Understanding how to write major key chord progressions provides a foundation for your songwriting, no matter where you want to go with it.
That’s because you can treat major key chords as defaults. They can be used directly to write great songs. But you can also consciously move away from them for interesting effects.
To write major key progressions of many kinds, you will only need to memorize (or write down) six chords.
Let’s see how these chords work.
The Six Chords for Major Key Progressions
There are seven chords in any major key, one for each note in the major scale. For the key of C major, these are:
C - Dm - Em - F - G - Am - Bdim
Since diminished chords are trickier to use and relatively rare in popular music, we’ll just focus on the first six in this post.
If we want to describe chord progressions for any major key (instead of just C major), we can use Roman numerals to represent them in a more generic way. Uppercase means a major chord and lowercase means a minor chord.
I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi C - Dm - Em - F - G - Am
The following chart shows these chords in every key:
I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi ------------------------------ C - Dm - Em - F - G - Am Db - Ebm - Fm - Gb - Ab - Bbm D - Em - F#m - G - A - Bm Eb - Fm - Gm - Ab - Bb - Cm E - F#m - G#m - A - B - C#m F - Gm - Am - Bb - C - Dm Gb - Abm - Bbm - Cb - Db - Ebm G - Am - Bm - C - D - Em Ab - Bbm - Cm - Db - Eb - Fm A - Bm - C#m - D - E - F#m Bb - Cm - Dm - Eb - F - Gm B - C#m - D#m - E - F# - G#m
The great things about the Roman numeral system is that it’s easy to transpose your song between keys (for example, if you need to adjust for a higher or lower vocal range).
Even more importantly, it lets you think about relationships between chords that are true no matter what key you are in.
The Core Major Key Chords
It’s useful to think of I, IV, and V as the core chords in any major key. Together, they contain all of the notes in the major scale.
You can write a lot of songs with just these three chords.
The I Chord (Tonic)
You can imagine the I chord as home base for your song.
And the cool thing is you can explore many different melodies while playing this single chord.
This gives us our first chord progression in a major key. I’ll be providing examples in the key of C major, which is useful for learning the concepts, but over time you can use the chart above to transpose these progressions other keys.
So let’s start with the simplest chord progression you can write in a major key:
| I | I | I | I | Ex: | C | C | C | C |
Yes, you can write a whole part (or even an entire song) with just one chord!
Note that the
| | symbols above mean a single measure or bar, which in the very common 4/4 time is a count of 4.
The V Chord (Dominant)
The V chord pulls toward the I and reinforces it. To get a feel for this, play these two chords over and over:
| I | V | I | V | Ex: | C | G | C | G |
If you want to get an even better feel for the tension the V can create, try this variation:
| I | I | I | V | Ex: | C | C | C | G |
Here we more clearly establish I as our center, and V breaks out more unexpectedly with a pull back toward I.
As with everything in music, a lot depends on the context. The melody, instrumentation, rhythm, tempo, etc. all influence how much tension that V will create.
For example, ending your melody on the seventh note in the scale (B in the key of C major) will reinforce the tension. That’s because the seventh note in a major key tends to pull us back to the root note.
The IV Chord (Subdominant)
Just as the V chord moves toward the I, the IV chord moves away from the I. This dynamic creates the basis for many 3-chord progressions, such as:
| I | I | IV | V | Ex: | C | C | F | G |
One way to think of this progression is that the I chord establishes our key, the IV moves us out into new territory, and the V pulls us back to the I.
But you don’t have to end your progressions on the V! It is also very common in popular music for a part to end on the IV. Here’s one example:
| I | V | I | IV | Ex: | C | G | C | F |
It’s useful to explore the different feelings that ending on the V and IV can produce.
What can you do with the I, IV, and V chords?
Since the I, IV, and V together contain all the notes in the major scale, you can use them to accompany any melody that sticks to that scale. That means you can use them to write a lot of songs.
You don’t have to write progressions in four measure groups like we’ve been doing, but it’s a good place to start. You can still play around with harmonic tempo (the rate at which chords change).
For example, here’s a progression where we only change every two measures:
| I | I | V | V | Ex: | C | C | G | G |
And here’s one where we change irregularly:
| I | IV | V | V | Ex: | C | F | G | G |
It is of course possible to change even faster:
| I | I IV | V | IV V | Ex: | C | C F | G | F G |
I recommend trying out as many different combinations as you can think of, singing a variety of melodic ideas over each.
If you don’t know where to start with your melodies, you can sing or play up and down the major scale as a jumping-off point.
Getting a feel for these three chords is a significant step in understanding how chord progressions work. In theory, you could stick with them forever.
But why stop there?
Adding Color to Your Major Key Progressions
As we saw at the beginning, there are six common chords in a major key. We’ve only looked at three so far, so let’s start adding to our vocabulary!
