Fundamental Chord Progression Tips Every Musician or Songwriter Needs To Know

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Do you want to know the 3 important chord progressions tips every musician or songwriter should know to write better music?

If you're a musician or songwriter who wants to know the important tips to create interesting and imaginative new music in minutes without running out of new song ideas then you need to read this immediately to take your chord progressions to the next level.

Tip #1: Using prompts to jump start the songwriting and creativity process

It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Straight up stealing is lazy and wrong, but modelling after something you love or find interesting is inseparable from the history of writing music.

An important goal in the writing process is to try and write the music that you want to hear, but hasn’t been written yet. So why not get some inspiration from the music that you already know and love.

Starting out to write something from nothing is more a challenge to break out of than the actual process of writing anything at all. This is a psychological block that stops most before they even get started, but it is important to not let that happen.

You aren’t the first to write music ever. There are many who have come before you, so this trail has been blazed many times before. Accept that you stand on the shoulders of giants, and dig into the methods of those who inspire you.

This can fast track the learning of ideas, since it is the absolute most practical approach when you write over a framework. More importantly, what didn’t end up on the cutting room floor has already been proven to work.

Keeping a songwriting journal can be an essential habit that you should start to practice. Make notes about parts of songs that grab you, or sound interesting, so you can take them apart later. Write them down so you can apply it to your own writing when it comes time to sit down and get to work.

Even if they are your ideas, grab your phone and keep track of your happy accidents as they happen. This way you never have to succumb to the weight of “the blank page” ever again, and keep the path to getting your next song finished free of any and all friction.

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Tip #2: Using scale degrees to give chords specific jobs in the progression

When notes are laid out in a scale pattern, they are set in a specific order. That order is important, because it doesn’t change. This means we can reliably assign each note in a scale a number, identifying it by its position within the scale.

Once the key center has been established, and any all choices made are going to be done in relation to that all important first tonic note of the scale. Each note will react differently based on its distance from our tonic note. Knowing this allows us to predict how a note will react by its “scale degree” number, regardless of the letter name.

The scale degrees are written with Roman Numerals, so when you see that written anywhere in music, this is what it is referring to.

The first (I) degree is our Tonic, so that is the home position. The job of this degree is to provide the fullest resolution or release of tension.

The third (III) and sixth (VI) degree will have chords that share most of the same notes with the Tonic chord. This allows them to be considered Tonic chords as well, and can be used in a similar place as the Tonic chord, but without complete resolution. It’s a handy trick to avoid losing all of the tension you might be building up, but still allow for some resolution. Also good for creating movement within the progression with very little drama.

Next the fifth (V) and seventh (VII) degree chords have a Dominant function. The seventh scale degree is only a half step away from returning to the Tonic note, and it really wants to (or rather our ear really wants it to). This note is also in the chord built on the fifth scale degree. Because of this, these chords create some of the highest amount of tension. Move them to any of the Tonic chords, and experiment with the levels of release it creates with each.

The second (II) and fourth (IV) degree chords have notes that are adjacent to the notes in our Tonic chords, so it creates a very natural flow from one to the other in either direction. However, these second and fourth degree chords don’t contain that “drama queen” seventh scale degree like our Dominant chords. They are classified as Sub Dominant chords, allowing for movement that creates a level of tension in a middle ground between Tonic and Dominant.


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Tip #3: Listening for melodies and hooks you can bring out of a chord progression

While it might sometimes feel as if a melody is bestowed upon us from some mythical being from the heavens, the framework for great melody is always hiding in your chord progression. As a songwriter, it's up to you to mine for it and bring it out to the light of day.

If you’ve ever had a melody and chords put together, then you leave the song for a bit, but return to find that it's not so interesting (or worse yet, it just doesn’t sound great at all) then this can help you out. Melody is like a chord progression happening one note at a time, and chords in a progression are like several melodies stacked on top of each other and played at the same time.

If you know what notes are in those chords, you can pick and choose your melody notes without much worrying about if they’ll fit properly. It can at the very least give you a framework to start from so you don’t have to feel around in the dark, or try to hammer square pegs into round holes.

Just like scale degrees, the notes in a chord are assigned numbers based on their distance from the root of that chord. Basic root position chords have notes that move in intervals of 3rds (every other note).

A simple chord would have a Root note, and its 3rd, 5th, (and possibly 7th) stacked on top of each other. This means the ear will hear the note you play over this chord in relation to the key center you are playing in, but also in relation to the root of the chord.

If a chord progression is moving from G 7 to C Maj, using a B in the melody while on the G 7 chord will sound great with the chord, but also leverage the tension created between the two chords, creating a more satisfying resolution.


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