I’m a chord progression fanatic. From Beethoven to Ellington, to McCartney and Lennon, to Wonder, to Williams, a great progression can lift you to the clouds or leave you in pieces on the ground. If rhythm, melody, and harmony were all Rings of Power, harmony would be the ring of emotion. Sweet Elves of Eregion, I pray that everyone is emotionally available enough to feel the difference between B and Bsus2. To ache from the tension of dissonance, to exhale at the power of resolution.
There are so many progressions I love. Just to prep our palates:
We usually think of The Beatles as the wielders of harmony in the debate. But man, I love this one. Song in G. First of all the verse starts on the iii chord, Bm. Who starts on the iii?! Killin’. Then in the chorus: Am | C | G F | C
Ugh, it’s so good it’s gross. I love starting the chorus on the ii, it’s like we’re slowly stepping down to I. And that F natural—that bVII—oh baby! You’ll always get my juices flowing with a bVII, but particularly with the verse progression that so heavily features F#—the fifth of Bm—it gives it such extra oomph.
G | B | C | A7
I live for a major III chord. My shoulders immediately perk up when I hear one. It has such soulful sauce and is probably my favorite way to approach IV—though I7 is great. And the icon doesn’t even rest on the laurels of that change, he also gives us a dominant II! This is an iconic progression, also an iconic song… coincidence? I think not.
Gm | Ebm | Gm
Song is in Gm. But minor ain’t dark enough for the Empire. The second chord Eb—the 6 chord—should be major, but it’s minor! Oh John Williams… To quote Mark Jackson, “there goes that man.” That Ebm with the Gb third is accostingly dark. Also if you look at it under the umbrella of Gm, it creates a delicious minor-major7 sound.
Then when he hits us with C#m later in the progression, sweet Emperor Palpatine, I can feel the lightsaber being twisted in my back.
Finally at the turn when he unveils the natural 6 chord—Eb major—just the true stuff of legend.
This is an article that I have always wanted to read and I am thrilled to help manifest it. We’re about to go 20 leagues deep into the music theory abyss. So folks who come to our site for hoops chatter or movie recs, turn back while you can. BUT, for every single developing songwriter out there, take this article, bookmark it, transcribe it, steal every one of these ideas.
This collection of songwriters is so ridiculously accomplished it’s outrageous. These musicians have toured the world, signed major label deals, played festivals, and have songs you’ve probably heard in film and TV. I have linked to all of their sites. Enjoy the journey, see you in 5 months when you’ve assimilated all of this!
I love the Phrygian modal scale because it mixes minor and major half and whole steps to create really insane half-step chord progressions. My favorite of these is when the second degree of the scale is flatted and then played as a major 7 chord. My favorite example of this progression is Cm | Dbmaj7 | Cm.
Most people don’t know that I own everything that Stevie Wonder ever made. My favorite progression that he uses a ton is I | Imaj7 | | I7 | IV | bIIV. I love the walk down on the seventh. In G, that would be G – F# – F. Sometimes he will alter it replacing the flat 7 chord at the end, with a minor 4: I | | I7 | IV | iv | You can hear this on “Please Don’t Go” and “Happier Than the Morning Sun.”
I live for that progression and hardly anyone uses it besides Stevie Wonder. I used it in my song “Lift Me Up.” And check out this great video for more on Stevie’s use of harmony.
One of my most favorite chord progressions is actually a pairing of progressions(s) plural. In the Death Cab For Cutie song “Transatlanticism” the chorus magically morphs into a bridge with some simple yet brilliant chord sleight of hand. The vocal melody continues on the same, but Ben Gibbard crafts an entirely new chord movement underneath it. The ‘chorus’ of the songs (which is in the key of A) is a repeated 4 | 4 | 1 | 5-6 progression, but with almost no fanfare, twice in the song the chords shift to this elongated inverted chord movement:
6 | 6 | 3 | 3
4 | 4 | 5 | 5
6 | 6 | 2 | 2
4 | 4 | 1 | 6-5
It blows my mind every time I hear it.