If I, IV, and V are the core chords in a major key, then ii, iii, and vi are where we can begin to add distinctive color to our progressions.
One thing you might notice about I, IV, and V is that they have a more “neutral” sound. Again, this depends a lot on context, but to drive the point home, try out this progression:
| I | I | V | vi | Ex: | C | C | G | Am |
Notice how the vi stands out, and how it creates a more colorful or emotional effect. It’s worth trying the same thing with ii and iii:
| I | I | V | ii | Ex: | C | C | G | Dm |
| I | I | V | iii | Ex: | C | C | G | Em |
Each time the last chord adds noticeable color.
Part of the reason is that these are minor chords, which contrast with our major chords. But more importantly, it has to do with the way these chords relate to the I chord.
Distance and pull between the chords
There is a sense in which we can diagram the “distance” between chords. This is loosely based on the Circle of 5ths:
IV <- I <- V <- ii <- vi <- iii Ex: F <- C <- G <- Dm <- Am <- Em
You’ll notice that IV and V are the immediate neighborhood of the I chord. As we travel further out from I, we find more colorful chords.
There is also a pull from right to left. We have seen how V pulls toward the I, and I moves “outward” to IV. We can also describe ii as pulling toward V, vi as pulling toward ii, and iii as pulling toward vi.
This is a dynamic you can experiment with in your own writing.
Let’s take a look at each of these color chords in turn, starting with the closest one.
The ii Chord (Supertonic)
The ii chord forms part of a very common sequence of chords:
| ii | V | I | Ex: | Dm | G | C |
This progression, a backbone of jazz, strongly establishes the I as our home chord. For this reason, it can actually be used to modulate between keys (i.e. change keys in a song), though we’ll leave modulation for another post.
If you want to dig in deeper, you can read about some exercises for exploring this “magnetic tunnel” progression.
The best way to get a feel for each of these color chords is to alternate with the I. This helps you experience the relationship between the chord and “home base” in our key. Here we alternate between I and ii:
| I | ii | I | ii | Ex: | C | Dm | C | Dm |
These two together can create a hypnotic effect. You can discover many melodies by singing different ideas over this progression.
Make sure music theory is working for you
It’s important not to get too caught up in music theory when writing progressions. Theory can help you better understand your options, but you shouldn’t treat it as a set of songwriting rules.
As an example, our discussion of the “pull” between chords can help you experiment with ideas that will probably “sound right”. But don’t think you have to use the chords that way.
Here’s a chord progression that clearly “sounds right”, but doesn’t obviously integrate the direction of pull described above (if anything, it moves against it):
| I | V | ii | IV | Ex: | C | G | Dm | F |
This is the most colorful progression we’ve considered so far. Part of the reason is because it doesn’t do the “obvious” thing (though it’s still not uncommon).
Major Key Chord Substitutions
There are different ways to look at this last progression. One way is to view the ii as substituting for a IV. Compare the above to this progression:
| I | V | IV | IV | Ex: | C | G | F | F |
To get a better feel for this, take progressions you write with just I, IV, and V and try substituting in other chords. Here are some substitutions that might work:
I <-> iii, vi IV <-> ii, vi V <-> iii
Part of the reason these might work is each pair of chords shares two out of three notes. But again, the theory is not nearly as important as using your ears to find interesting combinations.
The vi Chord (Relative Minor)
The vi chord has the potential to take us into all new terrain. We’ve elsewhere explored how it can act as a “shadowy twin” to the I chord.
The vi is commonly called the “relative minor” because it can act as the tonal center (or home chord) for the natural minor key starting on that note.
For example, we get a natural minor scale if we take all of the notes in the C major scale (the white keys on the piano), but start and end on the sixth note (A):
This means that vi can actually act as the minor i in a different key. This is not an uncommon change, so, as listeners, the possibility is in the back of our minds (even if we’re not consciously aware of it).
This possibility is perhaps part of why the vi can bring feelings of mystery, darkness, danger, ambiguity, and a range of other effects.
But let’s focus on how it sounds in context, starting again with a simple alternating progression:
| I | vi | I | vi | Ex: | C | Am | C | Am |
Like the I-ii-I-ii progression above, this can have a hypnotic effect. But it’s interesting to contrast these progressions directly. Here’s is the I-ii-I-ii again:
| I | ii | I | ii | Ex: | C | Dm | C | Dm |
The ii feels like it’s stepping slightly away and returning. The vi, on the other hand, can feel like it’s somehow deepening the effect of the I.
Note that the I and ii chords share no notes, whereas the I and vi share two notes. We even listed vi as one of the substitutions for I above.
Between I and ii, we are moving up each note in the chord. This creates a tension to move back down to the I. And it’s relatively clear the I is the home chord.
Between I and vi, it’s not so clear which is home. That alternating progression could be in C major or in A minor. That depends on the larger context. And this creates both an ambiguity and a feeling of depth.
