The Most Common Chord Progressions for Songwriting

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You may have seen one of the various online videos in which a musician will demonstrate ‘100 songs in 4 minutes’ or ‘play 50 songs with only these 4 chords’ and so on.

There is a slight technical flaw with these, in that, for ease and speed, the musician has falsely pretended all these songs are in the same key (e.g. Pretended they’re all in A minor, rather than some in A minor, some in B minor, some in F minor, etc).

However, whichever keys the original songs are in, they do have their chord progressions – their essential formula – in common.

To understand this properly, we need to introduce a bit of theory. We’ll use the key of C major, as it’s simple, the foundation of all music theory and will keep this explanation clear.

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Step 1 – Finding the chords that belong in a key.

Take the scale in question – the one that shares its name with the key. In this case C major:

C D E F G A B

Next, turn these into the chords that belong in this key. This can be done using the following formula, which belongs to any major key:

1, 4, 5 = major

2, 3, 6 = minor

7 = diminished

Meaning that the chords that belong in C major are:

C major

D minor

E minor

F major

G major

A minor

B diminished

Remember this is a formula, so although the notes in, for example, the key of G major, are not  C D E F G A B, they’re G A B C D E F#

The resulting chords follow the same formulaic pattern of:

1, 4, 5 = major

2, 3, 6 = minor

7 = diminished

Meaning the chords in the key of G are:

G major

A minor

B minor

C major

D major

E minor

F# diminished

Hopefully this pattern is now clear.

Step 2 – Learn The Common Chord Progression

There are a few very common chord progressions, particularly dependent on genre and era.

The one we’re looking at here is the one that’s the subject of some of those videos mentioned at the start of this article, and is arguably the most common chord progression in the history of pop and rock music.

It’s the VI IV I V (6, 4, 1, 5) progression.

To understand this and what it is, look again at the key of C major and take chords 6, 4, 1, 5 and put them in sequence, in that order:

Am | F | C | G

Again, remember this is a formula. So looking at the key of G major, you can extract a progression of:

Em | C | G | D

And although the chords themselves are different, the chord types, distance between each other, and resulting sound, harmony and musical effect is the same.

Try both progressions our one after the other and notice the similarities.

Also try figuring out the same progression in other keys to practice that process.

3 – Songwriting Exercises

Whilst you don’t want to flat out copy songs, of course, and one of the points of songwriting is to attempt to be authentic, creative and original, there is a reason songs built around this progression are so common. It’s important to understand the trends and rules before you can go against them, if you want to.

  1. Try to write something original using the chord progression – find which key you like the progression in best, then try to write a song using the progression. What you produce will probably only be original to an extent, by the nature of the exercise, but this is about finding and maximizing all the ways in which you can apply originality to a tried and tested formula.
  2. Try to write something without using the chord progression. And in fact, probably without using very similar chord progressions either i.e. Not simply replacing one chord in the progression with something else, but keeping the others (particularly in the same sequence)

Exercises like these are the beginnings of a deeper understanding of common chord progressions and songwriting.

Most importantly – have fun!

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Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitartricks.com and 30Daysinger.com

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