How Do You Invent Chord Progressions?

We’ve all been there. Using the same chord progressions over and over. I mean, you can only write a song with G, C, and D so many times before people start to notice.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the tried-and-true progressions. Actually, there is a good reason why they’re tried and true: They work!

But what if you want to invent a chord progression to fit a particular mood, rather than fitting the mood into an existing set of chords?

Chord progressions—and melodies by extension—hold our interest by building and releasing tension. That’s why it’s so hard to write a song with only one chord. Even a very tense chord will get boring if the composer doesn’t eventually release the tension

Inventing your own chord progressions is simple. Each note in a diatonic key has an associated 3-note chord called a triad. A triad can share zero, one, or two notes with the other chords in the key. The number common tones determines how much tension is created by the transition from one chord to another.

We’ve all seen action movies that feel like a solid two hours of gunfights, car chases, and explosions. No matter how spectacular the action is, most viewers start squirming in their seats if the hero doesn’t take a moment to regroup after a big fight.

Music is no different.

This is by no means the ONLY way to think about the progression from one chord to another. It does, however shine a light on the inner workings of common chord progressions. And it could be just the thing to get you out of a rut.

Three Types of Chord Changes

The following chart shows each triad in the key of C major. Reading the chart left to right, we see the three notes that make each triad.

And from top to bottom, we see that each note appears three times. That is because each note can either be the root, third, or fifth of a triad.

The root notes are indicated by ‘R,’ and the third and fifth indicated by the digits 3 and 5.

CDEFGAB
C majorR35
D minorR35
E minorR35
F major5R3
G major5R3
A minor35R
B diminished35R

Besides looking kind of cool, this chart reveals some interesting things about the seven diatonic chords. Given any starting chord in the key, the remaining chords will fall into three categories:

  1. Sharing one common tone
  2. Sharing two common tones
  3. No common tones

These categories aren’t just for academic analysis. They indicate how much tension we can build into a piece of music by simply choosing our next chord with care.

Consider the C major chord, which consists of the notes C, E, and G. There are six other chords in the key that could follow a C chord. Here is how those chords fit into the three categories:

1 Common Tone2 Common Tones No Common Tones
F major (C)A minor (CE)D minor
G major (G)E minor (EG)B diminished

As you can see, there are two chords in each category. Think of this like a menu of options for chords to play after C major. The three categories offer different levels of tension. Each pair of chords offers a different “flavor” to achieve a particular tension level.

In the following sections I will attempt to describe how each chord category functions. Keep in mind that the relationships regarding common tones will change every time we change to a different chord.

1 Common Tone

Chords with a single common tone can be found by ascending or descending a fourth or a fifth.

These are the strongest chord changes. Chords with one common tone can be used to build tension in two ways.

First, the change itself shifts two of the three chord tones. The tension remains because the common tone acts like a kind of invisible lasso between two chords. For instance, playing C major and F major, the F chord wants to pull back to the C.

A good example of this would be “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen, which alternates between B major and E major. The repeating chords build a sense of anticipation. That feeling is dashed by Springsteens gloomy tale, where things never really improve for the song’s protagonist.

As mentioned above, there is also another way to build tension with this type of chord progression. The invisible lasso allows you to play an endless two-chord vamp.

For example, “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground, creates a sense of unease by repeating Db major and Gb major. The tension builds as the listener expects another chord to show up.

You can build the tension to a crescendo, as in “Evil Ways” by Santana. Most of the song is based on a Dorian two-chord vamp: G minor to C major. The only exception is the refrain, “This can’t go on…” which is a D7. The dominant chord moves us away from the C major and pulls the song back to G minor.

Here are all of the chords in C major with both chords that share one common tone:

Starting ChordUp A FourthUp A Fifth
C MajorF MajorG Major
D MinorG MajorA Minor
E MinorA MinorB Diminished
F MajorB DiminishedC Major
G MajorC MajorD Minor
A MinorD MinorE Minor
B DiminishedE MinorF Major

Here is the same table with Roman numeral notation that can be applied to any key:

Starting ChordUp A FourthUp A Fifth
IIVV
iiVvi
iiiviviiº
IVviiºI
VIii
viiiiii
viiºiiiIV

2 Common Tones

Finding chords with two common tones is easy as moving up or down a third. These are the weakest changes because the chords sound so alike.

A chord progression that moves in thirds is the weakest option. These groupings add minimal tension because they sound very similar. Chords a third above or below a given chord are considered “substitutions” in jazz harmony.

Progressing to a chord with two common tones can almost create a drone-like effect. It tends to prolong the previous musical idea with a slight variation.

For example, “Something in the Way” by Nirvana uses F and Db power chords. The droning nature of the chords matches Kurt Cobain’s intimate vocals.

Another effective use of this chord change is “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles. The line “Look at all the lonely people,” is sung over C major to E minor.

You can probably think of plenty of other great songs that use this type of movement. “Weak” doesn’t mean it’s bad. When used correctly, these chord changes offer a powerful effect.

Starting ChordUp A ThirdDown A Third
C MajorE MinorA Minor
D MinorF MajorB Diminished
E MinorG MajorC Major
F MajorA MinorD Minor
G MajorB DiminishedE Minor
A MinorC MajorF Major
B DiminishedD MinorG Major

And here is the table with Roman numeral notation that can be applied to any key:

Starting ChordUp A ThirdDown A Third
Iiiivi
iiIVviiº
iiiVI
IVviii
Vviiºiii
viIIV
viiºiiV

No Common Tones

These chords appear one scale degree above and one scale degree below the starting chord.

Changing from one chord to another chord with no common tones is jarring. Our ears expect the next chord in a pop song to be related to the last thing we heard.

Bouncing back and forth between two chords with no common tones often creates a feeling of uncertainty, or lack of direction. Examples of this type of progression include “Breakdown” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (A minor to G major) and “Rain” by Fleetwood Mac (F major to G major).

Starting ChordUp A DegreeDown A Degree
C MajorD MinorB Diminished
D MinorE MinorC Major
E MinorF MajorD Minor
F MajorG MajorE Minor
G MajorA MinorF Major
A MinorB DiminishedG Major
B DiminishedC MajorA Minor

And here is the table with Roman numeral notation:

Starting ChordUp A DegreeDown A Degree
Iiiviiº
iiiiiI
iiiIVii
IVViii
VviIV
viviiºV
viiºIvi

Conclusion

The next time you find yourself in a songwriting or composing rut, think about these concepts. You only have a limited number of options for which chord to play next. Choosing the right (or wrong) one can make or break a song.

Instead of reaching for the chord that feels comfortable or familiar, think of the three categories:

  • Up or down a fourth/fifth
  • Up or down a third
  • Up or down one scale degree

What kind of tension do the lyrics or melody suggest? Is it a kind of strength? Ambiguity? Discomfort?

Only you can decide what’s right for your music. The important thing is to think differently about your approach to chord progressions. It’s the only way to break the chains of the same old chords.

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