Chords & Progressions In Songwriting and Composition

Chords In Songwriting and Composition.

  1. I, IV, V

    The 1st, 4th, and 5th chords in a scale are the main chords that serve as a framework to which any chord progression in any song can be reduced.
    Look at any song or composition: and you will see that the most common chords in any song are the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords in the scale.

    Blues is entirely built on only these 3 chords. I is called the “tonic” chord, IV is called the “sub-dominant” and V is called the “dominant”.

  2. Chord functions within a major scale.

    The I, IV, and V chords have a certain feel within a chord progression.
    These chords have a function they perform in the chord progression. These functions are called: tonic, subdominant, and dominant.

    The tonic (I)

    Is the chord a song typically starts and ends on. It feels like a home base, a point of no tension. The place you start from and always come back to.

    The sub-dominant IV

    Has some tension, it feel like this chord in the overall progression of the key a song is written in, wants to go somewhere. The IV chord typically precedes V.

    The dominant (V)

    Is the chord of full tension. This chord always wants to resolve to I. For that reason V typically occurs before the I chord, building a forward motion of tension into resolution (I)

  3. Common progressions.

    a) 12 bar blues
    b) I | I | IV | V
    c) I | V | I | V | I | V
    d) I | IV | I | V

All that being said: songwriters would be very limited of course if they could only use 3 out of the 7 chords you have in a scale.
There are 4 more chords available in the scale, and they all sound great too, which is why you want to know about them…

I, IV & V Substitutions.

When chords share many the same notes, those chords have a very similar feel and sound.

The I, IV, and V chords can be substituted/replaced by other chords in the scale that share common notes.
Chords that share the same notes do create the same feel: tonic, subdominant, or dominant feel.

To avoid all confusion: I wrote all the below chords as 4-note chords (7th chords)
All this also applies of course to the 3-note triad versions of the chords.

For example, Imaj7 is just I with a 7th added. III-7 is just a III- chord with a 7th added.
There are 2 reasons why I wrote the below examples as 7th chords and not triads

  1. So you would know IF you want to play 7th chord versions of the chords, what kind of 7th chords you would have to play for each scale degree. (For example, so you would know that the 4-note version of chord I is a Imaj7 chord, and not a I7 chord.)
  2. You have even more notes common between the chords that can substitute one another if they are 4-note chords. It’s even easier to see how many notes are common.

Here are all the substitutions listed for I, IV, and V

  1. Tonic feel: Imaj7 can be substituted by III-7 and VI-7

    Imaj7 = C E G B
    III-7 = E G B D → creates Cmaj9 sound
    VI-7 = A C E G → creates C6 sound

    What this means is that you can replace any C chord in your C major song with an Am or an Em chord.
    The only caution, for the tonic feel chords, is that you would not want to substitute your very first or very last C chord in the song.
    If you did that, your song wouldn’t sound anymore like it’s in the key of C.

  2. Sub-dominant feel: IVmaj7 can be substituted by II-7

    IVmaj7 = F A C E
    II-7 = D F A C → creates a F6 sound

    What this means is that you can replace any F chord in your C major song with a Dm chord.

  3. Dominant feel: V7 can be substituted by VII-7b5

    V7 = G B D F
    VII-7b5 = B D F A → creates a G9 sound

    What this means is that you can replace any G chord in your C major song with a Bm7b5 chord.


If you had a song where the chord progression is:

C | C | F | G |

You could replace the F chord with a Dm chord.

C | C | Dm | G |

It would still work and you wouldn’t have to change your melody.
Your notes in your melody would feel the same way against both chords.

You could also replace your C chord with an Am or Em chord.

C | Am | Dm | G |

Common Progressions:

|| : Cmaj7 | Am7 | Fmaj7 | G7 : ||
|| : Cmaj7 | Am7 | Dm7 | G7 : ||

You want to memorize all this above.
You also want to learn how to apply this in all 12 keys.

One way you can learn how to apply this in all 12 keys, is by writing all 7 chords down for every key

The chords in a major scale are organized like this:


As 7th chords

Imaj7 IIm7 IIIm7 IVmaj7 V7 VIm7 VIIm7b5

The spacing of the chords from the starting point I, is

Up a whole step (2 frets) to the 2nd chord, up a whole step, up a half step,
whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (between the 7th and the 1st chord)

Learning all the above will make your songs more colorful.

Hit me up anytime at if you would like me to send you fun backing tracks to solo over with these arpeggios.
You’re on your way to becoming a great guitar player.
Have fun! 🙂


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