In a way, we are somewhere in-between a major and a minor key feel.
There are many new progressions we can make now that we have the vi in our toolbox. For example, let’s look at an extremely popular example:
| I | V | vi | IV | Ex: | C | G | Am | F |
This has been used in countless pop songs (there’s even a list on Wikipedia).
You can analyze this progression many ways, but using the lens from above, we can think of it as
| I | V | I | IV | Ex: | C | G | C | F |
with a vi substituted in for the second I. You could have discovered this progression by substituting.
The vi is capable of a lot more than just adding color.
Because of the ambiguity between I and vi, it creates a sense of instability which can be used for emotional effect. This ambiguity is highlighted by the fact that some songs use a variation that is the same progression shifted over twice:
| vi | IV | I | V | Ex: | Am | F | C | G |
This version is more likely in A minor than C major, but has the same ambiguity. That ambiguity is only resolved in this example when we abruptly end on the I chord (C major) at the end.
Do you have to start on the I chord?
The ambiguity between the last two progressions raises a good question: do you have to start on the I chord for a song to be in the major key?
There are many factors which determine which key a song is in. High on the list is the scale that’s used for the melody and the note or notes that are emphasized in that scale.
Furthermore, popular songs are often ambiguous. Bach pieces normally fall clearly into a certain key, but pop, rock, and related styles often push the boundaries of keys.
But since we’re focusing on major key progressions here, let’s leave those interesting options for another time.
For now, we’re sticking with chord progressions that start on the I chord. That’s because it makes it easier to establish a home chord, and more consistently contrasts the I with the other chords.
But I highly recommend that you start experimenting with different approaches once you have this approach down.
The iii Chord (Mediant)
The final chord we’ll consider is the iii chord. We have elsewhere explored how this can act as the “moody” chord. It brings a new kind of ambiguity and contrast to the table.
Like the vi, the iii can be used as a substitute for the I (it also shares two notes with the I). But alternating between them has a decidedly darker feel than our earlier alternating progressions:
| I | iii | I | iii | Ex: | C | Em | C | Em |
Like the vi, the iii in some ways seems to float in this progression, but there is also a new tension there.
The iii can pull to the vi (as illustrated in an earlier section), it can move to the IV, it can jump straight to the I.
Perhaps all of these possibilities are simmering there in the back of our minds, helping to produce the moody feeling that we don’t really know what’s coming next.
Whatever the explanation, there is emotional power in this chord. But it can also be more difficult to integrate than the others listed so far, perhaps because it is both similar to and distant from the I chord.
Combining all the chords into one progression
We have only scratched the surface of what you can do with the major key chords. A lifetime of exploration awaits you even if you just stick with these six chords.
Let’s look at one way to combine all of these chords into a single progression. This progression will serve to illustrate the pull of the chords described above:
| I | iii | vi | ii | IV | V | I | V | Ex: | C | Em | Am | Dm | F | G | C | G |
Let’s consider one interpretation of what is happening here:
We establish our key with the I chord. We then create ambiguity and mood by moving to the iii.
Once on the iii, we take advantage of the pull our chords have on each other and start moving back toward the I. This takes us through iii-vi-ii.
Now, this progression sets up an expectation that we will move to V next (since ii pulls toward V). But fulfilling such a clear expectation can sound boring.
So we go to the IV instead and only then move to the V.
Finally, we allow the entire progression to resolve back to the I. We alternate with the V to reinforce that we are going to return to the starting I, and begin again.
There is nothing particularly uncommon about this progression, but it helps to illustrate some of the internal tensions and relationships between our chords.
Where do we go from here?
We’ve now explored each of the six common chords used in major key chord progressions. But there is so much more you can do with them.
Remember not to let the music theory get in your way. Treat the theory as one resource you can use to discover new options in your songwriting. But be ready to kick it away as well.
Your ears are your most valuable resource.
A practical exercise for writing progressions
Here is one way to use what we’ve covered without worrying about the theory.
Pick a key and write down the six chords as follows (this example is in the key of C major again, but you can use the table above to choose any key):
Core: I, V, IV Ex: C, G, F Color: ii, vi, iii Ex: Dm, Am, Em
Put this on a music stand or wherever it’s easy to see.
You can now try out various combinations of these chords on your instrument or computer, singing different melodic ideas as you go.
If you’re a guitarist, you can use a capo and some basic chords to easily try out these combinations in different keys.
If you treat I, IV, and V as your anchors, you’ll more easily establish a sense of the major key. But ultimately the key doesn’t matter!
What matters is how the song sounds.
So keep trying new things. Start with different chords. Swap them around. Try staying longest on one chord at a time.
Don’t stop experimenting.
What’s great about this exercise is that many of the combinations you’ll come up with will somehow “sound right”.
It’s up to you to determine which ones sound good!