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What Are Chord Progressions

Using the “words” of music to convey an emotional journey

Last Updated: October 2023 | Article Details: 1279 words (7 – 8 minute read)

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Welcome to this installment of the Deviant Noise Basic Music Theory Course.

So, if you’ve been following along in this series you know the basics about how time and rhythm work (learn more).

You also know about scales (learn more) and chords (learn more) and have even learned about numbering your music notes (learn more).

Chords are extremely important whether you’re making beats, writing songs, learning piano or figuring out the guitar.

But there’s one more thing you’re going to want to understand and that’s chord progressions.

Chords Make Patterns, Patterns Make Songs

The music you love is based on chord progressions – the harmonic movement from one musical chord to another to form a pattern with a certain emotional push and pull, and of course a fully completed song.

So in music, the notes are the building blocks of scales and chords. Scales and chords are the building blocks of chord progressions. And chord progressions are the building blocks of songs.

So how do you know which chord to go to next to make it sound good?

You basically use your combined knowledge of musical scales and how to build chords.

The Number System and Diatonic Harmony

In the last lesson we learned about the Nashville Number System of applying numerals to each note in a musical scale.

If you remember, we basically said that this is the direction music flows.

Now, here’s what we’re going to do.

Instead of thinking in terms of NOTES. We’re going to think in terms of CHORDS.

But before we go further, here’s something you need to know. It’s called diatonic harmony.

And it basically means the relationship between different chords within a scale.

The CAPITALIZED Roman Numerals in the chart above mean that note will be a MAJOR chord. If the roman numeral is in small letters, you’ll use a MINOR chord. And there’s even a diminished chord in there too.

Microphone Month at Sweetwater

You see, if you’re playing a song in the major scale you’re not ONLY going to use major chords to create patterns. You’re going to use both major and minor chords together, depending on which note in the scale you’re building a chord off of.

It may sound confusing but it’ll become clear in a second.

Major Diatonic Harmony:

If you’re writing music in the major scale here are how the chords are structured throughout the scale:

  • 1st Degree (I) – Major Chord
  • 2nd Degree (ii) – Minor Chord
  • 3rd Degree (iii) – Minor Chord
  • 4th Degree (IV) – Major Chord
  • 5th Degree (V) – Major Chord
  • 6th Degree (vi) – Minor Chord
  • 7th Degree (vii^o) – Diminished Chord

So let’s use the C Major Scale as an example. (C, D, E, F, G, A, B)

If I’m playing/writing in the C Major Scale and I want to start a chord progression on the 1st degree I’d play a C (1st note of the scale) MAJOR CHORD.

If I then wanted to move to the 5th degree and build a chord there, I’d play a G MAJOR CHORD.

Next, let’s say I wanted to go to the 2nd degree – I’d play a D MINOR CHORD.

And so on.

Minor Diatonic Harmony:

The same thing above applies to the minor scales too, just with different chords:

  • 1st Degree (i) – Minor Chord
  • 2nd Degree (ii^o) – Diminished Chord
  • 3rd Degree (III) – Major Chord
  • 4th Degree (iv) – Minor Chord
  • 5th Degree (v) – Minor Chord
  • 6th Degree (VI) – Major Chord
  • 7th Degree (VII) – Major Chord

Popular Chord Progressions to Get Started With:

Here are some popular chord progressions that you can start playing around with.

Just start on the numbered scale degree of any musical scale and use the diatonic harmony above to move to the next degree in the progression. Build the chords and play them one after the other:

  • 1 -> 5
  • 1 -> 4
  • 1 -> 4 -> 5 -> 1
  • 1 -> 5 ->4 -> 1
  • 2 -> 5 -> 1

There are a lot more possible combinations out there, but that should get you started. We also give you more chord progressions to learn from in our FREE set of music theory cheat sheets. You can download them at the bottom of this page.

The Circle of Fifths

The circle of fifths is a diagram that describes how music flows. When you’re playing a song there is a certain way you move from key/note to key/note. It’s not always sequential or one after the next. Sometimes you jump from note to note because that’s what actually sounds good.

Here’s what it looks like:

Circle of Fifths

How it Works

As you can see the outer circle has all the different notes on the piano. We won’t worry about the inner rings of the circle for now, we only need to be concerned with the outer most layer.

How you read this diagram is simple. Start at one note on the outer ring – C, for example – and then just move either counter clockwise or clockwise to find out where you move next – either F or G. What you might notice (if you know your piano scales!) is that F is the 4th tone of the C scale and G is the 5th tone.

Annnnnndddd that’s why its called the circle of fourths or circle of fifths. The way that music likes to move, from note to note, is basically arranged in this diagram.

Why it Matters Now

I know its more of an advanced topic, and right now we’re still learning the basics, but we might as well be practicing and learning while flowing with the proper movement of music.

That’s why instead of learning the D-major scale after the C Major Scale you should move from C to the F major scale. The F note is the 4th tone of the C major scale. And its the next note you would normally move to when playing or making music.

Now that you know about the circle of fifths, you can start making beats and writing songs that will sound a lot better. Just follow the chart above – download the image and put it on your desktop. Always refer to it when you start making music. It’ll help a lot.

We’ll get into this stuff more as time goes on, but I wanted to introduce the concept to you now so you’re aware of it (and can take advantage of it).

Note: This is a smaller version of our overall guide on piano chord progressions. That post has much more detail so be sure to check it out for more.

Up next, you should learn How to Read Sheet Musicread more.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do All Songs Have Chord Progressions?

Although not every song will have an easily recognizable chord progression within it’s composition (i.e. there isn’t an instrument playing each chord in the progression specifically), every song DOES have harmonic movement. This harmonic movement is what we are often describing when we talk about “chord progressions.” So even if you don’t hear chords being played in a song, there is a chord progression often being followed throughout it.

Can You Make Your Own Chord Progressions?

Yes, you can absolutely develop your own chord progressions. There are many ways to do this including experimentation and extrapolating from things like diatonic harmony. New combinations of chords are being created everyday and there really are no limits to it.

Can Chord Progressions Be Copyrighted?

No, chord progressions are not allowed to be copyrighted, because they are considered a building block of music. Melody, on the other hand, can be copyrighted because they are completely unique and unto themselves. Chord progressions, on the other hand, are often used to develop things like melody.

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About The Author:

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Omar Zulfi

Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.