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a guide to chord progressions

posted 2023.01.14
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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:

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:

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:

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.


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:

5. descending basslines

my rules for a descending bassline are:

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:

if you are starting from Am, then consider:


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:

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:

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:

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:

8. extensions and substitutions

some extensions and substitutions you can almost always do are:

some extensions and substitutions you can sometimes do are:

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:

  1. Gm can also be useful, but mostly in specific contexts i will cover later. 

  2. the 5 is the “dominant” chord of the 1, and the 2 is the dominant chord of the 5. hence “pre-dominant”, the dominant to the dominant.