Music TheoryChordsHarmony

Chord Progressions In Music Theory: A Complete Guide

Written by Samuel Chase

Last updated

To make a good-sounding and interesting melody, you have to carefully choose how each note moves to the next note after it and how every note relates to those around it. Notes can’t be too far away from each other, and usually, you want the notes to stay within the key signature or related keys.

The same concept is used for harmony. Because a song is typically made up of more than one chord, in order to make the harmonic motion sound good and interesting, you need to relate each chord to the one before and after it. This is where a chord progression comes in. 

In this post, we’ll learn all about chord progressions, the different kinds, what they’re used for, and how to create them. But first, let’s remind ourselves what a chord is.

What is a Chord?

Simply put, a chord is any combination of notes played at the same time.

Chords can have two notes (these are called intervals or dyads), three notes (these are called triads), or four or more notes (usually called seventh chords or extended chords).

For chord progressions, the chords we’re going to look at are triads and seventh chords, particularly what are called tertian chords, which are chords built by stacking multiple 3rds on top of each other.

These are the chords that you’ve most likely heard about – the typical major and minor chords, as well as major, minor, and dominant seventh chords.

If you need a full recap, see our post on chords, where we cover what these types of chords are and how to form them.

What is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is when multiple different chords are played one after the other.

For example, C Major – F Major – E minor – A minor – D minor – G Major – C Major is a chord progression, as seen here:

A chord progression

Chords in a progression are almost always labeled with Roman Numerals based on where the note they start on falls in the scale of the main key.

If we’re in the key of C major, as we are in the above chord progression, then the Roman Numerals of the scale (and, therefore, chords) are as follows: 

  • C = I (one)
  • D = ii (two)
  • E = iii (three)
  • F = IV (four)
  • G = V (five)
  • A = vi (six)
  • B = vii (seven)

Let’s write the chord progression above in Roman Numerals to show you what we mean: 

Chord progression with Roman Numerals

If you noticed, some of the Roman Numerals are capitalized (I, IV, and V), and some are lowercase (ii, iii, vi, and vii) – this corresponds with the chords being major (capitalized) or minor (lowercase). 

Typically, in a major key, the I, IV, and V chords are Major, and the ii, iii, vi, and vii chords are minor.

In a minor key, however, it is very different: the i, ii, iv, and v chords are all minor, and the III, VI, and VII chords are all major.

So, a chord progression in B minor could look like this: 

B minor – D Major – E minor – G Major – A Major – B minor

Chord progression in a minor key

Tonic, Dominant, and Predominant Chords

As mentioned above, any key signature has seven main chords that are associated with it, each one based on one of the notes of the diatonic scale.

These seven chords can be broken up into three main categories based on their harmonic function (basically how each chord relates to the tonic chord and, more specifically, the root note of the tonic chord).

These three categories are:

  • tonic
  • dominant
  • predominant

We cover these briefly in our post on harmony in music, but we’ll go into a bit more detail here.

Tonic Function Chords

In any key, the main chord is called the tonic chord because it is the chord built from the tonic note, which is the note of the key we’re in.

However, there are two other chords that can be considered to have a tonic function in addition to the tonic chord.

These are the chords built on the 3rd and 6th scale degrees.

In a major key, these would be minor chords (e.g. in C Major – iii = E minor and vi = A minor), and in a minor key, these would be Major (in C minor – III = Eb Major and VI = Ab Major).

So the three tonic chords are I (or i), iii (or III), and vi (or VI). 

A tonic functioning chord is a chord that functions as a place of stability and rest in the music.

It is the ‘home,’ and if we are playing a ‘home’ chord, the music does not feel like it has to go anywhere or change.

A tonic chord usually starts and ends the song, as well as each chorus and verse.

Dominant Function Chords

Chords can also have a dominant function. Functionally dominant chords are the opposite of tonic chords.

Whereas tonic chords are inherently stable, dominant chords are inherently unstable.

Tonic chords provide a place of ‘rest’ and a feeling of ‘home’, and dominant chords impart a feeling of tension and anxiety and seek to go elsewhere. 

Jacob Collier talks about ‘harmony giving a feeling of home’ in this video, which is worth a look.

Harmony in music – Jacob Collier

The two chords that provide a dominant function in a progression are the V and VII chords.

In a Major key, the V is Major, and the vii is diminished, and in a minor key, the VII is Major, and the V is also generally Major but sometimes minor.

A dominant chord usually leads to a tonic chord.

For example, in C Major, a G Major chord (V) would often ‘resolve’ to C Major.

This V – I progression is called an authentic cadence.

Sometimes, if the G Maj leads to an A minor chord (V – vi), this is called a deceptive, or false, cadence.

Cadences are a type of chord progression, and to learn more about them, check out our post on cadences here.

Predominant Function Chords

Lastly, chords can also have a predominant function, which is also called subdominant.

A predominant chord has two purposes, which are to expand away from the tonic and to lead to the dominant, often acting as a bridge between the two chords in a progression. 

The two chords that have a predominant function are the ii and the IV.

In a major key, the ii is minor, and the IV is major, and in a minor key, the iv is minor, and the ii is diminished. 

Predominant chords are not as stable as the tonic chords, and they don’t feel like the ‘home’ of a piece of music.

However, they are also not unstable or full of tension like the dominant chords.

They exist as a bridge between these two extremes and are used, on the one hand, to add color and to move away from the stability and blandness of the tonic chord and, on the other hand, to set up motion to the dominant chords.

Sometimes, a predominant chord may resolve to a tonic chord (IV – I).

This is very common in rock and pop music and is called a plagal cadence in classical music.

Let’s look at the first example of a chord progression, but this time, focusing on the function of each chord.

