Creative Chord Progressions
Learn How to Spice Up Your Songwriting
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.
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.)