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Creative Chord Progressions

Updated on February 13, 2015

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Do you want your songs to take off in surprising directions, avoid cliches, and bypass the tried-and-true? I created this page to help songwriters expand beyond I-IV-V chord progressions and vanilla major and minor chords.

Welcome to Milo Ippolito's unschooled approach to music theory and composition.

Don't worry. I won't lead you to atonal hell. For me, the point of writing music is to create ear-pleasing compositions that sound like nothing you've heard before. If you share this passion, please read on.

A Word on Music Theory

Use it to expand your horizons; don't let it reign you in.

The most important rule is: If it sounds good, do it.

Opening Chord Changes: Roads Less Traveled

The first two chords set a progression in motion. Start off in an unfamiliar direction and you will discover new musical territory to explore.

Below I've suggested opening changes taking you to each step of the chromatic scale. The chord changes are written in Roman numerals (followed by a random example).

  • im7 - I6 (Em7 - E6)
  • i - bII (Em - F)
  • I - iim#5* (D - C/E*)
  • I - bIII (A - C)
  • IM7 - III6 (FM7 - A6)
  • I - IV7 (C - F7)
  • i - bv dim (Bm - F dim)
  • I - V sus (D - A sus)
  • I - bVI aug (E - C+)
  • I - VIm7b5 (C - Am7b5)
  • i m7 - bvii m7 (Am7 - Gm7)
  • I - VII7 (C - B7)

Closing Cadences: There's More Than One Way to Get Back Home

There are plenty of ways to bring home a chord progression without the V7 cliché. Here are a dozen alternative turnaround chords—one for each step of the chromatic scale. The chord changes are written in Roman numerals (followed by a random example).

To my ears, all of these cadences do a good job of creating harmonic resolution. I doubt you'll find many alternatives that work quite as well. And sometimes V7 is still the best solution.

(Note: Many of these turnaround chords will also resolve to the relative or root minor.)

  • I sus - I (D sus - D)
  • bII7 - I (F7 - E)
  • iim7 - I (Dm7 - C)
  • bIII7 - i (G7 - Em)
  • III7sus - I (E7sus - C)
  • ivm6 - I (Dm6 - A)
  • bV dim - I (F# dim - C)
  • V7sus - I (E7sus - A); V7#5 - I (E7#5 - A)
  • bVI dim - I (Ab dim - C)
  • VI sus - I (A sus - C)
  • bVII7 - I (C7 - D)
  • VII aug - I (E+ - F)

Standard Chord Progressions: A Song Your Mother Would Know

There are several tried-and-true chord progressions.

If you know these, you can probably play 99.9% of all songs ever written.

Cliché progressions can sound pretty cheesy if not used carefully and sparingly. They've definitely been overused. But there's a reason for that. They work.

If you write a song starting with the melody, you will probably wind up using one of these for the harmonic backdrop. They make singing a whole lot easier. You may write a great song using a standard progression. Respect cliches for what they are, but try not to fall into the trap of using them all the time.

Here is a short list of common chord progressions presented in Roman numeral form followed by an example.

  • I - IV - I - V (C - F - C - G)
  • I - V - vi - IV (C - G - Am - F)
  • I - vi - IV - V (C - Am - F - G)
  • I - vi - ii - V (C - Am - Dm - G)
  • ii - V7 - I (Dm - G7 - C)
  • I - bVII - IV (A - G - D)
  • i - bVII - bVI - V7 (Am - G - F - E7)
  • I7- IV7- I7- V7- IV7 (E7- A7 E7- B7- A7)
  • I - I+ - I6 - I7 (C - C+ - C6 - C7)

Original Chord Progressions: Steal These or Write Something Better

Don't limit yourself to standard chord progressions.

Writing an original chord progression—that sounds good—is tricky. Start off in an intriguing direction. Use your ear to discover where the music wants to go next. Finally, try out different ways to resolve the progression. You'll know it when you hear it.

Below are some unusual progressions I've used in creating songs. I may not be the only person to come up with these chord changes. Music is out there in the air, and we just find it. (FYI: Chord progressions cannot be copyright protected, so have at 'em.)

