LA School of Guitar

Songwriting Part 2: Understanding Chord Progressions

Songwriting: Part 2
Last week’s post was about understanding key centers and the 7 chords that are within each key.  This week I’ll build upon that knowledge by discussing how we take the chords from a key center and turn them into a usable chord progression from which to build a song.   First we’ll look at some examples of common chord sequences and then I’ll give you some tools to start building your own songs.

What chords and  in what order?
The right sequence of chords will give your song a sense of movement and highlight the emotional content of your lyrics.  Choosing the right chords will help you build points of tension and release at the appropriate moments.   How do you know what chords to use and what order to put them in?  Let’s answer that question by looking at the unique character of each chord in the key of ‘C’ and start understanding how they go together to create musical flow.    

Let’s review the 7 chords from the key of ‘C’ as outlined below:

C major | D minor | E minor | F major | G major | A minor  | B diminished

In music theory we refer to each chord in a key by assigning it a roman numeral (major chords are capitalized and minor chords are lower case):

C major | D minor | E minor | F major | G major | A minor  | B diminished
I                  ii                 iii                 IV                V               vi                    vii         

The reason for the numbers is so that we can remember patterns of chords even if the key changes (more on this later).   For the rest of this article I’ll be referring to each chord by its letter name and its number.

Chord Families
Each chord in the key can be grouped into one of three different chord families: Tonic, online Sub-Dominant and Dominant.  These families help us to better understand how each chord functions within that key center – this is important to deciding what chord comes next in the progression.

Tonic: C major (I), E minor (iii), A minor (vi)
These three chords fall into the “tonic” family. They tend to be the most stable and restful sounding.  Typically you would start and end your progression with one of these chords because they establish a strong feeling of key center.  These are your release or resolution chords.

Dominant: G major (V), B Diminished (vii)
These two chords are in the “dominant” family. They hold the most tension of all the chords in the key and they usually want to resolve to a tonic chord (see above).  The G major is often played as G7 in the key of C, which gives it a more dissonant or “tense” sound.  To get an idea of this tension and resolution try switching back and forth between G7 and C and also B Diminshed and C. 

Sub-Dominant: D minor (ii), F major (IV)
These two chords are in the “sub-dominant” family. The ii and IV chords are the “in-between” chords. On the spectrum of tension (dominant) and resolution (tonic) they fall somewhere in the middle.  They are useful in transitioning between tonic and dominant chords as well as when you want to move away from the sound of the key center (tonic) but not as far as a dominant chord would take you.

In a nutshell you can break the chord families down like this:
Tonic: Least Tension
Sub-dominant: More Tension
Dominant: Most Tension

Now it’s time to pick up the guitar and actually start applying some of this theoretical mambo-jumbo.  Here are some common chord progression examples:   

I – IV – V (C – F – G) is by far the most common chord sequence in music.  It is the basis for rock, country, folk, pop, classical and most other forms of popular music.  If you apply the theoretical knowledge from above, the chords gradually build tension as they progress.  Tonic – Sub-Dominant – Dominant

Two songs that share this progression are Twist and Shout and La Bamba. 

| C major | F major | G major | F major |  repeat…
        I                IV                 V                 IV

I – V – vi – IV (C – G – Amin – F) is a very recognizable pop chord progression used by everyone from Green Day to Matchbox Twenty. We can analyze this progression by noticing that it has two tonic chords (C and Amin) and that the G (dominant) and F (sub-dominant) are functioning as transition between C and Amin.  As with the first example we see the pattern of establishing the sound of the key with a tonic chord and then pulling your ear away from that sound through the use of dominant and sub-dominant chords.

Matchbox Twenty’s How Far We’ve Come

| C major | G major | A minor | F major |  repeat…

Let me show you one way to start exploring with these concepts and hopefully come up with your own ideas.  For each chord in a progression, you can substitute another chord from the same chord family as the orginal.  For example, if you have an F chord in your progression, you can try substituting the other chord from the same sub-dominant family: Dminor.  Let’s use the Matchbox Twenty progression to explore this concept.

| C major | G major | A minor | F major |    switch the F major to D minor (sub-dominant family) and now we have this:

| C major | G major | A minor | D minor |   let’s try switching out the A minor for E minor (tonic family):

| C major | G major | E minor | D minor |  let’s do one final change – G major to B diminished

| C major | B  diminished | E minor | D minor |   now we have something that sounds nothing like the original song

You’ll have to use your ears and own musical taste to decide what sounds you like best.  Try applying this concept to other songs you know by analyzing the chord families and then using the substitution method as shown above.



This entry was posted on Monday, July 23rd, 2012, and is filed under Articles, NEWS. You can follow any responses through the RSS feed.
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One Response to “Songwriting Part 2: Understanding Chord Progressions”

  1. Quentin Dyle says:

    Awesome little blog, keep it up :)

Leave a Reply to Quentin Dyle

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