this is a guide to coming up with chord progressions and harmonies in general. i recommend it primarily to myself from 5 years ago. that is, i think it is best read by someone who is:
- familiar with all the chord names. you absolutely need to know the major and minor chords. knowing augmented, diminished, suspended, and slash chords helps, as does knowing the notation for extensions. ideally you should also know the intervals and get what “the 5 of A” means (it means E).
- interested in writing or improvising original music. if you only want to play chords other people wrote, you don’t need a guide. just find out what the chords are and play them. this might be of interest if you just think music theory is cool though.
- interested in harmony as seen in western contemporary music. i am not familiar with non-western music traditions, nor with the rules of harmony from 200+ years ago. this would also not be useful if you are mostly interested in non-harmonic music or music that throws harmonic convention out of the window, such as lots of ambient or metal music. pop, rock, country, blues, jazz, and the like are all covered. (my jazz knowledge is a little weak but decent.)
to make the guide clearer, i have written everything from the context of the key of C major / A minor. i didn’t want to litter the page with roman numerals, so just transpose everything in your head if you are not working in C major / A minor. i have also written everything with | as a barline marker. so | F | G | C G/B | Am | means play F in measure 1, G in measure 2, C and then G/B in measure 3, and Am in measure 4. then presumably you will loop back to the start, though you don’t have to. and in case this is unclear, i am using + to represent an augmented chord and o to represent a diminished chord.
consider this basically a “bag of tricks”—a curated list of things to try if you want ideas for harmonies. sections 1-2 will give you a set of chords and tell you to go wild, because you can go wild with them and it will probably sound good. section 3 will tell you about the contexts in which you might want to use some additional chords. sections 4-5 will give you sets of rules for coming up with a progression that sounds a certain way. sections 6-7 will list some more specific harmonic ideas to try. section 8 will list variations on certain chords that can be applied to most or any of the ideas discussed earlier. and section 9 sets out general guidelines that you might not get from the other sections.
this list is not exhaustive, obviously, nor are any of the rules hard-and-fast. but i think if you try everything discussed here thoroughly, you will get a deep enough understanding to probably know where to go next.
1. the basic major chords
just try C, F, and G in different configurations. for example:
- | C | C | F | C | G F | C |. this is the “12-bar blues”, which is the standard blues progression, and you can find lots of examples of it in other blues-inspired music as well.
- | C | F | G | F |. saccharine happy loop.
- | G | F | C | C |. think “sweet home alabama”.
- | F | C | G | G |. can be very poppy.
- | C | G | F | G |. pretty versatile. “fox on the run” uses this.
no but really, just try different configurations of these. it’s really hard to mess up. lots of songs just riff over | C | F | or | C | G | repeatedly. it’s that easy.
2. the basic minor chords
try C, F, G, Am, Dm, and Em in different configurations, starting on anything but Em or maybe G. for example:
- | C | G | Am | F |. standard ballad progression. so standard, in fact, that it is kind of trendy to make fun of how standard it is. this doesn’t mean it’s bad. people use it a lot because it’s good.
- | Am | F | C | G |. also pretty standard, but more versatile.
- | Dm | F | C | G |. think “wonderwall”.
- | Am | Dm | G | C |. think “island in the sun”.
- | F | G | Em | Am |. classic J-pop and K-pop progression.
this one is also pretty hard to mess up. you could pick any old combination of them and a bunch of songs that have used it.
3. borrowed chords
a chord is considered “borrowed” if not all of its notes are part of the key you’re using. every major and minor chord not listed already is borrowed in the key of C major/A minor. but only some of them are widely used in the key of C. those are: D, E, Fm, and Bb.1 unlike the chords in the key of C, these are a little more limited in where they will sound natural.
- E adds a little bite to a progression. it usually wants to lead to Am or F.
- Bb is useful as a “backdoor resolution”, where instead of going from F to G to C, you go from F to Bb to C as a bit of a surprise. it’s also useful if you want to add Bb into the melody (perhaps if you are in C mixolydian).
- Fm adds a sudden burst of sentiment to a progression, and usually wants to lead to C. it also usually comes after F, or perhaps Dm or Am.
- D adds a bit of boldness or a sense of adventure to a progression. anytime you can play Dm, you can probably play D for a bolder sound.
- | C | E | F | Fm |. think “creep” by radiohead.
- | C G | Am | F Bb | C |. this uses the backdoor as an unexpected ending to the progression.
- | Am | C | D | F |. the first half of the progression from “house of the rising sun”. also used in “the gummy bear song”.
- | F | E | Am | C |. think “thank u, next”.
4. major chords only
try C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, and Bb. start on C and only pick ascending chords, until you go back to C again. consider keeping C as the bass note for every chord. examples:
- | C | D | F | C |. think “fuck you” by cee lo green.
- | C | D/C | Eb/C | F/C |. i think this is used at the start of a race in some nintendo game.