Here is a list of "original" chord progressions that sound good. Take what you can use:

  • ||: Dm7 - D6 :|| (Bb7) ||: Gm6 - Bb69/G :|| (F7) |
  • | Bm | C | Fm | E dim |
  • | D | C/E | F | A/E |
  • | A | C | Bm | A |
  • ||: FM7 | A6 :|| C | E + |
  • ||: A | D7 :|| Cm6 | E7#5 |
  • ||: Fm | B dim :|| (Gm7) |
  • | D | A sus | E | B sus |
  • | B | G+ | E | A7 |
  • | D | Bm7b5 | D | Em7 | D | Bm7b5 - E7 | E7 - Gm6 | D |
  • ||: Em7 | Dm7 :|| (Dm6) ||: CM7 | Dm7 :|| (Fm6 - D7) |
  • | C | B7 | Em | B+ | C | B7 | Em - Eb+ | Em |

Minor Seventh Chord Progressions: Songs From Dreamland

The minor seventh chord is special because it is the only four-note chord that sounds as stable and consonant as a simple major or minor triad.

The extra note gives the minor seventh a fluffy cloud feel. Progressions built around this chord have a distinct character and should be considered as a category of their own.

Minor seventh progressons have a dreamy sound. They can also be moody. And they have elitist tendencies. They prefer the company of other fluffy cloud chords. Common three-note chords just don't fit in.

To maintain the mood, gravitate toward the following chord types:

  • Minor seventh
  • Major seventh
  • Suspended seventh
  • Minor sixth

Songwriting Lessons From the Pros: Classic Songs With Cool Chord Progressions

Check out these music videos of great songs with unusal chord progressions.

I hope they inspire you.

Standard Chord Library: The Basic Harmonic Tool Kit

I'll get into some weird stuff in a bit.

First let's start with a list of the basic chords everyone should know. Don't feel stupid if you don't recognize some of these, and please don't be offended if this is all too obvious.

Here are the chord names, followed by an example from the key of C or thereabouts. (Some chords don't belong to any key.)

  • Major (C-E-G)
  • Minor (A-C-E)
  • Suspended (C - F- G)
  • Augmented (Ab - C - E)
  • Seventh (G - B - D - F)
  • Minor Seventh (A - C - E - G)
  • Major Seventh (F - A - C - E)
  • Sixth (C - E - G - A)
  • Minor Sixth (D - F - A - B)
  • Minor Seven Flat Five (B - D - F - A)
  • Diminished (Ab - B - D - F)
  • Seventh Suspended (G - C - D - F)

Chords Seldom Heard: Use at Your Own Risk

The following are nameable but rarely used chords.

There are plenty of other possible chords (that sound like crap). The ones here sound intriguing and are potentially useful for the right song.

I'm trying to find ways to work them into progressions myself.

  • Added 2nd (C - D - E- G)
  • Minor add b6 (A - C- E - F)
  • Sixth suspended 2nd (C - D - G - A)
  • Seventh suspended 2nd (G - A - D - F)
  • Major seventh suspended 2nd (F - G - C - E)
  • Major seventh sharp 5 (C - E - G# - B)
  • Minor major seventh flat 5 (F - Ab - B - E)

Chord Inversions: The Movable Bass Note

An easy way to give simple chords a fresh sound is to move the bass note.

Instead of always having the bass play the root, try putting the bass on the third, fifth, or seventh interval of the chord.

To my ears, some chords sound better inverted. The sus2 is a smoother-sounding inversion of the sus4. The minor sixth is a sublime inversion of the spooky minor seven flat five.

There's a fancy way that classical composers write inversions. The easier way is to put a backslash after the chord followed by the bass note you want used.

Here are the three most useful inversions:

  • Minor (first inversion) Am/C
  • Major (second inversion) C/G
  • Seventh (third inversion) G7/F

Non-traditional Sonorities: Are these Even Chords?

I've been experimenting with chords that are unnamable in the traditional musical language: chords that don't fit into the categories of major, minor, suspended, etc.

