May 15, 2019 by Klaus Crow
Photo by Bigstockphoto
Knowing how to build chords and chord progressions is a really great tool for writing your own songs and communicating with your fellow musicians on how to play a certain piece of music, “Let’s play a 1 4 5 progression in the key of…”
You can create the most beautiful chord progressions and songs by ear and you don’t necessarily need to know music theory for that, but it makes the life of a musician a lot easier if you do know some music theory on this part.
It’s nice to know what other musicians are talking about and how you can create chord progressions in a more effective and efficient way.
Adding music theory knowledge will reveal a lot of secrets you wish you had known before, so don’t wait for later or you’ll miss out on all the good stuff. Music theory will definitely make you a better musician!
Now let’s dive in:
From the major scale you can build 7 diatonic chords. The major scale consists of 7 notes, so that’s one chord of each note.
Let’s take the C major scale for example.
C D E F G A B + C (=octave)
To build the first chord “C” of the major scale we stack thirds on top of each other. So if you start at “C” you take the 1st note (stack a third), 3rd note (stack another third) and the 5th note of the major scale: C E G
C E G = C Major
Then we build a chord of the second degree of the major scale “D”
Again from the D chord we stack thirds on top of each other.
So from “D” take the 1st, 3rd and 5th note = D F A
D F A = D minor
Build a chord from the 3rd degree of the major scale “E”
Stacking thirds: E G B
E G B = E minor
Chord from 4th degree is “F”, stacking thirds: F A C = F Major
Chord from 5th degree is “G”, stacking thirds: G B D = G Major
Chord from 6th degree is “A”, stacking thirds: A C E = A minor
Chord from 7th degree is “B”, stacking thirds: B D F = B diminished
So we got:
C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and B diminished.
All these chords can be used if you’re playing a chord progression in the key of “C”
Now we can derive a formula from this pattern of chords.
Formula for finding chords in a major scale:
1=Major, 2=minor, 3=minor, 4=Major, 5=Major, 6=minor, 7=dim
This formula can be applied to every key.
For example if you take the G major scale: G A B C D E F#
Apply formula and you get these chords:
G Major, A minor, B minor, C Major, D Major, E minor, F#dim
So if you wanna write a song or a chord progression in the key of G you can use all these chords randomly and they will all sound perfectly well together.
BUILDING CHORD PROGRESSIONS:
In music we use roman numerals to indicate the order of chords in a chord progression.
So let’s take the chords built of the G Major scale for example:
I = G Major, ii = A minor, iii = B minor, IV = C Major, V = D Major, vi = E minor and vii = F#dim.
Now we can build chord progressions with these roman numerals. Here are some of the most common chord progression in pop, folk, country and rock music. With these chord progressions thousands and thousands of hit songs were written and that will probably be the case for decades to come.
Progression: I – V
In the key of G that is = G D
In the key of C that is = C G
Song examples: Jambalaya – Hank Williams, Dance the night away – The Mavericks
Progression: I – IV – V
In the key of G that is = G C D
In the key of C that is = C F G
Song examples: La Bamba – Ritchie Valens, Twist and shout – The Beatles
Progression: I – IV – I – V
In the key of G that is = G C G D
In the key of C that is = C F C G
Song examples: Free fallin’ – Tom Petty, brown eyed girl – Van Morrison
Progression: I – vi – IV – V
In the key of G that is = G Em C D
In the key of C that is = C Am F G
Song examples: Stand by me – Ben E King, Every breath you take – Sting, Love hurts – Everly Brothers
Progression: I – V – vi – IV
Key of G = G D Em C
Key of C = C G Am F
Song examples: You’re beautiful – James Blunt, I’m yours – Jason Mraz, With or without you – U2
Progression: vi – IV – I – V
Key of G = Em C G D
Key of C = Am F C G
Song examples: The other side – RHCP, Zombie – The Cranberries, One of us – Joan Osbourne
Now write your own song with the help of these chord progressions. Have fun!
Puzzled but thinking says
I’m confused. For the ii chord you say “Then we build a chord of the second degree of the major scale “D”” – but in the D scale the F is actually F#, so if you were stacking thirds from the D major scale you would have D, F#, and A. But in order for the chord to be minor, the F has to be F natural.
So, don’t you mean “we build a chord of the second degree by stacking thirds from the C major scale starting at the second note: D, F, and A” ?
The minor formula for chords is 1 -3b – 5
In the D Major scale the 3rd degree is F# to make the minor chord you flat the third note.
Thank you very much for the awesome article. I’ve been playing guitar for about 4 years and have been trying to learn theory, but struggling a little with chord progressions. Mainly how to use them properly. I was wondering about a couple things. I’m using the key of G for my examples.
The progression example vi – IV – I – V. So, you don’t always have to start a chord progression with I? Will the listeners ear be able to recognize you’re in the correct key, if you don’t start on the tonic? I like the idea of not having to start on the I chord, but just want to know how much liberty I have for starting on other intervals.
Also, for the lead part, can I just play random notes from the G major scale over these chords? Do the notes I play from the major scale need to correspond to the chord being played? For example, if the rhythm guitarist is playing a C chord, do I need to be playing a C note in my solo? I would think not, because then the lead guitarist is going to be constantly chasing the rhythm guitarist around the fretboard, as they change chords.
Michael Yearwood Jr. says
It says 4th degree? Is that following the circle of 4ths.
Charles Enscoe says
Keep helping me with blues……Are scales always based on the whole step, whole step concept andthe samefor the blues and minor scales. Do these patterns always work or do i ned to learn more patterns ?
charles enscoe says
Are the scale patterns ok for major, minor and others. I know the pattern is different for different major and minor scales, but are they same for each type of scale ?
I am still confused about chord progression I-V
In the key of G that is = G D
In the key of C that is = C G
what do you mean by key of G it is G D? can you elaborate a little more on this?