10 Essential Chord Progressions for Songwriters
If you’re a songwriter looking for inspiration then look no further! In this article, we take a look at 10 essential chord progressions and some classic songs that use them.
This article is a summarised transcript of our video “10 Chord Progressions Every Beginner Songwriter Should Know”. Click here to watch the video for more details, explanations and examples.
The Number System: A Quick Look
Before we can dive into studying the chord progressions, we first have to understand the number system. This is extremely important because it allows us to use these chord progressions in any key.
Below are the chords for any major key with the associated roman numerals, using C Major as an example:
These seven chords are what make up what’s called a diatonic system, which means that all of these chords belong in the same key.
1) I – IV – V
These 3 chords form the foundation of folk, blues, rock and roll, and so many other genres. Some examples of I – IV – V chord progressions in different keys are C – F – G in C Major, E – A – B in E Major and G – C – D in G Major. A popular song that uses this progression is “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles. We can also play around with this chord progression and turn it into a I – V – IV. If you play that with a sort of punk rock groove, then you’ll get “All The Small Things” by Blink 182.
Always remember that chords themselves are just one factor in songwriting and all other variables such as the tempo, timing, feel, genre, and how long you hold each chord almost must be taken into consideration. By doing this, you can take standard chord progressions and reinvent them in intriguing ways.
2) I – V – vi – IV
If you played I – V – vi – IV in the key of C – which would be C – G – Am – F – you would immediately hear the chord progression from “Let It Be” by Paul McCartney. You’ll notice that the I, IV and V chords are again present in this progression, but the addition of Am – which is the relative minor chord ie the vi chord – provides contrast to the ear in relation to the other major chords we’re hearing.
When you move this progression up into the key of E – which would be E – B – C#m – A – you’ll get “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
3) I – vi – IV – V
This progression has a great sound because the I and vi chord are connected to each other like siblings – that’s why they’re called relative major and minor. Every major chord has a relative minor and vice versa. If we go to the key of A and hold each chord in A – F#m – D – E for two bars, you’ll hear the sound of “Stand By Me” by Benny King.
A trick which is really popular with guitarists is to add an extra little chord between I and vi. For example, in the key of C, the chord progression would be C – Am – F – G. If you add in a G/B so that it becomes C – G/B – Am – F – G it creates a really beautiful sound. You can hear this done in “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, where he goes back and forth between C and Am a few times before going to F and G.
Click here to download a free PDF which maps out all of these 10 chord progressions:
4) IV – iii – ii – I
Unlike all the previous chord progressions, this one starts on IV rather instead of on I. In a diatonic system, the I chord is our “Home” chord whilst the rest of the chords are “Away” chords. As songwriters, when we put together combinations of chords, we’re looking for opportunities to take our listeners away from home, and bring them back in a really satisfying way.
Starting on the IV chord means we’re starting away from home, thus automatically creating interest for our listener’s ears. You can hear a variation of this in “Wichita Lineman” written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glenn Campbell. However, instead of returning to the I chord at the end of the progression, they use D Min. This provides a slightly darker sound, and works because D Min is the relative minor of F.
A great way to use this is to combine the original progression with its variation to produce an 8 bar progression. This would look like this: IV – iii – ii – I – IV – iii – ii – vi.
5) ii – V – I
Now that we‘re talking about chord progressions that don’t start on I, we have to discuss ii – V – I. This progression forms the foundations of traditional Jazz, and really works because it starts away from home, then takes us on a little journey before arriving back home in a satisfying way.
You can still hear this traditional progression in modern songs such as “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5. If you’re looking to experiment with more advanced chord concepts, this progression works really well with extensions (9, 11, 13 etc.) and seventh chords.
Another thing you could do is to add a VI to the end of the progression. This allows us to turn a 3 chord sequence into a 4 chord sequence. In addition, since a Major 6 chord is non-diatonic to the key, it adds an element of surprise for the listener.
6) vi – IV – I
Much like the ii – V – I progression, this chord progression also has us starting away from home, before arriving there in a satisfying way. This chord progression takes really well to us experimenting with the chord duration of each chord. As an example, it sounds great if you held the vi chord at the beginning for twice the amount of time as the others.
You hear the V chord being used in Western music a lot these days to take us back to home, but before that was popularised, many people actually used the IV chord to bring their listeners back home. John Mayer uses this sequence beautifully in his song “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”, which is in the key of E and uses the chord progression C#m – A – E.
7) I – II – IV – V
You can hear this chord progression used to great effect in Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, which has the progression C – D – F – G. In a similar manner to the chord progression introduced earlier which uses a VI instead of vi, the usage of II instead ii surprises listeners since it’s a non-diatonic chord.
The II chord being inserted in the middle also provides a little momentum to push the chord progression along. This chord progression is also quite bright and light sounding due to the fact that all of the chords in the progression are major.
8) I – bVII – IV
This chord progression was cemented in pop culture by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song “Sweet Home Alabama”, which uses the progression D – C – G. The introduction of the bVII chord helps to take us away from the Ionian mode to the Mixolydian mode, which is essentially the major scale with a flat seven.
This is important because a lot of blues, rock and funk music lean heavily on this flat seven sound. So, when we use it, we infuse a little bit of funkiness and bluesiness into our chord progression.
Courtney Barnett uses this beautifully in her song “Avant Gardner”, played in the key of G. You can also hear it in Pearl Jam’s classic song, “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter”, this time in the key of D.
9) IV – I – III – vi
The verses of The Wallflower’s song “One Headlight” are structured around this progression, with the chords being F – C – E – Am. This chord progression has the III chord which is not only unexpected, but helps pull the listener towards the Am chord in a more powerful way. This is because the E chord actually has a V – I relationship with the Am chord.
So, when you turn the ‘Em chord into an E chord, that means that the Am lands with much more impact compared to if we used Em.
10) I – III – IV – iv
In this progression, not one, but two borrowed chords are used. The greatest example of this chord progression can be found in Radiohead’s “Creep” which uses the progression G – B – C – Cm.
The iv chord is commonly used on its own to help pull us back to the I. However, when we instead use it after the IV, it helps delay the resolution back to the home chord.
Conclusion: 10 Essential Chord Progressions for Songwriters
As a songwriter, these 10 chord progressions can be used as part of your toolkit. Remember, it’s not just about the chords themselves; it’s about how you use them, the key you choose, tempo variations, and the emotions you convey. Experiment with them and you’ll be surprised at how many songs you end up writing.
If you would like more details, explanations and examples, then be sure to check out the video now.
Level up your songwriting with five radically practical exercises used by professional songwriters around the world: