What is a chord progression?
All songs have a key centre, this means that a song is ’in the key of’. Every key has seven chords and you can number them from one to seven using roman numerals.
In the key of C, we have these chords: C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim. To replace these with roman numerals you simply number them, like this:
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 verse chord progression is C – Am – Em, followed by F – G – C
This makes the roman numerals: I – VI – III and IV – V – I.
Here’s a video lesson from the beginner course. As you hear and see the chords played, sing along saying the chord numbers of the verse progression.
Hear the roman numerals
As there are only seven chords available, you will soon start to see different combinations that pop up in songs, these are called ‘chord progressions’.
For example, the IV – V – I progression that we had at the end of ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ is super common and can be found in thousands of popular songs.
By seeing them as numbers you can start hearing them as sounds. Do this and it doesn’t matter what key we are in. A – B – E, for example, is the same progression as F – G – C, just in a different key.
As long as we translate a chord letter to a number we can start this journey of understanding music. Eventually, you’ll be able to hear and even predict chord progressions.
What’s important to understand is that every chord, seen as a number, has a certain sound.
We examine this concept all the way through in the guitar course using songs and exercises. Below is a brief guide to every chord, complete with links to songs that use the chord.
If a song is in the key of C, then that 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.
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 are a few examples of chord I appearing in the acoustic songs you’ll learn when you take the beginner course.
- The Drugs Don’t Work – The first chord is chord I
- Redemption Song -The first chord in the verse is chord I
- Rewind -The first chord is chord I
- Robin Hood -The first chord is chord I
- Talking About A Revolution -The first chord is chord I
- Time Of Your Life -The first chord is chord I
- Wonderwall – The second chord is chord I
Chord II is a minor chord. When extended it turns into a min7 chord (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. Let’s find a few from the beginner 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 in the 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 number III.
To learn more about the sound of chord III you need to find it in different songs.
These beginner songs both 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 appears 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 among the intermediate songs, the IIIx chord is more common than the standard III chord!
Whenever 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. Amongst the beginner 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 – The build up to the chorus and the actual chorus has IV chords in them
- Rewind – Both the verse and the chorus has IV chords
- Robin Hood – The verse, chorus, and outro all have IV chords
- Talking About A Revolution – The second chord played is chord IV
- Time Of Your Life – Every section has chord IV present
- Wonderwall – Both the bridge, and the chorus start with chord IV
In the beginner 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 is always: 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 resolve to the E of the C chord.
All this natural tension makes chord V want to go back to chord I.
Let’s find chord V in some beginner songs and see how it feels in relation to the other chords.
- The Drugs Don’t Work – Here we find chord V in every section
- One More Cup Of Coffee – The second chord played is chord V
- Redemption Song – There are V chords at the end of the verse and during the chorus
- Rewind – Chord V can be found in the chorus and the end of the m8
- Robin Hood – Chord V as a D is found in every section
- Talking About A Revolution – Chord V is to be found 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 and you’ll have a more content musical life.
You will learn how to always do this when you take the beginner 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 has 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 these beginner 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 the 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 chord VI)?
Details like this will fine tune your musical understanding, we discuss them in depth in the beginner course.
As a triad, chord VII is just an odd sounding dim chord, a minor chord with a b5. It is very rarely found in songs.
Extended to a min7b5 and we find chord VII pretty frequently in jazz-influenced music.
We have to go all the way to the advanced and master 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 a 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.
Learn to recognise these six simple sounds and you will experience and be able to play and write music on a different level.
What you’ve seen here is the foundation for understanding music. It is the chord progression that supports the melody, it’s the chord progression that determines the key and hints any modulations or variations.
In intermediate chord progressions, you find out about possible variations to these seven chords. Together, with these first seven chords, they can explain any song, no matter what style.
All scales, arpeggios, arpeggio substitutions, you name it, it’s always done in the language of the chord progression.
Take the beginner course and you will learn this language, step by step.