Creative Chord Progressions
Do you want your songs to take off in surprising directions? Do you want to avoid cliches and bypass the tried-and-true? If so, this article can help you 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.
Advice on Creative Chord Progressions
- Focus on opening chord changes.
- Don't use cliche closing cadences.
- Use standard chord progressions sparingly.
- Don't be afraid to make an original chord progression.
- Try using minor seventh chord progressions.
- Study the songwriting techniques of the pros.
Below, you'll find a detailed description to match each piece of advice. After thoroughly explaining these practices, this article will also explore seldom heard chords, chord inversions, and lyric writing techniques! Before we begin, just remember to use music theory as a tool to expand your horizons, but don't let it reign you in. The most important rule is: If it sounds good, do it.
1. 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 through each step of the chromatic scale. The chord changes are written in Roman numerals (followed by a random example).
Chord Changes That Take You Through the Chromatic Scale
- 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)
It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from the inner workings of your mind. Block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down, that's where true creativity comes form.— Bob Dylan
2. 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.
Examples of Unique Closing Cadences
- 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)
3. 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.
A Short List of Common Chord Progressions in Roman Numeral Form
- 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)
4. Original Chord Progressions: Steal These or Write Something Better
Don't limit yourself to standard chord progressions. Writing an original chord progression (that actually 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.)
A List of "Original" Chord Progressions
- ||: 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 |
5. 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 progressions 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.
Chords That Maintain a Dreamy Mood
- Minor seventh
- Major seventh
- Suspended seventh
- Minor sixth
6. 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.
Songs That Use Unique Chord Progressions
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmon
"What a Wonderful World"
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"
Ebm* B13—EM7+11—A7b5—C#m9 B9—C#9 Eb7—Abm7 B13—EM7+11 Bb7#9#5—C7b5 F7—B7 EM7—A13 Ab7—Bb7 C#7**—Ebm B7—E A7
"Just The Way You Are"
"Blues For Alice"
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.)
Examples From the Standard Chord Library
- 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.
Examples of Seldom Heard Chords
- 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.
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.
Examples of Non-Traditional Sonorities
- 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.
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.
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?
How to Create Interesting Meldoy/Harmony Relationships
- 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.
Melody/Harmony Relationships That Are Worth a Try
Creating interesting relationships is not as difficult as it may seem. You don't need to be the greatest guitarist in the world to write a fascinating song. Below are 12 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)
Creativity is like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect…you’ve got to program your brain not to think too much.— Bob Dylan
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.
Examples of Good Lyrics vs. Bad Lyrics
- "You don't understand how I feel" is not good songwriting.
- "A lizard climbed the garden wall." Now, that's much better.
- "I'm so mad at the government" is not a good lyric.
- "Better stay away from those/That carry around a fire hose" (Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues") is a much better way of saying it.
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."
Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.— Bob Dylan
Rock Songs With Great Lyrics
"Let It Be"
"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
"What Is Life?"
"Everything in Its Right Place"
"Way Down in the Hole"
Intros and Outros
Most of your chord progressions will start on and resolve to a stable, consonant major or minor chord. 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.
How to Fix Vanilla Sounding Songs
- 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.
With so many books out there about songwriting, it can be hard to know which are truly worth reading. These books will help you create songs that are unique and impressive.
- 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, challenge the ideas on, or contribute songwriting tips of your own in the comment section below. Scroll through for some great advice from previous visitors.