What is a chord progression?
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Hear the chord progression as numbers
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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.
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 further in the guitar course using songs and exercises. Below is a brief guide to every chord.
The I 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.
Chord I in songs
Possibly the most comon chord, chord I appear in most songs, here are a few examples:
- Redemption Song – The first chord in the verse is chord I
- Rewind – The first chord is chord I
- Time Of Your Life – The first chord is chord I
- Wonderwall – The second chord is chord I
You’ll learn more about chords in the beginner course.
The II chord
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.
Chord II in songs
Let’s find a few II chords among the beginner songs.
- Ain’t No Sunshine – The second chord of the turnaround
- Redemption Song – The last chord of the verse is chord II
- Rewind – The second chord of the pre-chorus is chord II
- Wonderwall – The last chord in the verse is a IIsus4
These were just four examples of songs with chord II in them, most songs have it.
The III 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.
Chord III in songs
These songs all have chord III in their progressions:
- Babylon – The III chord appears in the middle of the chorus
- Dreadlock Holiday – The chorus passing chord 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
It is worth noting that among the intermediate songs, the IIIx chord is more common than the standard III chord!
The IV 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.
Chord IV in songs
Amongst the beginner songs, we find chord IV in many places.
- The Drugs Don’t Work – Chord IV is found in almost every part
- Robin Hood – The verse, chorus, and outro all have IV chords
- Talking About A Revolution – The second chord is chord IV
- Wonderwall – The bridge and chorus start with chord IV
In the beginner course, we always start working on each song by learning what the chord progression is first.
The V chord
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.
Chord V in songs
Here are four songs that all have a V chord:
- One More Cup Of Coffee – The second chord played is chord V
- Redemption Song – There are V chords in the verse and chorus
- Rewind – Chord V can be found in the chorus and m8
- Robin Hood – Chord V is found in every section
Chord V is found in almost every song you’ll play, ensure you can recognise it as a sound.
The VI chord
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 the beginner songs.
Chord VI in songs
Here are four songs that all have chord VI in them:
- Ain’t No Sunshine – The first chord is a VIm7
- The Drugs Don’t Work – The verse’s second chord 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
Take time to ensure you can always spot chord VI in progressions. The sad sound is very characteristic.
The VII chord
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.
Chord VII in songs
The VII chord is not very common, only two songs in the step by step courses use it.
- Over The Rainbow – Find the VII chord in the verse
- Angel Eyes – Towards the end of the verse we find chord VII
A 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.
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.