Songwriting (Part 4): How Chord Progressions Work

Songwriting (Part 4): Understanding How Chord Progressions Work

This is a continuation from songwriting blogs published in past weeks, which you can check here:
How To Write Chords To Your Melody Lines
Fretboard Mastery for Better Songwriting
Some Scale And Chord Theory

The Importance of I IV V

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.

Another way of saying this: most songs are written mostly using the 1st, the 4th, and the 5th chord of the key you are writing in.

Blues for example is entirely built on only these 3 chords.

Example: I IV V in The Key of C:

In the key of C, these 3 chords would be:

I = C
IV = F
V = G

The notes in these 3 chords are:

C = C E G
F = F A C
G = G B D

As you can see: the I, IV, and V chords contain the whole scale within themselves.


The significance of this will be explained when we talk about “note tendencies in a scale”.

We’ll discuss this in the next topic, while we’ll also unravel why I IV and V are the most used chords in songwriting and composition.

Chord functions within a major scale.

Within a scale (and thus within a song you write with that scale), every chord in the scale has a certain feel and function.
There are 3 such functions in the study of harmony and music theory, and we give them the following names:

I is called the “tonic”,
IV is called the “sub-dominant” and
V is called the “dominant”.

One of these 3 chords feels like home, like a point of rest and no tension.

Other chords feel strongly like they need to resolve somewhere: these chords have a feeling of tension and therefore create strong forward motion at that point in the song.

Here’s a description of which chords have which type of feel in the scale.

• 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 me.
For that reason V typically occurs before I, building a forward motion of tension into resolution (I)

Scale Tendencies.

In other words: every chord so to speak, performs a certain role within the storytelling.
That role is caused by an important part of scale theory, called “tendencies”

It so happens that, when you play a scale, and you listen very closely to the scale and to the feel of each note as you play up and down the scale, you notice after a while that each individual note, has a certain “inclination” to go somewhere (or not).

For example:

The D note in the key of C wants to resolve down to the note C
The F note in the key of C wants to resolve down to the note E
The G note in the key of C wants to resolve down a 5th (5 letters) to the C note
The B note, in the key of C, wants to resolve up to the C note.

It’s these tendencies that lay at the foundation of the function that each chord plays in a song and chord progression.

The I chord is built on the note in the scale that many other notes want to resolve to which explains why I is the tonic (home base, no tension) chord

The V chord is called the dominant because it “dominates” the chord progression (so to speak).
This is the chord that contains all the notes that want to resolve to note C (which is the root of the I chord).
It is the chord of full tension, wanting to move on to full resolution.

This is why more often than not, the V chord in a chord progression is followed by the I chord.

The IV chord (F chord in the key of C, which consists of the notes FAC), feels like “adventure”.
That chord could go both ways: back to I or further up to full tension V (and then to I from there).

The F note in the F chord wants to resolve a 1/2 step down to the E note in the key of C (which is one of the notes in the C chord), but the tonic feel C and A notes in the chord negate that tension.

In addition to that: none of the notes in an F chord have a tendency to resolve to I (to C).

As a result: the chord does not feel like a tonic chord (because of the F note in the chord), but it also doesn’t feel like a full tension chord (because of the lack of notes in the F chord that have tendencies to resolve to I) This is called a subdominant feel, which is more akin to an “adventurous” kind of feel.

The inherent nature of I IV V causes build-up and relaxation, tension, and resolution, direction, and arrival.
These foundational principles upon which all storytelling is built: explain why I IV V are the 3 most commonly used chords in songwriting and composition.

Examples of Common I IV V Progressions.

a)12 bar blues
b) I | I | IV | V
c) I | V | I | V | I | V (Lots of classical music passages like to alternate between I and V)
d) I | IV | I | V (Think “The Ramones” and tons of punk songs)

Now the next chapter is where it gets really interesting.
You might have wondered already: “How about the other 4 chords in the scale?”

It seems limiting to only use 3 chords in a song, right?

Enter the topic…


The I, IV, and V chords can be substituted/replaced by other chords in the scale that have many of the same notes.
The idea behind this is that chords that share the same notes share the same feel: tonic, subdominant, or dominant feel.


Don’t get hung up or confused in the next section on the fact that I spell all chords out as 7th chords.
I only did this so you would see even more common notes than if I had just written simple 3-note versions of the chords.

Imaj7 is just a 4-note version of a I chord
III-7 is just a 4-note version of a III- chord (etc…)

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. (If a bass player would hit a C note underneath the Em7 chord)
VI-7 = A C E G → creates C6 sound. (If a bass player would hit a C note underneath the Am7 chord)

Yes, I, III- and VI- can replace one another because III- and VI- share the same 2 out of 3 notes (or 3 out of 4 if you make them 7th chords) with the I chord.

