write, or perform music — and that it’s often the innovators who do things according to their own rules that truly seem to transmit the most powerful emotional experiences through their music.
That’s partly why our two harmonic theory courses, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony, take a unique approach to the content, rather than a classical “theory-heavy” approach. Together with our partner Ethan Hein, we tried to show some of the subtleties and nuances of chords and harmony, and how they’re actually used in modern music in a very practical sense.
But at the behest of some of our students (and to scratch our own nerdy itch), we were curious how much farther we could take this, so we asked our Flypaper writer staff and Soundfly Mentor community to share some of their own go-to chords, progressions, and harmonic devices for achieving certain emotional outcomes in their writing.
Composing is never as black and white as minor tonality = sad, major tonality = happy — as Ethan’s great piece, “Can Descending Chords Ever Sound Happy?” posits and proves with aplomb. And every listener in the world brings different spectrums and thresholds of emotion into their experience of music. In this way, conveying emotion via music is somewhat abstract, fluid, and susceptible to a lot of interpretation.
With Spotify playlists coming out every week from curators wanting to share varieties of songs that convey a particular emotion, we figured it might be best to break these up by emotion. These are our community’s answer to the question: How do you go about achieving the following moods and emotions in your music?
Explore below for some new progressions that just might help you nail the feeling of your next track.
Something like the last three chords of the A section in John Coltrane’s “Naima”:
A+maj9 B+maj9 A♭major (all with a low E♭ pedal.)
It’s unclear where the progression is going until the very end, and the odd augmented chords with major 9 intervals are not only enigmatic in isolation, but moving down a whole step makes the tonal center very unclear. The B+maj9 almost functions like a strange V chord in A♭ too.
One of my favorite techniques is to form a progression using a single chord type with different key centers. This is great for practicing modal interchange, and working on improvisation or playing outside the key. Take this approximation of the progression in “Havona” by Weather Report. It features the four chord phrase:
Emaj7 Cmaj7 Bmaj7 Gmaj7
We have four major 7 chords which form a haunting matrix full of possibility. You have this consonant “happy” chord quality, but dissonant movement, because of every chord tone descending by a minor 2nd on the Cmaj7 to Bmaj7. Therefore, you have a chord progression that is beautiful, but strange, and evokes a fantastic sense of mystery.
I- II- III+ (i.e., Amin Bmin C#aug)
The mystery here comes solely from the third chord. While the first two chords set us up to hear more stepwise motion, the third chord’s augmented 5th interval throws us for a loop, creating a jarring sensation, as if a sudden question is being asked. It’s a similar effect to a dominant functioning chord, but with a bit more tonal fogginess. Turning these into 7th chords helps accentuate the uneasy feeling of the sharp 5th in the augmented chord as well.
Context matters! I think tempo can sometimes insert a sense of mystery into almost any progression. Sure, a♭II applied directly to a I can sound mysterious, but what happens when you play it super slow? That’s something that even a macabre director like Martin Scorsese would want for his soundtrack.
If I slowly pluck each single string of the guitar in an Fmin13 chord, it feels a bit like you might enter a secret, ancient, and forgotten pyramid. There is definitely something mysterious living within that chord.
My approach to creating enigmatic free folk presents an interesting harmonic challenge. MY band will often therefore grind on a simple progression that moves between: I and IV, or I and V but with modal and microtonal melodic lines that muddy the harmonic waters.
In addition, and in true minimalist style, the more you move between two harmonic positions, and the more you wind the melody, the tonal center becomes less distinct, and allows you to modulate in a wealth of unpredictable directions.
♭VI ♭VII I (i.e., F G A)
I feel like this is the default cadence a lot of video games from the ’80s and early ’90s would use to signal a victory. It reminds me of the classic Mega Man games, and some variations of the Final Fantasy “win” fanfare; there’s something about stepwise motion that makes you feel like a winner.
Major chords in step succession (i.e., C D E)
The same progression as above; it doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to a key to work.
Kenneth Estrada y Santiago
If I add an E as the bass note to a Dmaj9 chord it immediately creates that ’60s hippy feeling of winning life back from the relentlessly drab and mundane. There’s something euphoric and kind of spiritual that is stronger than any negativity inherent to this chord.
C A♭ B♭ C
I find this non-diatonic step motion almost fanfare-like. I hear it used in the Final Fantasy fight scene, and I am sure it exists in other Nintendo video games.
To me, a lot of the sense of triumphant comes from having your expectations met with clear tension and release. This is where I might turn to some boring, functional harmony, like “Chariots of Fire”-style. Maybe hang out on a single root bass note while you switch between I and IV in the harmony above, possibly even dipping into V or Vsus and VI- or III-.