In what is sure to max out my quota of music-nerd comments for the remainder of 2020: my comfort-food chord change is the I Maj 9 > III Maj 7. Essentially the big brother that took two jazz theory courses and now says shit like “well actually, a lot of people think Bill Evans did his best work BEFORE he got famous” to the I maj > III maj progression (featured in everyone’s go-to high school battle of the bands selection “Creep”). The I Maj 9 > III Maj 7 gives you everything you could want in a chord change: equal parts chromaticism and held tones, a dash of implied modulation, and a setup for another chromatic lift to the IV if you’re gunning for that Plagal resolution; what’s not to love! This change pops up in the B-sections of the title track off my record …And the Sky from 2019.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a big fan of the ol’ two-chord progression from “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. Something about that simple move back and forth gives the song so much life.
A strange chord progression that I find more aggravating than cool is often referred to as “The Mario Cadence.” In its simplest form it is bVI-bVII-I (in the key of C, Ab-Bb-C). Many people will be familiar with this chord progression from playing Super Mario Bros.
The cadence here begins on beat two of the second measure, bVI6/4, an Eb/G to an F/A to a G/D. In root position it looks like this in the key of C:
At first blush, I really dislike it. At minimum, the brightness is off-putting. I think that’s part of the appeal, though, as it makes me wonder if I could dress it up in such a way as to make it more nuanced, intriguing, or even mysterious… like it’s challenging me to try and hide that bright Mario vibe.
This sequence of chords has been on my mind recently as I unexpectedly came across it in a Vince Guaraldi piece, “Thanksgiving,” that I arranged for one of my jazz bands. You can hear it, very quickly, at 0:02, with a screenshot of the melody below. The Mario Cadence is in measure three, Ab-Bb-C. (Side note: this is a really interesting song, it’s just melodicized harmony with first inversion triads!).
One interesting way of looking at this cadence is as a variation of the backdoor ii-V7-I, but with a rootless iv (e.g. a backdoor ii-V-I, in C is Fmin7 – Bb7 – Cmaj7 removing the root of the iv chord gets you to an Ab major triad. Similar to how a vii diminished is often argued to be a rootless V7). In fact, I wonder if that is how Vince Guaraldi wrote this song, as the first two measures are just the major triads of a backdoor ii-V in G, whereas measures three and four use the rootless iv variation. The next two measures switch, with the rootless chord found in the one-chord (adding an F below the Ab in measure six produces another major backdoor ii-V, but now in the key of F).
I played around with these chords bit and came up with this moodier voicing (parallel sus2major7/3) that I’m liking…maybe it will turn into my next composition!
If I were going to pick an all-time favorite progression, it’s Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows.” I especially love how there’s barely a root position chord in the verses (and plenty of diminished and 4/2 inversion 7th chords which are so delicious), and he builds and releases tension so thoughtfully, all culminating with the refrain where we finally hear that root position I chord (right after hearing the song’s title), only to then immediately plunge back into the chordal labyrinth for the second verse. And as if that all weren’t enough, the second part of the bridge has another lovely chord progression, and once you get inside of it you realize it’s the same progression as in the verse just transposed up a fourth, and the way it then interlocks back into the original key for verse 3 is one of the most elegant changes I’ve ever heard.
The first thing that comes to mind is my own twist on the ii V I, which is iim7 then a tritone sub for V and a brute force switch to MAJ7 for that and then finally Imaj7.
So in the key of E: F#m7 | Fmaj7 | Emaj7
I — viim7 — V/vi
This guy brings me joy whenever it comes along. “Nothing from Nothing,” “Yesterday,” “Blues for Alice.” That perfect 5th in the viiim7 chord—where diatonically you would get a flat 5—packs a bigger punch than you’d think.
I — ii — vi
It’s the hipster of chord progressions: not as basic as I—V—vi—IV, but not as original as it thinks it is. I still love it though.
V7/IV — IV
A well positioned dominant build up delivering you to a IV is undeniable. I’m also really into V7/vi — V7/IV. Basically a dominant seven chord followed by another dominant 7 a major third down. For example, going to A7 quickly followed by F7 in order to get to Bb is a pretty neat sound.