- | C | Eb | F | Ab Bb |. the progression from the hook of “thrift shop”.
- | C | Eb | F | Eb/G |. a high-energy progression. this is kind of cheating because Eb is lower than F, but the bass note G is higher so i count it in the same category.
5. descending basslines
my rules for a descending bassline are:
- the starting chord must be C or Am.
- at a regular interval, the bass note must descend by either a half step or a whole step.
- at some point, no earlier than halfway through, the bassline must reach a turning point and start going back up. at this point, you are optionally allowed to hold each chord for twice as long as before, and you can go up by half steps, whole steps, or fourths.
- the last chord should be G, or you can choose Bb or Fm if you’re going to C, or E if you’re going to Am. the chord before that (which can be your turning point) should be F, Dm, D, Ab, or Fm. you can play the third of these chords in the base instead of the root, if you want, unless the third is C or D.
there is a selection of chords you should strongly consider at each bass note along your path. if you are starting from C, then consider:
- B - G/B or Em/B
- Bb - C7/Bb, Bb, or Gm/Bb
- A - Am or F/A
- Ab - Fm/Ab or Ab, or maybe E/G#
- G - G, C/G, or Em/G
- F# - D/F#
- F - F, or Fm if you haven’t used Fm/Ab already
- E - C/E
- Eb - you probably shouldn’t end up here, to be honest
- D - Dm or D
if you are starting from Am, then consider:
- Ab - E/G# or E+/G#
- G - G, C/G, or Em/G
- F# - D/F#
- F - F, Fm, or Dm/F
- E - E, Em, or C/E
- Eb - you probably shouldn’t end up here, to be honest
- D - Dm, D, or G/D
- C# - A/C#
- C - F/C or C
- B - Bm or B
- | Am | G | F | E |. a bit mysterious. used prominently in “i’m feeling good” by nina simone.
- | C G/B | F/A C/G | D/F# F | G |. cute, somewhat rustic progression. see the chorus of “no reason” by big thief.
- | Am E+/G# | C/G D/F# | F E | Am |. sounds a little spooky. (note that you are allowed to return to your tonic on the fourth bar of the progression, and not just when going back to the start.)
- | Am | G | D/F# | F G |. think “megalovania”.
- | C | Gm/Bb | F/A | Fm/Ab |. a moody progression. just playing C Gm F Fm would work too here.
- | C Em/B | Am C/G | F C/E | D G |. think “piano man”.
- | C Em/B | Am G | F C/E | F G |. the infamous pachelbel progression from “canon in D minor”. you can just play the root notes in the bass on this one as well.
6. common segues
sometimes you want to get from point A to point B with a little pizzazz. these are some tricks to do that.
the first one is going between a minor chord and its relative major by going through the 5 chord of that relative major, while voice leading with the bass note. usually this is either Dm C/E F or Am G/B C, but you could apply this pattern to other pairs of relative major and minor chords. you can also go in reverse, from C to G/B to Am or F to C/E to Dm. for example:
- | F | Am | G | Dm C/E |. uses C/E to get from Dm back to F at the start of the loop. used in “midnight city”.
- | F | G | C G/B | Am |. going back down from C to Am. from “glimpse of us”.
the second is called using “pre-dominants” to get where you want. this means, when you want to get to a given chord, playing the 2 chord and then the 5 chord (usually double-timed) as a lead-in to that chord.2 most commonly this is to F, whose pre-dominant would go Gm C F. or to get to Am it might be Bm7b5 E Am. you could even back it up to do a third chord, like Dm7b5 Gm C F. basically it sounds cool when you take a trip along the circle of fifths to get to your chord. for example:
- | C | G | Am | Gm C | F | C/E | Dm | G |. this is a pretty typical sound in J-pop, which uses secondary dominants a lot, especially to go to F.
- | Dm G | C F | Bm7b5 E | Am |. best known from “autumn leaves”. nearly the whole thing is made by chaining secondary dominants.
the third is a variation on that called “tritone substitution”. instead of going 2 to 5 to 1, you go 2 to b2 to 1. it’s called tritone substitution because the 5 and the b2 are a tritone apart. and a V7 and a bII7 share the same tritone interval (which is why it works).
finally, consider using the sus4 or augmented version of a chord as a lead-in to the major chord. it’s like a mini-resolution that can segue into a real resolution. for example:
- | C | F | Gsus4 | G |. a very triumphant progression.
- | Dm | G+ G | C | C |. a playful way to end on C.
- | Am | F | G | Esus4 E |. using the sus4 adds a little extra… well, suspense.
- | Am | F | Dm | E+ E |. this serves a similar function as the previous example but is a bit more intense.
7. jazzy cliches
cliches are useful because listeners are familiar with them, and also because they usually sound good. here are some good ones to have in your toolkit:
- | F | D/F# | C/G | A+ A | F | G | C | C |. a cute, playful little resolution with a lot of movement.