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

IVmaj7 = F A C E
II-7 = D F A C → creates an F6 sound (If a bass player would hit an F note underneath the Dm7 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 (If a bass player would hit a G note underneath the Bm7b5 chord)

Important remarks about the above substitutions:

  1. You can’t “replace” your first or last I chord in the song with an IIIm or VIm chord. It would sound like you’re in a different key than you intended to and would confuse the listener.

    For example: if you replace your first C chord in the song with an Am chord, it will feel like the song is in the key of Am, no longer in the key of C.

    While you can totally freely replace every IV chord with a IIm chord (and vice versa), and every V chord with a VIIdim chord (and vice versa), you have to let your good taste and ear be your guide and use some caution when it comes to the I chord.

  2. The VIIdim chord is hardly ever used in anything but jazz or classical music.
    It’s very unlikely you will find that chord often in pop, rock, country, or reggae music.

    When used, the VIIdim chord feels like some weaker kind of V chord. That is why, while you can substitute V and VIIdim, you will usually use the V chord.

    The VII7dim chord sounds good when you play with a bass player who hits a G root underneath your Bdim (or Bm7b5 if you make it a 4-note version) chord.
    The bass player’s G note underneath your VIIdim chord all adds up to sounding a G9 chord.

If you understand all the above, then we’ve come full circle when it comes to figuring out chords to melodies.
Here’s how this looks like in action!

Making Your Songs More Colorful

Let’s say that the chords you are writing to your melody, end up being following very common progressions:

|| : Cmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Fmaj7 | G7 : ||

Now you know that you can make that chord progression much more colorful by substituting your 2nd C chord with for example an Am chord:

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

Or replacing the IV chord F with a Dm chord: (which would be advisable if you already have a couple of F chords in previous bars)

|| : Cmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Dm7 | G7 : ||

Or doing both:

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

Or while the line is repeating, you could make it:

Cmaj7 | Am7 | Dm7 | G7 || Cmaj7 | Em7 | Fmaj7 | G7 || Cmaj7 | Am7 | Fmaj7 | G7 || Cmaj7 | Em7 | Dm7 | G7 ||

Compose Chord Progressions Much More Quickly Using Your Knowledge of I IV V

Let’s say you figured out by ear, that your very first chord of the song you’re writing, is a C chord.

You keep strumming C till you feel that the chord no longer works with your melody line.

At this point, the choice is simple: it’s either going to IV (F) or V (G).
So you hit the V (G) chord.
If that is the one that sounds really pleasing to you, you move on because you found the right chord.
If not: that means it is the F chord.

Now… suppose that it is the F chord. You tried the G chord, and that really did not feel right or work.
You know it is the F chord, but somehow, something seems very slightly off about it still. It works but it kinda rubs you the wrong way a tiny bit.

Guess what? It’s a substitution. Replace the F chord with a Dm chord, and you will find the sound you were looking for.

From here you move on till that Dm chord no longer works with what is happening next in your melody.

Again, only 2 options: it either goes back to a C chord or moves on further to a G chord.
If you hit C and it doesn’t sound or feel right to you, it is going to be a G chord.

You keep playing the G chord till it no longer feels right for your next melody line.
Here it is going to either a C or an F chord (probably, more than likely, it will want to resolve to C)

And so on.

This is THE quickest, most efficient way to figure out chords to the melodies you are coming up with.

All this comes to show again, how much one really benefits as a songwriter from having a basic understanding of the workings of music theory.

Everything we have covered so far: covers a lot of songwriting ground.
You can literally write hundreds of songs with the material we covered so far, and make all of them sound distinctively different from one another.

However: there are always more possibilities, more colors, more options, and more to learn…

More advanced Harmonic Options.

Yes, there are way more cool things you can do with chords.
There are other chords you can use beyond the 7 chords you have available in the major scale (key) you’re writing.

We will in future blogs discuss the following really great chord options and harmonic songwriting techniques:

1) Secondary dominants
2) Substitution secondary dominants (more jazz in feel)
3) Modal interchange chords
4) Diminished 7th chords. (passing chord, as an approach chord to I and IV or as a substitution to V7)
5) Hybrid chords
6) Chords with open strings
7) Pedal points.
8) Line clichés
9) Chords with moving bass lines underneath.
10) Chords sharing the same 1 or 2 top notes (i.e. Oasis “Wonderwall”)


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