Music can be beautiful regardless of which chords we use or the notes we select for a melody. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
But what if there is a chord progression that stands above the rest in terms of beauty when played on the guitar? I have a strong opinion about this one.
The most beautiful chord progression on guitar is without a doubt the I-III7-vi-IV. Just in case you’re not familiar with Roman numeral analysis, in the key of C major, the chords would be C major, E7, A minor, and F major.
Maybe you can think of some songs that use these chords. While this progression sounds beautiful, its inner workings are where the true beauty lies.The melodic possibilities are quite spectacular.
Let’s dive into what’s going on with these chords.
- Why These Chords Are Beautiful
- What is a Secondary Dominant?
- Songs That Use I-III7-vi-IV
- How to Play It In Every Key
Why These Chords Are Beautiful
The secret spice that makes this progression work is the E7. It simply doesn’t belong in the key of C major. Yet it sounds good for some reason.
To figure out whats happening behind the scene, we need to understand which chords DO belong in the key.
Here’s every triad (3-note chord) in C major and the Roman numerals for each one. We’ll use uppercase Roman numerals for major chords and lowercase numerals for minor chords.
|Roman Numeral||Chord Name||Notes|
There is no E7 in the chart. In fact, the iii chord is minor. The only way to get an E major chord is to raise the 3rd (the middle note) a half-step up to G#.
But if you look back at the chart, raising the G to G# messes up two other chords. It would change the C major chord to C augmented. G major becomes G# augmented.
Augmented chords have a sound, but most musicians would not describe it as “beautiful.”
Applying the G# to a single chord and ignoring the rest of the time means we have to step outside the key. Borrowing a chord from another key can draw attention to itself.
Yet for some reason, this progression sounds great. Here is a breakdown of what it looks like when we only acknowledge the G# when playing E7.
|C Major||C E G||a b C d E f G a|
|E7||E G# B D||a B c D E f G# a|
|A Minor||A C E||A b C d E f g A|
|F Major||F A C||A b C d E F g A|
The first thing that makes these chords beautiful is the potential for a nice descending line: C, B, A, and F. We can add a G as a passing tone between A and F to make it sound smoother.
There is another descending line with E, D, C. So within a single chord progression, we have two descending lines that can work for bass lines or melodies.
Another unique feature of this progression is the chromatic line as we climb from G to G# to A. This works very well in a melody to create a sense of rising tension.
Finally, the first three chords in the sequence only share a single common tone from one chord to the next. If you were writing four part harmony for a choir or string section, one part could hold onto the E note for the first three chords.
What is a Secondary Dominant?
Another way to interpret this “wrong” chord is through the lens of a secondary dominant. That means we are borrowing the V chord from a neighboring key.
In the case of a III7 chord, we are borrowing the V chord from A harmonic minor. Another way to write III7 would be V7/vi (pronounced “five-seven of six”).
Technically speaking, we are briefly switching keys and changing back after one chord. Our ears don’t know for sure we’ve returned to the key of C major until we play the C major chord again.
Songs That Use I-III7-vi-IV
In my research for this article, I was shocked to find that so little has been written about this wonderful chord progression. Because no one else seems to have complied a list of songs that use this progression, I had to start my own.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. These just happen to be the songs that came to my mind, or that I was able to track down with a bit of digging. I will add to this list as I think of other songs.
|All My Favorite Songs||Weezer||E-G#7-C#m-A|
|Bang Bang You’re Dead||Dirty Pretty Things||F-A7-Dm-Bb-Bbm|
|First Day of My Life||Bright Eyes||E-G#7-C#m-A-B|
|Golden Days||Panic! At the Disco||G-B7-Em-C|
|I Will Buy You a New Life||Everclear||G-B7-Em-C|
|Over And Done With||The Proclaimers||C-E7-Am-F|
|You Got It||Roy Orbison||A-C7-Fm-D|
A couple of these songs have an extra chord thrown in for flavor. “First Day of My Life” is actually I-III-vi-IV-V. “Bang Bang You’re Dead” ends with IV to iv. These are different ways of resolving back to the I chord.
Some of the songs I found use a variation of the I-III7-vi-IV progression. Either they start on a chord besides the tonic, or they throw in some extra chords.
For instance, “Where is My Mind” by The Pixies switches things around, instead opting for a I-vi-III-IV. This arguably creates more tension since there are no common tones shared by G#7 and A major.
“Just the Two of Us” is actually a jazzed up version of the progression, starting from the IV chord. The entire progression is IVMaj7-III7-vi7-v7-I7.
Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” starts on the vi chord (A minor) and alternates between vi-IV-I-V and vi-IV-I-III.
|Just the Two of Us||Grover Washington Jr., Bill Withers||DbMaj7-C7-Fm7-Ebm7-Ab7|
|The Passenger||Iggy Pop||Am-F-C-E|
|Where Is My Mind?||Pixies||E-C#m-G#7-A|
There are plenty of other variations that are possible. These few illustrate how the order of the chords doesn’t matter as much as the presence of that III7 chord.
How to Play It In Every Key
Not everyone has studied music theory (or wants to). If you’re not sure how to figure out which chords to play in a given key, this table should give you a bit of help.
I’ve included the chords for the progression in all 12 keys. I The columns are labeled with the Roman numerals, but all you need to know is the chord names. From there you can decide if you’re interested in the music theory aspect.
Perhaps there’s no to find a singular “most beautiful” chord progression. But I think I’ve made a solid case for the I-III7-vi-IV progression.
Everything from a chord that doesn’t belong to the unique melodic options makes it all sound way more expensive than it is.
But don’t take my word. Mess around with it yourself and see what you come up with. That’s what music is all about!