- | C | Ebo7 | Dm7 | C |. a cute resolution that uses a lot of voice leading.
- | F | C/E | Dm | C |. as heard in “let it be”. similar to the previous one in that it uses voice leading (descending thirds) to get to its resolution.
- “line cliches”—you move the top or bottom note of a chord while keeping the rest of the chord the same. seen, for example, in | Am | F/A | F#o/A | F/A | from the james bond theme, the top note moves up and down while the other two notes remain the same.
- | Gm G | or | Em E | leading to C or Am. going from the minor dominant to the major dominant to the tonic to add a bit of drama.
8. extensions and substitutions
some extensions and substitutions you can almost always do are:
- add the 9 or 2 to a major chord. this will make it sound richer and warmer. i probably wouldn’t do this for E, because E usually doesn’t sound rich and warm. but you still can, it’s not a big deal.
- add the 4 to a major chord. this will make it sound a little less resolved, so i wouldn’t do it on a chord you are resolving to.
- add the 7 to a minor chord or 6 to a major chord. this will make it sound a little in-between the relative minor and major.
- add the 7 to E. this adds a little more bite.
- leave the D out of F# and add a C to get F#o, and optionally add E as well to make it F#7b5.
- add D to Fm, making it Fm6, or Dm7b5 if you play the D in the bass.
some extensions and substitutions you can sometimes do are:
- add the 9 or 2 to a minor chord. this will make it sound more desolate.
- especially after Em or G, substitute A for Am. this adds a little unexpected brightness that can make a loop sound weird but cool.
- if you’re mostly using major chords, add the 7 to a major chord to make it sound bluesier.
- if you’re going from Em or G to Am, you can substitute E/G# for it, or play both chords in succession twice as fast. you can also leave the E out of E/G#, making it G#o.
- add the b9 to E7. this makes it extra aggressive, sometimes too harsh. generally only do this when going to Am. you can leave the E out of this as well, making it G#o7.
- you can usually substitute Em for G to make it sound a bit darker.
- you can sometimes substitute C/E for Em to make it sound more optimistic.
- substitute F F/G for F G if you want to make it sound more like the 70s.
- make any major chord sus2 instead to make it sound a little less resolved, without sounding dissonant.
- if a sequence ending with G C sounds too straightforward, try G7sus4 C instead to make it a little smoother. this especially works in a sequence like D7 G7sus4 C.
- try adding the maj7 to an F or C chord to make it sound a bit more floaty.
- if you have a nice dramatic transition from a dominant (or subdominant) chord to its tonic, such as G to C, D to G, or C to F, you can make it more dramatic by adding the 7 and the 9 to the dominant. such as G9 to C.
- you can usually replace a Gm acting as a predominant with a Bb.
- to make a minor chord sound extra jazzy and sort of “wrong”, add a maj7.
- adding the 4 to a minor chord doesn’t do a whole lot, but you can do it anyway.
9. general principles
if you just follow this guide as-is you can get pretty far, but you’ll probably miss some big ideas. the ones i could think of and express are:
- if you want to make something sound jazzy, include a lot of 5-1s and 2-5-1s. that is, stuff like Dm G C or Am Dm. go a fifth down between chords.
- if you want to make something sound like modern pop, do the reverse. a lot of stuff like F C G or Dm Am.
- use inversions to keep your chords close together in pitch, so that they sound more connected. (this is basically voice leading.) inversions of chords function nearly the same except in two cases: if the lowest note functions as the bass note, and if the top note acts as part of a melody. otherwise, try to keep your chords from moving up and down too much unless it’s for dramatic effect. a good guideline is to keep all the notes in your chords within a fifth of middle C. you don’t actually need to do that all the time, but practicing it will probably give you an understanding of voice leading.
- you don’t have to loop everything. the four-bar loop is a staple of pop music, but you don’t have to stay within that framework. you can put two four-bar loops together to make an eight-bar loop, or use one as a segue between different sections of a song, or whatever else your heart desires.
- if your harmony sounds boring, ponder whether your melody, rhythm, or sound design are actually the boring part. you don’t have to change chords at exactly the first (or third) beat of every bar. and your melody doesn’t always have to go up and down by steps.
- the first chord of a progression sets the tone quite a bit. C is pretty standard or even “vanilla”. Am is a little moodier and is common in pop. F is high-energy and especially common in pop. Dm functions similarly but is, again, moodier. G is unstable but can be high-energy. others are uncommon but you can have fun experimenting.
- you don’t have to play all the notes in the chord. if a note is in the bass, you don’t always need to play that note in a higher octave too. and you can often drop the fifth from a chord without much consequence.
- you might not want to come up with your harmony first. if you have a good melody, you can probably figure out what the harmony is should be to best support the melody.