For a songwriter, writing a new song is a beautiful experience:
Few things compare to taking a feeling and translating it into a new, exciting piece of music.
However, sitting down to write a new song can also be extremely daunting, especially for beginners.
Constructing a melody, rhythm, chord progression, and lyrics all at once into a flowing, original composition can seem awfully scary.
But it doesn’t have to be:
By learning a few simple chord progressions, you can help take away some of the pressure when sitting down to write your next tune.
In this article we’re going to look at 5 simple chord progressions every beginner songwriter needs to add to their arsenal.
Not only will these progressions help you write better songs in the future, but they’ll also bring you a step closer to understanding many of the hits you know and love.
Finally, we’ll also take a look at some great online tools to help you take your songwriting to the next level.
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Basic Chord Theory
Before we analyze individual progressions, it's important to cover some basic musical theory.
Chord progressions are built off the notes in a particular scale.
A typical major scale, for example, will consist of 7 chords, each one built off a note (or degree) in the scale.
Let’s take a look at the C major scale, for example. It consists of these 7 notes:
C D E F G A B.
Each of these notes can be built into a chord. Here’s how:
Let’s take the first note of the scale, which is C.
To build a C chord, we combine the C with the 3rd and 5th notes above it in the scale (which are E and G).
Combining these notes give us a basic C major chord.
We can repeat this for all the degrees in the scale to essentially build all the basic chords in the C major scale.
For example, the next chord would be a D minor which is made up of the notes D, F, and A.
Here are all the chords in the C major scale and the notes they’re built from:
C major (CEG) D minor (DFA) E minor (EGB) F major (FAC)
G major (GBD) A minor (ACE) B diminished (BDF)
These notes are usually represented by a Roman numeral like this:
I ii iii IV V vi vii*
Note: Capital letters represent major chords while lowercase is used for minor chords.
It is important to remember that this sequence is exactly the same for every major key, regardless of the fact that the notes vary from scale to scale.
5 Chord Progressions Every Songwriter Must Know
Now that you have a very basic understanding of the theory behind chord progressions, let’s take a look at 5 progressions every songwriter should have under their belt:
1. The “I V vi IV” Progression
This is arguably the most commonly used chord progression in modern music.
It has been used thousands of times in songs spanning all kinds of genres, including everything from rock and pop to punk and folk.
Using the process we discussed previously you can play this progression in any key you want.
Here’s an example of what it looks like in 3 common musical keys:
|C major||C||G||A minor||F|
|G major||G||D||E minor||C|
|D major||D||A||B minor||G|
Australian comedy band Axis of Awesome did a great skit in which they played 40 pop hits back-to-back to highlight the versatility of this progression:
This progression boasts a very common, yet effective sound that begins on the tonic of the scale and leads to the dominant chord (the V) before resolving back to the I.
Songs that use this chord progression include:
- Don’t Stop Believing, by Journey
- You’re Beautiful, by James Blunt
- Forever Young, by Alphaville
- I’m Yours, by Jason Mraz
- Happy Ending, by Mika
2. The “I IV V” Progression
This is another extremely common progression.
It is commonly used in folk, pop, and rock, although it’s been applied to countless other genres.
Here’s how the classic I IV V progression looks in a few popular keys:
In order to understand the unique sound of this progression, it helps to think of gospel hymns.
These hymns usually end with the word “ahmen” which is usually sung in two parts;
The ‘ah” is sung over the V chord, while the “men” resolves on the the I.
This example helps highlight the unique relationship between these chords and why the V is so commonly resolved to the I.
Some popular songs that use this chord progression either completely or in part include:
- It Ain’t Me Babe, by Bob Dylan
- Ring of Fire, by Johnny Cash
- Three Little Birds, by Bob Marley and The Wailers
- This Land is Your Land, by Woody Guthrie
- Johnny B. Goode, by Chuck Berry
- I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, by U2
3. The “I vi ii V” Progression
Like the other progressions on this list, this one is common among a wide variety of musical styles, although it is particularly common in R&B and jazz genres.
Like the first progression, this one ends on the V chord, giving it a distinctly recognisable sound.
The V chord is renowned for building a lot of momentum that naturally wants to resolve back to the I.
To enhance this tension, songwriters commonly play the fifth as a dominant 7 chord.
This is also true for the IV chord: it sounds natural and familiar for both of these chords to lead to the I.
Chords like the ii, on the other hand, tend to want to lead us to the V or iii in order to continue building that momentum before realizing it.
Here is how this progression looks in some common keys:
|C major||C||A minor||D minor||G|
|G major||G||E minor||A minor||D|
|D major||D||B minor||E minor||A|
Here are some popular songs that use this progression:
- Hungry Heart, by Bruce Springsteen
- Baby Baby Baby, by Aretha Franklin
- You Are Not Alone, Michael Jackson
Note: This progression is often slightly altered so that the ii chord is replaced by a IV.
This produces a similar sound, although the progression from the IV to the usually builds a bit more momentum.
4. The “I IV V IV” Progression
Remember how we mentioned that it sounds natural for the IV chord to resolve to the I?
This progression is a perfect example of how that resolution works.
This progression is often associated with Lou Reed’s ‘Wild Thing” but it has been used in hundreds of songs across multiple genres for years.
Here’s how it looks in some different keys:
Some songs that feature this progression include:
- Wild Thing, by Lou Reed
- La Bamba, by Ritchie Valens
- Good Lovin’, by The Young Rascals
5. The “ii V I I” Progression
This last progression is a great way to expand your knowledge of song structure beyond popular genres like Pop, Rock, Country, Blues, and Folk.
This progression is mostly associated with jazz songs, and is found in many jazz standards from the early 20th century.
It is commonly played using 7 chords, such as major 7s, minor 7s, and dominant 7s.
For the purpose of this article we won’t explore 7 chords in further detail, but here’s how the progression would be commonly played over some popular keys:
|ii m7||V7||I maj7||I maj7|
|C major||D m7||G7||C maj7||C maj7|
|G major||A m7||D7||G maj7||G maj7|
|D major||E m7||A7||D maj7||D maj7|
Here are some popular jazz songs that use this progression:
- Honeysuckle Rose
- Satin Doll
- If I Fell
Take Your Songwriting To The Next Level
Are you ready to step up your songwriting game?
Learning these chord progressions is a great way to get familiar with popular song structure and essentially understand many popular songs and how they’re written.
However, if you really want to take things to the next level, we suggest checking out JamPlay’s Simple Songcrafting.
This program is dedicated to helping players just like you discover invaluable tools to help them become better songwriters.
Designed as a live lesson, and now available for viewing anytime, this 10 week program will teach you all the basics you need in order to understand the delicate art of songwriting.
Plus, you’ll also finish the course with a brand-new original song under your belt.
To find out more about this exciting program, click here.