C Fmin B♭7 C
The “backdoor” substitution uses a minor plagal cadence (a plagal cadence is a fancy way of saying IV to I) but the V of the IV- (B♭7) keeps it sounding more optimistic and uplifting. The Fmin is common sub for A♭ too.
Kenneth Estrada y Santiago
A Csus chord played in double drop-D tuning sounds so shiny and positive, it nearly makes me cry. It has such a powerful effect on me that it’s worth calling it “epic.”
I feel like there are two types of epic: minor epic (which is more dramatic maybe) and major epic. For minor epic, there relationship between the I- and the ♭VI might be the most effective at creating a feeling of high drama, something like this:
I- ♭VI ♭III ♭VII
For major epic, I feel like most people default to the “Don’t Stop Believin'” progression (I V VI- IV). Once again, the kind of classic tension-and-release vibe is always reliable. If you’re looking for something more interesting though, I always like the progression from the end of “Free Bird”:
I ♭III IV
“Scott Street” by Phoebe Bridgers has a beautiful melancholic feeling. It contains mostly major chords in the verse but there’s a pedaling high B♭ and F on every chord that turns every chord besides the tonic into a suspended chord (sus2 or sus4). When the chorus comes in with “Do you feel ashamed…” there’s an immediate shift to a minor chord — and the chorus also ends on a minor chord, which makes the listener feel that the ultimate mood and message of the song is sad.
My song “Not Enough” goes between major and minor progressions throughout. Overall, it creates a pretty melancholy tone. The best way I’ve found to create melancholy is to sprinkle in suspended chords or chords with slight tension. Minor 7th chords or add9 chords work well because they aren’t overtly dark, but instead create a subtle sadness that can’t be accomplished with a major chord.
I- ♭VI (i.e., Fmin D♭)
♭VI I- ♭VII (i.e., D G♭min E)
These both remind me of chordal phrases from ’80s pop songs. They’re dreamy and they skate around a tonal center instead of committing to one. They can’t decide if they’re happy or sad, but they sure are pensive about it.
Bmin9 Dmaj9 E♭min9 G♭9
This progression comes from Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit, No.1 ‘Ondine.'” The chords share common tones (F#/G♭) but the top line is a descending whole tone scale, which is pretty melancholic and desolate in its own right. It’s a lovely clash of closely voiced chords that jump through keys, and while the G♭9 resolves to the Bmin9, it never feels completed.
Kenneth Estrada y Santiago
B♭major13 is the chord that makes me feel like I am sitting on a flower-covered meadow watching the birds above me, yet still, better times are to come later. As melancholy seems to be a mixture of satisfaction and latent desire, this chord leaves space for the unknown, a sensation that might be a result of the open D and G strings in my preferred double drop-D tuning.
Something like The Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime”:
Cmin Amin7♭5 A♭maj7
This track is riddled with controlled dissonance (at least as far as most of contemporary pop is concerned), although it’s mostly just minor key exploration. The progression speaks of isolation and lost hope for me.
If you want the feeling of being “lost,” well, take it at face value: one might make their chord progression “lost” too. Sure, VI- chords aren’t “supposed to” lead to I… but why not? Anything can work in music, give it a shot!
One of my own tracks that comes to mind here that is really driven by the chord progression is the “Intro” from my first EP Calico. Growing up, I was obsessed with Daft Punk. I always really loved how their progressions felt “exploratory,” which is similar to the feeling of being “lost” — and “Voyager,” in particular. Those changes have a very “unknown” quality to them, reminiscent of space travel for sure.
For “Intro,” I wanted to deliver a similar feeling, and the sustained chord did the trick. In general, staying away from the 3rd degree of a chord kind of takes that immediate happy or sad vibe away that you get from either a major or minor voicing, and leaves you with a sense of “wonder.” The first three chords in the progression for are:
B♭sus E♭/A♭ Fsus
There are only a few 3rd degrees used, mainly as turn-arounds to kinda keep things grounded. An easy way to play around with these voicings on a keyboard is to play a major 7th chord one whole step behind your root note (which you play in the bass). So playing A♭maj7 over B♭ — instant exploratory vibes.
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Kenneth Estrada y Santiago
D triad on guitar
For me, happiness is something easy and uncomplicated — like the simple D Major chord. Usually I just play it like an extended power chord starting, and to generate an even bigger sense of happiness I’ll add the free vibrating low D string to that and then just… smile.
II- I (i.e., Cmin B♭)
I remember being told once that major chords feel like a fireplace, warm and welcoming. The stepwise motion back to the root chord adds to this inherent peacefulness.
I love taking a riff or melody I’m playing in a minor and then repeating it with a raised third. This opens it up and changes the “flavor” of the melody or progression from dark and sad to uplifting and hopeful.
“Waiting For The Fall” is one of the few songs I’ve produced with all major chords. It is simply:
I V IV I
I’d say this creates a happy tone, but we worked hard on steering clear of “corny” vibes. A good way to accomplish this is to use power chords or guide tones instead of the full triad. For example, in the verses, I use guitar lines that highlight less obvious scale degrees — like strumming “ti” over the V chord. This keeps the song happy but has a subtle emotional element to give the song more depth.
Don’t get too clever for your own good here — major chords are the way to go. Over a:
I IV V or V IV I
…it will really come down to the beauty of the melody and the bounciness of the rhythm to carry the day. Make your rhythms quick, full of triplets, or shuffle them to really hammer home the “happiness.” Remember: All chord progressions are heard in context, so rhythms, melody, and instrumentation matter just as much as specific chord choices here!
Again, don’t overdo it. Minor chords are the order of the day. Make the tonic minor, like:
I- V I-
It might be too over the top for some, so think about playing the relative minor, with no leading tone, in a major key, like Amin G Emin Amin, as a I- ♭VII V- I- progression that’s borrowed from C major. Careers have been made out of this…
The music I write is usually focused around the complexities of love. So when writing chord progressions, I try to think about what feelings I want to get across. A song I wrote called “Friends” deals with the ambiguous feelings one might have toward an ex-lover when the relationship has ended but they’re still trying to retain some sort of friendship. To translate this awkward, mysterious, and somewhat hopeful feeling I used a chord progression that tonally centered around B♭min.
The beginning of the song is a simple progression:
B♭min9 Fmin9 E min9 D♭ B
There are a few variations on this but for the most part this progression has a harmony that highlights all the strong notes of the first chord (B♭, D♭, F, A♭, C). The inclusion of the B major chord (which is outside the key of B♭ minor) in my mind represents that little bit of hope for a peaceful resolution to these awkward feelings. However, the chord doesn’t last long. So during the first part of the song, the feeling is one of love being over and reflecting on the memories of a broken relationship.
The second half of the song changes to a more reflective tone in which the lyrics express the idea of trying one’s hardest to make this love work. For this part, I changed the progression to a four-chord vamp that tonally hovers between D♭ (relative major to B♭minor) and D♭ minor:
B♭min9 (D♭) D♭min E A A♭min9
This new progression represents the mixed feelings the vocalist is experiencing by going back and forth between minor and major tonalities while still implying an overarching minor tonality. As the song progresses to its climax this progression morphs to reflect different moods. The first variation represents the idea that even when you try your best to love someone it doesn’t always work out.
I changed the first chord to completely change the color. I switched the B♭ minor chord to a B♭ major chord in the first inversion. I think subtly harmonic tricks like this (especially in music where the chords repeat a lot) help to take the listener on a journey. The confusion and eventual self-doubt about the lovers’ choice to split is represented in how ambiguous the chords get towards the end. The progression morphs in many interesting ways which juxtapose the major and minor resolution before settling on a Amaj7#11 to F# minor vamp.
I think the song ends on a mysterious note because it doesn’t resolve to the home key. It doesn’t end where it began but ends somewhere new and strange. In fact, the song ends a major third down from where it started (B♭ minor to F# minor). Hopefully when people hear the song they can feel that awkward space between lovers and friends.
I use the augmented 7th chord frequently in my compositions. I use it in place of a regular dominant 7th chord a lot, but also to present an area of wonder, questionability, mystery, or melancholy instead of signalling the end of a chordal phrase. It’s more like a tool to express emotion on top of lyrics and/or melody for me. I think it was born out of not yet being able to place my need for chordal tensions, but later became a useful asset for kind-of-sad-but-also-full-of-wonder expression.
For example, take a happy progression, but place a B+7 in between to make:
Cmaj7 B+7 B♭maj7
Weirdly enough, it reminds me of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which felt magical. Take that as you will.
For me, chords and harmony are a lot like mixing paint colors! If you start with white and then one-by-one mix in the reds and greens and so forth, you’ll create many interesting mixtures. At a certain point however, you end up with a dark brown and then ultimately black. Colors, in an abstract way, are thought to evoke a range of emotions. It’s probably evolutionary, but it’s clear, if you look at human customs, some colors are associated with happiness, others sadness, and everything in between.
Chords work in a similar way. If you start with a major chord (that to me is a bit like your standard yellow) and then you mix in a 6th, you’ve now added dissonance and in doing so changed the character and emotion of that sound. As you add in more complexity to your chord you create a deeper well of emotions until you’ve added too much and it’s no longer a distinguishable chord — you might say it’s just noise.
Sound, like color, evokes emotions in us all. We as everyday musicians may not understand the science behind why that is, but intuitively we know it to be true. As musicians, it’s important to keep a mental inventory of how certain sounds make us feel and by doing so we improve our ability to identify and use sounds.
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