What is a chord progression?
All songs have a key center, this means that a song is “in the key of.”
Every key has seven chords and you can number them from 1 to 7 using roman numerals.
In the key of C we have these chords: C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim.
To replace this with roman numerals you simply number them:
C (I) – Dm (II) – Em (III) – F (IV) – G (V) – Am (VI) – Bdim (VII)
Let’s take the song ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ as an example.
The first part of the verse chord progression is: C – Am – Em – F – G – C
That means the roman numerals are: I – VI – III – IV – V – I
Since there are only 7 chords we can start seeing different combination’s, these are called Chord Progressions.
As long as we translate a chord letter to a number we can hear and even predict musical movement.
Let’s examine all seven chords from a key one by one.
If a song is in the key of C, then the C chord is chord I (chord number one).
Chord I would be a major chord, if extended it would turn into a maj7 chord. With or without the extension, it would still be chord I.
Find chord I in songs
Imagine if you, by ear, could recognise whenever chord I was played, in any song.
To get to this point you have to start looking for it. Here’s a few examples of when chord I appear in the beginner songs you’ll learn when you take the Beginner Guitar Course.
- The Drugs Don’t Work – First chord played is chord I
- Redemption Song – First chord played in the verse is chord I
- Rewind – First chord is chord I
- Robin Hood – First chord is chord I
- Talking About A Revolution – First chord is chord I
- Time Of Your Life – First chord is chord I
- Wonderwall – Second chord is chord I
Chord II (chord number two) sits just after chord I, so in C major, chord II is Dm.
Chord II is a minor chord, when extended turns into a min7 (minor 7). With or without this extension it is still chord II.
To understand what chord II does to a song you need to identify it in a song.
Find chord II in songs
Let’s find chord II in a few of the Beginner Acoustic Songs.
- Ain’t No Sunshine – The middle chord of the turnaround is chord II
- Redemption Song - The last chord of the verse progression is chord II
- Rewind – The second chord of the pre-chorus and first chord of M8 is chord II
- Wonderwall – The last chord of verse progression is a IIsus4, a manipulated II chord
Chord III is built off the third interval using every other note of the major scale resulting in another minor chord that can be extended to a min7 chord.
No matter if the chord is just minor or extended to a min7 it is still chord III.
To learn more about the sound of chord III you need to find it in different songs.
Chord III in songs
The following Beginner Acoustic Songs all have chord III in their progressions.
- Ain’t No Sunshine – The first chord of the turnaround is chord III
- The Drugs Don’t Work – All sections have chord III in it
Among the Intermediate Acoustic Songs you find chord III in these songs:
- Babylon – The III chord appear in the middle of the chorus
- Beautiful – If seen as in the key of Ab, then Cm is chord III
- Dreadlock Holiday – The passing chord in the chorus is a III chord
- Hey There Delilah – The second chord of verse is a III chord
- Last Request – Chord III is found in 3 out of 4 sections
- Starman – The third chord played in the chorus is chord III
- Whistle For The Choir – The second chord in the verse/chorus is chord III
It is worth noting that in this collection of songs, the IIIx chord is more common than the standard III chord!
When ever you play a IV chord you won’t feel very rested, it is as if chord IV wants to go somewhere, although it is not clear where.
This has to do with the mode it is built from, the Lydian mode. Inside this mode we find a #4 and in the next octave a #11.
To get a feel for the sound of the IV chord we have to identify it in songs.
Chord IV in songs
Amongst the Beginner Acoustic Songs we find chord IV in many places:
- The Drugs Don’t Work, chord IV is here found in almost every part
- One More Cup Of Coffee, the IV chord is present in both verse and chorus
- Redemption Song, build up to chorus and chorus has a IV chord in it
- Rewind, both verse and chorus has a IV chord
- Robin Hood, verse, chorus and outro has a IV chord
- Talking About A Revolution, the second chord played is chord IV
- Time Of Your Life, every section has chord IV present
- Wonderwall, both bridge and chorus start with chord IV
In the Beginner Guitar Course we always start working on each song by learning what the chord progression is first.
From here we get strumming patterns and even full TAB. However, the starting point must always be: What are the chords and what do they mean?
The reason you feel as if you want to go to chord I when playing chord V has to do with the intervals inside both chords. Let’s use the key of C major as an example:
- Chord V – G chord – G – B – D
- Chord I – C chord – C – E – G
Individually, the note G stays, B wants to go up to C, D wants to go either up to E or down to C.
Should you extend to dom7 for the G chord you would add an F, this wants to then pull to the E.
This natural tension makes chord V want to go back to chord I.
Chord V in songs
Let’s find chord V in some Beginner Acoustic Songs and see how it feels in relation to other chords.
- The Drugs Don’t Work, here we find chord V in every section
- One More Cup Of Coffee, second chord played is chord V
- Redemption Song, chord V at the end of the verse and during the chorus
- Rewind, chord V can be found in the chorus and the end of M8
- Robin Hood, chord V as a D is found in every section
- Talking About A Revolution, chord V at the end of the progression, extended to sus2 and sus4
- Time Of Your Life, chord V in every section
- Wonderwall, chord V is found in the verse and bridge
Chord V is found in almost every song you’ll play, ensure you can recognise it as a sound.
You will learn how to always do this when you take the Beginner Guitar Course as what number a chord has is always the starting point whenever we learn a song.
As a relative minor of the I chord, chord VI is like the sad version of our happy and content I chord.
If a song sounds like it is in a sad key it is most likely using the VI chord as its home.
To fully appreciate the sound of chord VI, look for it in the Beginner Acoustic Songs.
Chord VI in songs
- Ain’t No Sunshine, the first chord is a VIm7
- The Drugs Don’t Work, the second chord of the verse is chord VI
- One More Cup Of Coffee, the first chord is chord VI
- Redemption Song, the second chord of the verse is chord VI
- Rewind, find chord VI in the chorus and with falling bass line in M8
- Robin Hood, chord VI is found in every section
- Talking About A Revolution, chord VI is in the loop as the third chord played
- Time Of Your Life, chord VI is found in every part of the song
- Wonderwall, the first chord is the VI chord
Take time to ensure you can always spot chord VI in progressions. The sound is very characteristic, how do you describe it to yourself?
Does it sound different if we come from chord I (and move down to VI) compared to from chord V (moving up to VI).
Details like this will fine tune your musical understanding, get all the tools in the Beginner Guitar Course.
As a triad, chord VII is just an odd sounding dim chord, a minor chord with a b5. This is very rarely found in songs.
Extended to a m7b5 we find chord VII pretty frequently in jazz and jazz influenced music.
Chord VII in songs
We have to go all the way to Advanced and Master Acoustic Songs to find the VII chord.
- Over The Rainbow, find the VII chord in the verse
- Angel Eyes, towards the end of the verse we find chord VII
Another variation of chord VII is found when you play falling bass lines over chord II. In G major we would have Am – Am/G – Am/F# – Am/E.
The chord Am/F# would have the notes: F# – E – A – C, these are the same notes as an F#m7b5.
As a beginner you don’t need to worry about the VII chord, most simple songs with open position chords only use chord I to VI.
Beginner Chord Progression Conclusion
What you’ve seen here is the foundation to understanding music.
It is the chord progression that supports the melody, it’s the chord progression that determine the key and hint any modulations or variations.
In Intermediate Chord Progression you find out about the variations to these seven chords.
Together they explain music. All scales, arpeggios, substitutions, you name it, it’s always done in the language of the chord progression.
Take the Beginner Guitar Course and have this language deciphered, step by step.