Chord progression with the function of the chords

The predominant IV chord in the first measure breaks up the monotony of all of the tonic chords in a row, and then in the second measure, the predominant sets up the dominant, which in turn leads to the tonic.

Using The Circle of Fifths

Another helpful tool when learning how to write chord progressions is the circle of fifths.

The circle of fifths is a visualization of the relationships between certain notes and chords built from those notes.

In the circle, each note is neighbors with its 5th (clockwise in the circle) and its 4th (counterclockwise).

So the note A would have D (D is the IV chord of A) to its left and E (E is the V chord of A) to its right.

Here is the whole thing: 

The circle of fifths

The circle of fifths has some helpful hints for learning how to write chord progressions.

For example, to get a V – I (dominant tonic) cadence, just take the note immediately to the right of the key signature that you’re in.

The IV is immediately to the left, so a IV – V – I progression would go left – right – middle. Just remember, right, in this case, means clockwise, so at the bottom of the circle, it could be confusing.

For example, in the key of Db Major, IV – V – I would be Gb – Ab – Db. 

The notes further along clockwise from the V are, in order, the ii, vi, iii, and vii chords.

If we play these chords in counterclockwise order, we can get what’s called a circle progression because it follows the circle of fifths: e.g., iii – vi – ii – V – I.

An example of this is the final five chords of the original chord progression shown at the top of this article: 

Chord progression

When you start with a major key, the two chords immediately next to it – the IV counterclockwise and the V clockwise – are both Major.

The next four chords clockwise from the V – the ii, vi, and iii, – are all minor, and the vii is then diminished.

Further on from there, any chord counterclockwise from the IV chord are all non-diatonic chords and, therefore, usually not seen in a lot of chord progressions.

Non-Diatonic Chords in Chord Progressions

There are some examples in which non-diatonic chords appear in chord progressions, however.

A non-diatonic chord is a chord that is built from a note, not in the diatonic scale of the main key. 

For example, in C Major, the diatonic chords are C Maj – D min – E min – F Maj – G Maj – A min – B dim.

If we were to add in a chord from a different note – e.g., a Bb Maj chord – or switch a key from minor to major (like playing a D Maj chord instead of D min), these would be non-diatonic chords.

The two main reasons one would see a non-diatonic chord are borrowed chords and sequence chord progressions.

Borrowed Chords

A borrowed chord is a chord that is borrowed from the parallel major or minor of the key you’re currently in.

For example, in C major, we can ‘borrow’ chords from C minor to add some color and interesting texture to the music, for example, a iv minor (F minor) or a bVII (Bb Major). 

If we’re in C minor, you might see a I Maj chord (C Maj).

This would commonly come at the end of a piece to end a minor piece on a happier note, and this is called a picardy third.

Another borrowed chord would be a IV maj (F maj), instead of the usual iv minor.

An example of a bVII (Flat Seven chord) in a major key is the song “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine.

The song is in G major, and the verses use the chords I, IV, and V (G Maj, C Maj, and D Maj), but the chorus uses the progression bVII – IV – I (F Maj – C Maj – G Maj).

You can hear the chorus start around 0:41.

John Prine – Angel From Montgomery

An example of the iv minor in a Major key is the song “The Once and Future Carpenter” by The Avett Brothers.

The song is in E major, and in the chorus, there are three instances of IV maj – iv min – I maj (A maj – A min – E Maj), see if you can hear them!

The Avett Brothers – The Once and Future Carpenter

The song “Gravedigger” by Dave Matthews uses a IV Maj chord in a minor key.

The song is in A minor, and the chord progression in the chorus ends with a i min – bVII Maj – IV Maj (A min – G Maj – D Maj).

Listen for it around the 0:50 second mark.

Gravedigger – Dave Matthews

Sequence Chord Progressions

The second main use of non-diatonic chords in a progression is in what is called a Sequence.

A sequence is when the chord progression makes a noticeable melody or scale within it.

The most common type of sequence is the descending chromatic sequence, in which the descending chromatic scale is made through the notes of the chords.

The sequence can start in either a major or minor key. 

To show you how a sequence works, let’s start with a C Maj chord.

The notes are C – E – G.

If we then step down a semitone (half step) from C for 8 steps, we get B – Bb – A – Ab – G – Gb/F# – F – E.

We can fit all of these notes pretty easily in a nice sounding chord progression by playing the chords I (C Maj) – V (G Maj – has the B) – bVII (Bb Maj) – IV (F Maj – has the A) – iv (F Min – which also has an Ab) – I (C Maj – has the G in it) – II (D Maj – has an F#) – V7 (G Dom7 – has an F in it) – back to I (C Maj – has the E in it).

The chromatic stepwise motion is easier to notice when the chord progression is written down: 

Chromatic stepwise motion chord progression

See how the lowest-written note in each chord steps down chromatically throughout the progression.

A popular song that has this exact progression is “Make you Feel my Love” by Bob Dylan. Listen and see if you can notice the chromatic motion!

Bob Dylan – Make You Feel My Love

Another song with a sequence in its chord progression is “Hotel California” by The Eagles

This song starts in B minor and progresses through a sequence for five more chords and then has a classic iv – V – i (predominant – dominant – tonic) ending to the progression.

Here it is written out: 

Hotel California chord sequence

The first six chords of the progression are in a sequence, and below each chord, the chromatic melody note is written.

Then, for the last two chords (the final B min is the start of the next progression, so it doesn’t get counted), the sequence is not considered, and the song uses a iv – V – i cadence to get back to the start of the progression.

That’s it for Chord Progressions

Chord progressions are the main way harmony is made and heard in music.

There are a lot of different kinds of chords and many ways to put them all together.

Photo of author

Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.