First struck me on the line “But Zeuss and Hera wept” from Disney’s 1997 untouchable classic Hercules. It functions like a V—I, but… cooler. And even outside of a bluesy context—sans dominant 7—there’s so much cadential power with VI to I, or chromatic mediant.
”Knights of Cydonia” by Muse deserves a mention in a conversation about chord progressions and chromatic mediants. I’ve always loved how the sequence clandestinely shifts key centers without giving off a “key changey” smell. It first brings you from a minor key to its relative major without too much drama (Emin | G | C | G). Then it uses a chromatic mediant relationship based off the minor key’s leading tone (Eb/D#), which is prominent in the melody (strong part of the bar), to further establish the relative major (B7 | C | Eb | G). It reinforces the relative major, essentially cutting ties with the original minor key, by starting the next phrase with a minor iv – I, again with a strong emphasis on that Eb/D# in the melody (Cm | G).
Then comes a plagal cadence that pivots us to Eb major, the chromatic mediant that was used earlier, and the tonic chord of the melody note (Eb/D#) that has been emphasized all along (Ab | Eb). Finally, some material firmly in Eb that ends with a V – i to Eb’s relative minor (Gm | Ab | Eb | G | Cm). The sequence cycles through 2 more times, cutting a beautiful triangular path across the circle of fifths, before landing back in the key it started in. But unlike e.g. Beyonce’s “Love on Top,” you just don’t notice, or care, about the key changes. They would almost be irrelevant if it weren’t for the fact that the sequence is so mathematically elegant and interesting to analyze. But it just flows so naturally that it’s easy for 3 key centers to fly by without any fanfare. It almost sounds like Matthew Bellamy followed his nose and got to the end of the chord progression and melody, realized he was a major third away from where he started and said “Fuck it, let’s keep going. We’ll get home eventually.”
Best chord progression in LOTR: “Nature’s Reclamation” i.e. the music that plays when Gandalf talks to a moth at the top of Isengard; when the Rohirrim charge at Pelennor Fields; when the Ents march on Isengard. “The filth of Saruman is washing away…”.
Film music is a boundless source of intriguing harmony. But there is one example, in particular, that’s always captured my wonder, and no amount of academic analysis will likely ever be able to remove the butterflies it gives me. In the Star Wars main theme, bars 28-29 (roughly 0:36 seconds on the New Hope original recording) we hear, in my opinion, the quintessential John Williams-ism. Coming from the V chord in the previous bar, we get a IV chord (Eb), moving to a bVII (Ab) which then pushes to the V (F). But the way the harmony is voiced and how the inner voices move, and the resulting spice that comes of it all, is what I live for. Cellos, trumpets, horns, and oboes play this ascending inner line that lingers on a B natural on the same downbeat of the Ab chord, before the line continues up to C, essentially making it a passing Ab minor chord for a beat. Since everyone else is playing an Ab or Eb, that inner line doesn’t have to worry about clashing with anyone playing a C.
Plot twist: the basses are playing C for that whole bar. So right on the downbeat, you have a chord that is spelled (from bottom to top): C Ab B Eb. Spicy. I just love that sound so much. And I always look for an excuse to use it in something. Well, I recently got a chance to do so—on a string arrangement for a good friend and brilliant songwriter Max Daniel. I lifted John Williams’ little trick and inserted it on Max’s song “What’s The Point of Wondering,” right around the 0:38 second mark.
It’s silly to have a favorite chord. But 13 flat 9 might be my favorite chord. Especially when voiced without the 7th.
And one last one from lil’ old me, Sasha Klare-Ayvazian // Austin, TX
Two things I absolutely love: chromatic bass movement and using multiple chord qualities of one chord in a song (shouts to “Imperial March!”). I was able to utilize both in my band American Dreamer’s song “When You’re Away.” The song is in C. The end of the chorus goes:
Dm | D7 | G | Dm7b5 | Dbmaj7 | C
Three versions of D in one turn! That’s my sauce. You get that bass descent D – Db – C. And I also love approaching the tonic from a half-step above.
Thank you to the amazing musicians who contributed to this! What are your favorite progressions?