Music & Entertainment

What Are Chord Progressions? Learn How to Play Rock, Pop, and Jazz Chords

Written by MasterClass

Apr 5, 2019 • 6 min read

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A song consists of four main elements: melody, harmony, rhythm, and (where applicable) lyrics. When it comes to the second element—harmony—we tend to evaluate it via a song’s chord progression.

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What Is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is the cycle of chords that plays throughout a particular section of a song. Typically, songs written in 4/4 or 3/4 (the most common time signatures) will have one chord per measure, although two chords per measure is also quite common. It’s possible to have three or four chords per measure (or even more), but this technique is more commonly found when a song transitions to a new section.

How to Notate Chords With Roman Numerals

Roman numeral notation is integral to music theory, and thus to analyzing chord progressions. Songs written in a major key are based on the major scale—the fundamental building block of Western harmony. The major scale has a series of “triads” (three note chords containing a root, a third, and a fifth) that are built upon the notes within the scale. They are notated with Roman numerals as follows:

  • I—a major triad starting on the 1st degree of the scale
  • ii—a minor triad starting on the 2nd degree of the scale
  • iii—a minor triad starting on the 3nd degree of the scale
  • IV—a major triad starting on the 4th degree of the scale
  • V—a major triad starting on the 5th degree of the scale
  • vi—a minor triad starting on the 6th degree of the scale
  • viiº—a diminished triad starting on the 7th degree of the scale

In order to get a specific set of chords, assign these Roman numerals to specific keys. For instance, let’s take A major. The chords associated with that scale are:

  • A major (the I)
  • B minor (the ii)
  • C# minor (the iii)
  • D major (the IV)
  • E major (the V)
  • F# minor (the vi)
  • G# diminished (the viiº)

(Notice how there are both major chords and minor chords in a single scale.)

If you had a song in the key of A with the following progression:

A D | D A E |

In Roman numeral notation, this would be analyzed as:

I IV | IV I V |

What Are the Roman Numerals in the Minor Scale?

If you’re working in the natural minor scale (the second building block of Western harmony), take note that these are the chords associated with that scale:

  • i—a minor triad starting on the 1st degree of the scale
  • iiº—a diminished triad starting on the 2nd degree of the scale
  • bIII—a major triad starting on the 3rd degree of the scale (which we sometimes call the flat third degree)
  • IV—a major triad starting on the 4th degree of the scale
  • V—a major triad starting on the 5th degree of the scale
  • bVI—a major triad starting on the 6th degree of the scale (which we sometimes call the flat sixth degree)
  • bVII—a major triad starting on the 7th degree of the scale (which we sometimes call the flat seventh degree)

How to Find Inspiration for Creating Chord Progressions

When composing your own chord progressions, it’s important to think about your goals for the song you’re drafting:

  • Do you want it to be a pop music earworm?
  • Do you want it to be dark and sinister?
  • Do you want it to evoke an international location, like the Caribbean or the Middle East?
  • Or perhaps you want it to sound “out”—pushing the conventions of harmony and sounding like nothing else out there.

Having some objectives, even if they’re very loose, will help you choose a chord progression that’s appropriate for your chosen genre.

How to Create a Pop Chord Progression

In order to create a tune that appeals to a wide variety of people, write a progression that’s relatively simple, diatonic (staying within the chosen key), and that allows for lots of melodic options. Here are some suggested common chord progressions:

I - IV - I - V

  • This is an old fashioned classic and great for evoking music of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
  • Songs that use this progression: “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry; “MMMBob” by Hanson; “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison
  • Examples: E - A - E - B or C - F - C - G

I - V - vi - IV

  • Possibly the most commonly used progression in today’s pop music. This is the progression underneath literally hundreds of chart-topping hits.
  • Pop songs that use this progression: “Umbrella” by Rhianna; “When I Come Around” by Green Day; “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus
  • Examples: D - A - Bm - G or Ab - Eb - Fm - Db

How to Write a Jazz Chord Progression

One of the ways that jazz is different from popular music is that jazz puts enormous emphasis on harmony, and the way to enhance harmony is with exotic chord progressions. But first let’s start fairly simple:

iii7 - vi7 - ii7 - V7 (aka “rhythm changes”)

  • If you’re looking for the standard issue “classic jazz” sound, you start with this progression, nicknamed “rhythm changes” because they’re the basis for “I’ve Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin
  • Note that this uses 7th chords, where the 7th scale degree is added to a major or minor triad. Jazz is full of 4-note, 5-note, and 6-note chords. Simple triads are very rare in this style of music
  • Songs that use this progression: “Cotton Tail” by Duke Ellington; “Seven Come Eleven” by Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman; “Rhythm-a-Ning” by Thelonious Monk (the title references the chord progression)
  • Examples: Dm7 - Gm7 - Cm7 - F7 (in the key of Bb) or Bm7 - Em7 - Am7 - D7 (in the key of G)

Non-Diatonic Progressions

  • Jazz music is different from pop in that it frequently challenges the idea of a “tonal center.” It’s not always entirely clear what key the song is in, and compositions frequently use non-diatonic chords (chords that aren’t derived from the key the song is written in).
  • Consider “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane. Its opening chord progression is Bmaj7 - D7 - Gmaj7 - Bb7 - Ebmaj7
  • The song is in the key of Eb major. Therefore the chordal analysis is bVI maj7 - V7/iii - III maj7 - V7 - I maj7. Thorny, right? None of those first three chords are based on the Eb major scale! But no one can deny the song’s power. Sixty years after it was first recorded, it’s still being covered by jazz bands worldwide.

How to Write a Hard Rock Chord Progression

Hard rock and heavy metal make regular use of the minor pentatonic scale, and that scale sounds great over minor chord progressions. Here are some hard rock progressions that have been used to great effect.

i - bVII - bVI

  • This descending pattern is a great backdrop to both wailing lead vocals and extended guitar solos.
  • Songs that use this popular chord progression include: “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin; “All Along the Watchtower” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience; “The Trooper” by Iron Maiden.
  • Examples: Am - G - F or Em - D - C

i - bVI - iv - i

  • When writing in a minor key, try subbing in a minor 4th chord (such as A minor in the key of E minor). It adds a little harmonic variety and makes your progression that much more sinister
  • “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne uses this different chord progression.
  • Examples: F#m - D - Bm - F#m or Dm - Bb - Gm - Dm

Use these ideas as a starting point for your creative process, but at the end of the day, any chord progression is theoretically possible. It all depends on your goals for your new song!