They're more like harmonic clusters, I guess. My classical music friends call them "sonorities." But to me, any group of notes played at the same time is a chord.

Here they are:

  • One two six (C - D - A)
  • One five six (C - G - A)
  • One two three (C - D - E)
  • One flat five sharp five (C - Gb - G#)
  • One five major seven (F - C - E)

Ninth Chords: Number Nine, Number Nine . . .

I'm not a huge fan of ninth chords. I'm just not.

For me, a seventh chord is good enough. If you absolutely need the "ninth" in the harmony, a suspended 2nd or add 9 does the trick, without any tritone dissonance.

These are the only ninth chords that really do it for me:

  • Seven Sharp Nine (E - G# - B - D - G)
  • Minor Seven Flat Nine (E - G - B - D - F)
  • Six-Nine (C - E - G - A - D)

A Note to Guitar Players . . . to be Taken Lightly

You've probably discovered that a lot of these are damn near impossible to shape into guitar chords. Unless you are a jazz virtuoso, guitars can limit your songwriting. I find that composing on a keyboard instrument allows me to be more creative.

Here's my best advice for wrestling with the damn six string:

  • Play everything in C or Am.
  • Remove one of the E-strings.
  • Google alternative tunings.
  • Leave out the fifth or the root and let the bass player handle those notes.
  • Play only the triads and let the keyboardist color in the chord.
  • Learn to play the accordion.
  • Play bass live and let the guitar chords be someone else's problem.

Balancing Melody and Harmony: Much Like a Bird on a Wire

In most cases, your melody will fall on intervals of the accompanying chord: roots, thirds and fifths. Notes outside of the chord usually serve as passing tones.

It makes sense. But is making sense all we want out of music?

Try creating more interesting relationships between melody and harmony. Put the melody on a note outside the chord once in a while. It's like teetering on a tightrope, but it can be done. If the melody relies on a third or fifth, spice up the chord around it. Complex harmonies work best with simple melodies. You will need to depend on stable harmonies and traditional scales most of the time. But every so often, step out on a ledge.

Here are a dozen melody/harmony relationships that are worth a try:

  • Sixth chord (C6); melody on root (C)
  • Added Ninth (F add 9); melody on major 7th (E)
  • Minor Seventh (Em7); melody on 7th (D)
  • Suspended (Csus); melody on 6th (A)
  • Seven Sharp Five (B7#5); melody on augmented 5th (G)
  • Minor/bass on flat third (Dm/F); melody on 5th (A)
  • Diminished (Ab dim); melody on flat 5th (D)
  • Seventh Suspended (G7sus4); melody on 4th (C)
  • Sixth Suspended Second (C6sus2); melody on major 3rd (E)
  • Seventh (Ab7); melody on minor 3rd (B)
  • Major/bass on fifth (F/C); melody on 2nd (G)
  • Seventh Suspended (E7sus4); melody on flat 2nd (F)

How to Write Lyrics: It's Not About You

People like songs that relate to their own lives.

They don't care that you lost your girlfriend. If there is something universal in what you say, they will respond positively. Be descriptive but a bit vague. A hazy ambiguity lets listeners fill in the blanks with their own experiences. Be colorful. Use visual language.

"You don't understand how I feel" is not good songwriting.

"A lizard climbed the garden wall." Now, that's much better.

Verses should flow naturally. Favor what poets call "near rhymes" over true rhymes. Near rhymes usually are words that have like vowel sounds and similar consonant sounds. Rome and stone are near rhymes.

Don't be overly literal. In the words of David Byrne: Stop making sense.

Intros and Outros

Most of your chord progressions will start on and resolve to a stable, consonant major or minor chord. And in most cases they should.

The problem is that the first harmonic idea your listeners hear is plain vanilla. How does that prepare them for the awesomeness that is to follow? The same goes for the ending. You have your big ta-da grand finale, and what does the listener get for hanging in there? A plain vanilla major or minor chord.

