by Reuben Cornell

How to unlock the power of
emotional chord progressions

emotional chord progressions

Chord progressions are the building blocks of music. Whether you’re writing pop, R&B, or any other kind of genre, different chords conjure a broad range of emotions in your listener, from happiness to sadness, excitement to aggression. Although played in their basic form, standard progressions might not immediately have a huge impact, they are a useful framework on which to hang other elements of your song.

Combining an appropriate chord progression with fitting instrumentation, meaningful lyrics and a memorable melody will go a long way in communicating the message of your music. Here, we’ll look at some distinct chord sequences that have been used in popular music for decades, along with some more recent examples of the progressions in action. Once you understand how simple chord combinations work together to create an evocative musical landscape, you can mix things up and explore more complex chords and harmonic expression.

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The basics of chords in songwriting

We’re going to assume that you already have a underlying idea of how a musical chord is constructed; 3 or more notes of a given scale played simultaneously to sound harmonious. Chords are named depending on their root key and their ‘shape’. Common names include major, minor and 7th. For a refresher on theory basics, check out our guide on getting started with music theory. This guide covering pop chords is also a useful starting point.

We’ll be annotating the chords in a common format of Roman numerals, but also showing the examples in their transposed equivalents of C major or A minor (depending if the progression is in a major or minor key). Look out for the audio examples below every progression which we’ve played using sounds from the refreshed Kontakt Factory Library 2.

The four chords used in almost every pop song are I, IV, V, and vi, or C maj, F maj, G maj and A min. These chords are the most common in Western music, and they can be found in a wide variety of genres, from pop to rock to country. Depending on how you use these four chords, different sounds and emotions can be conjured.

How can I write a good chord progression?

Beginning with some of the most common chord progressions is a great place to find inspiration. Don’t be overly worried about copying another songwriter’s chords, as every chord sequence that sounds half-decent has already been worked into plenty of existing songs. Change up the timing or repetitions to suit your track. For example, the intro of Marillion’s “Kayleigh” repeats the first two chords of our chilled & relaxed sequence above (i – VII) before playing the whole progression during the verses (i – VII – v – VI).

Emotional chord progressions for your songs

1. Happy and exciting chords

I – V – vi – IV : Cmaj – Gmaj – Amin – Fmaj

This popular happy chord progression is often used to create a sense of emboldened joy. It’s a strident and purposeful sequence that naturally leads the listener on a journey from the first bar. Beginning with a tonic major chord, a “home” chord, the progression moves to the V dominant chord, creating a sense of tension and excitement. The vi chord suggests somewhat of a relief after the dominant chord, moving finally to the IV chord which further calms the tension.

This is a very circular-sounding progression which lends itself to cheerful repeating choruses like the classic “Don’t Stop Believin‘” which replaces the vi (Amin) with a cheeky iii (Emin) on the second go-around for a bit of variety. For a more boisterous example of this progression look to “abcdefu“, Gayle’s breakout chant of self respect

2. Dark and brooding chords

i – VI : Amin – Fmaj

This seemingly simple chord progression creates a dark, moody atmosphere with a somewhat unexpected chord change. Tension and dissonance are conjured from the outset, even though these chords have two notes in common.

Britney Spears surprised many fans used to her previous bubblegum pop with the sultry “Slave 4 U”. This anthem of seductive confidence seldom deviates from the progression during its runtime. Variations that include a 6th note can create an even more unsettling vibe, as demonstrated throughout “Love Sosa” by Chief Keef, spinning a 3-minute hypnotic trap workout from just two chords and a simple melody.

3. Nostalgic and sentimental chords

I – IV – ii – V : Cmaj – Fmaj – Dmin – Gmaj

Despite beginning with a major chord, this progression sounds a little sad and can seem to yearn for the past, making it perfect for love songs that trip down memory lane. From the I foundational chord, movement to the IV chord adds a sense of anticipation, leading smoothly into the minor ii which creates a sense of pensive tension, before resolving to a satisfactory V chord.

Keane’s “Everybody’s Changing” uses this sequence to great effect during the verses to remember happier times, before shuffling the chords for a more pragmatic chorus refrain.

Shifting these chords by just one position to IV – ii – V – I pushes the progression into even more heartfelt territory, as shown by Harry Styles’ “As It Was.” Sparse instrumentation and personal lyrics combine with the chord sequence to create an anthem that pines for lost love.

4. Motivation and victory chords

ii – I – V : Dmin – Cmaj – Gmaj

Many assume that the motivational anthem “Eye Of The Tiger” features in the original Rocky flick, but it actually first appears in Rocky III. Classic movies aside, this progression offers classic tension and resolution from the first chord, which is often played as a minor seventh. Forward motion is created by moving to the I, and completion is achieved by the transition to the V, suggesting that progress has been made or a journey ended.

On the second play through, swap out the I (Cmaj) for a vi (Amin) for a more concrete resolution.

You might want to steer clear of using this progression as the basis for an entire song as the constant triumphant vibe can seem a little trite. Instead, try the sequence as a pre-chorus or bridge, like Missy Higgins or Crash Test Dummies.

5. Chilled and relaxed chords

i – VII – v – VI : Amin – Gmaj – Emin – Fmaj

We consider this chord sequence to be one of the most chilled-out on the list, with its natural-sounding progression from one chord to the next. The satisfying feel of the i to VII and then v to VI progression is sometimes enough to hang an entire song on.

This makes it a popular choice for mid-tempo tracks from artists such as Charlie Puth and Taylor Swift. It’s also a popular progression for indie and rock artists such as Foxes and Pat Benatar who use powerful instrumentation to inject elements of rebellion and swagger.

6. Wistful and longing chords

i – III – VII – iv : Amin – Cmaj – Gmaj – Dmin

One listen to “Without Me” or “Set Fire To The Rain” will give a good idea of how this sad chord progression can be used to call out to a lost lover or request just one more chance. That final iv chord is the real showstopper here, piling on the tension (instead of the expected VI) and making it uncomfortable to resolve back to the i.

Sam Smith’s “Too Good At Goodbyes” also uses this chord progression, but switches out some triads for sevenths chords (try Dmin7 as the final chord), and in the process pushes the song’s tone into increasingly unresolved territory.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as with some clever lyrical flourishes and an up-tempo makeover Gaga and Rihanna have led this chord sequence onto the dance floor.

7. Aggressive and pressure chords

i – VII – i – VII – VI – VII – i : Amin – Gmaj – Amin – Gmaj – Fmaj – Gmaj – Amin

This specific progression of chords is frequently used in rock and metal music, bringing a snarling drama to proceedings. Guitar power chords particularly suit this sequence which has little movement between each chord, just a tone.

The most popular metal example is likely Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” which layers complex guitar licks over the basic chords. Add a couple more chords and you quickly get to Helloween’s “Don’t Stop Being Crazy.” If you’re struggling to hear the progression over these walls of sound, head to the verses of Jacko’s “Beat It” for a clearer example of how the chords move from one the next.

Start using emotional chord progressions

As you’ve seen and heard, chord progressions play a significant role in the emotional impact of music, going far beyond simple “happy” major chords and “sad” minor chords. The ways that chord progressions can excite, sadden and relax are vast and we’ve only just scratched the surface here. Researching why your favourite songs use the chords they do can help you understand why certain progressions tug at the heartstrings in the way they do.

Going further, experiment with chord theory tools such as the circle of fifths and Hooktheory. Try inspiring software like PLAYBOX; offering over 200 chord sets and providing endless possibilities for progressions and harmonic ideas. And check out our tutorials on pop chord progressions and R&B chord progressions to help your songwriting.

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