Fortunately, there's a way to fix this dilemma without mucking up a solid chord progression. Leave the chord changes alone. Just add an intro and/or outro using more colorful, moody chords.

For example, you can open with a suspended chord—before launching into the progression—to set a desolate mood, or a major seventh chord for a dreamy feel.

The six-nine chord makes a beautiful fade out. It is the full major pentatonic scale sounded at once. Lovely. I stumbled accidentally onto a darker ending not so long ago. Play a minor chord with an added fourth. It's a chord that says it's over, for now, but it ain't over for good.

Recommended Reading

Ravenspiral Guide is the most useful and entertaining music theory book I've found. Do yourself a favor and download a free copy. Simon Bennett (Kurrel the Raven) will open your ears with his vivid descriptions, such as calling the minor major seventh "the chord that ate hope" and the major sixth "a jolly and slightly smug sort of chord that has a secret drug habit."

The Essential Secrets of Songwriting is an outstanding blog by Gary Ewer for anyone who wants to learn how to write a song. In plain English, Gary will use music theory to help explain what makes good songs work. He tells you to learn the rules and challenges you to break the rules. As Gary says in a recent post, "Music theory does not close the mind; it opens it."

Money Chords is the web's definitive canon of standard workhorse chord progressions. Webmaster Rich Scott compiled this encyclopedia of useful chord progressions. You won't break new ground here, but you may discover some oldies but goodies you have not used before. Each entry explains why the progression works and gives interesting bits of its history.

Please comment on what you found here; challenge the ideas on this page; or contribute songwriting tips of your own. (Scroll through for some great advice from previous visitors.)

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    • anonymous 7 years ago

      This is great information for any song writer! Music today has become so stagnant.Songwriters have to wake up!! Even with feeling and intensity you still need different melodies, chord patterns, and beats. Most ears aren't accustomed to too much musical information, So whatever you write songwise, should be simple. A lot of experiences influence writing, some conscious, some unconscious.The beatles have said they never throw ideas out, they just expanded on them. , "Learn the rules, then break them"

    • anonymous 7 years ago

      Milo asked me to post my number one song writing tip. Here it is:

      Start with one of those thoughts that comes out as a catchy phrase, write it down, figure out the meter of it and then build your song from there. The music supports the lyric, in most cases.

      Jonny Hibbert

    • anonymous 7 years ago

      I am a jazz composer, which takes a different approach from songwriting. The hardest part for me is getting the piece started. I am going strictly for the feeling and generally start with the chords, trying to find something a little different and unexpected. I play by ear/don't read music, so theory, majors, minors, 7ths, etc. never enter the picture. If chords aren't doing the trick, I will work with the rhythm where, again, I will try to work up something a little different. These are the starting points. The melody generally comes last. Of course, many days I come out of the studio with a big fat zero. I have probably copyrighted over 150 compositions, but have a gazillion sketches and complete pieces that just didn't measure up. I save them all. Many times they are the spark to something down the road after I have had a chance to be away from the sketch for a while.

    • anonymous 7 years ago

      A few thoughts at Milo's invitation:

      Music theory is a way to avoid slowly rediscovering what composers have already found out about the craft of composing since music began.

      Composers often move along a line starting at doing someone else's music, then piecing large bits of music together, then smaller bits, then eventually the borrowed pieces are so subtle it's more their sensibility as composers than who they're borrowing from that is apparent. They only get that sensibility and sense of their craft from writing until they discover it (or unconsciously invent it) for themselves.

      Be prepared to write ideas down wherever you are. Better to write down lots of ideas than missing that killer one. Ear training makes transcription much easier.

      I like to write songs on guitars because they allow interesting discoveries that i don't seem to make on keyboards. It's OK not to know what chord you're playing as long as you can write it down to use it later.

    • anonymous 7 years ago

      Where ever you go, always keep a notebook and pen with you. Write down things you see, phrases you hear. You may not use it right away but it could come in handy down the line. Forget about rhyming. Songs are not poems; you don't have to rhyme anything.

      There are a lot of unexpensive programs you can buy for under $100 that are more powerful recording tools than what was available 20 years ago for a hundered times that. I use Sony's Acid Music Studio 7.0. It is a PC based digital audio multitrack recording studio comes with a lot of free loops, You can also make or buy your own loops. It also plays midi files, comes with a soft synth and will also play other virtual instruments that you can download for free or buy. MAC users have Garageband. I don't know much about it but it's probably the same idea.

    • daoine lm profile image

      daoine lm 7 years ago

      Excellent lens Milo. Welcome to Squidoo :-)

      I have to agree with you on the limitations of the guitar - but I'm not a musician, so my experience of it is very limited (and this chord stuff goes way over my head). What are your views about collaborative songwriting? I suppose it depends on the cohesion of the band. It could become too generic when various bandmembers all weigh in, but could also take the song to a new level - and solve the guitarist's problem at the same time!

    • giacombs-ramirez profile image

      gia combs-ramirez 7 years ago from Montana

      Great information lens! Hopefully that YouTube module will start working for you soon...sent you an email with a suggestion.

    • NightSquid LM profile image

      NightSquid LM 7 years ago

      Very solid lens Milo,

      I really like to experiment with chords.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 6 years ago from UK

      great lens, some interestiing advice on using chords. Loved it

    • Hawk37 6 years ago

      Loved it. I've found myself getting stuck in the same old rut where chords were corncerned.

    • Joyfulmusic90 profile image

      Joyfulmusic90 6 years ago

      Cool ~ thanks!

    • anonymous 6 years ago

      Great stuff!

    • tubetone 5 years ago

      I'm glad I found this site. As far as lyrics are concerned, I agree with the information presented. However I enjoy song craft that tells a really good story too. Most of us enjoy a well told story and a song offers musicians the opportunity to do that. On my CD release titled "Back From Gone" I used one song to tell the true life story of D.B. Cooper. On another song I wrote a tale of fiction about a character known as Wondering John. I received plenty of positive feedback and in most reviews there was mention of the story telling aspect as one of the reasons why the songs worked so well.

      Thanks,

      Nad Neslo

      http://www.nadneslo.com

    • anonymous 5 years ago

      This is...a funny page.

      Text - STARTLINGLY short, yet more than effective.

      Ideas - Strange, uninhibited, and way numerous than the text. ;)

      Tone - SO STRAIGHTFORWARD?! O_o

      Weird! But rather good.

    • anonymous 5 years ago

      dude. awesome. concise and packed with great info!

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      I love your style of writing -- very clear! Job well done! I'm featuring your lens on one of my lens in the widgets!

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      This is an excellent blog. Another tip is to try different genres of music to hear different progressions used. In your "Chords Seldom Used" section, you've noted the Add 2. It's used quite frequently in Gospel music and an unmentioned progression would be 4th's (i.e. C - F - Bb - Eb - Ab etc.) in ascending order or descending order, inverting the chords so that your bass or melody note (highest note) is played in a melodic fashion.

      Thanks for the information!

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      This was brilliant! Thank you very much

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      Great post - that's a super article u got there

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      I understand the roman numerals (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii) in relation to chord type, but what the hell is the small i??? Thanks.

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      Ahhh it's a minor chord. Duh!

    • anonymous 3 years ago

      really nice article that give a lot of inspiration especially to songwriting in the second half. it opens up to a lot of ideas as well as new questions and detail, but provides enough information to just getting started. thank you!

    • anonymous 3 years ago

      Cool page. Speaking of "sonorities, wouldn't "One five major seven (F - C - E)" in this example, simply be an Fmaj7?

    • anonymous 3 years ago

      @anonymous: It doesn't have the third, so it could just as easily be an FmM7.

    • techn0phobe 2 years ago

      This is all great stuff.. thanks!

    • Dip 22 months ago

      What does that bii means??????

    • aJa 14 months ago

      bii = flattened 2nd

    • A happy guitarist 5 months ago

      Thank you so much. You have saved me from the depths of writer's block, (or musician's block) and for that I am extremely grateful. Some really clever stuff you got here, and written in an easy to access way for all.

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