Music Composition 3: Composing with Chord Progressions

by Gary Guttman

As a composer, you might use many different methods to construct a musical composition. You could plunk out a few notes on your instrument and see what develops. You could also pick an exciting rhythmic pattern and see if it inspires a melody. You could even listen to some of your favorite music and try to recreate it in a new way. Or you could just start with a chord progression.

A chord progression is basically a series of chords, one “progressing” to another. The theory behind chord progressions is that certain chords have a tendency to follow other chords. This concept forms the basis for most popular music.

If you’ve ever heard a song for the very first time that sounded vaguely familiar, chances are that it’s constructed from commonly used chord progressions. The melody might also sound familiar. That’s because the melody notes are influenced by the chords. You will usually find the notes that construct a harmony, repeated in the melody that plays over that harmony. Therefore, if the chord progression sounds familiar, the melody will often sound familiar as well.

This applies to all styles of music, whether it be pop, jazz or classical. That is why learning chord progressions is so important to composers. As you will find in our new Secret Composer software, chord progressions can be used to create any style of music.

A single chord progression can consist of as few as two chords, and as many as eight chords (or more). In the following excerpt, you will hear a commonly used, four-­chord progression.

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In this example, the four-­chord progression is played twice before the saxophone enters with the melody. While the melody plays, the chord progression repeats another two times. As the music fades, we hear the same four-­chord progression continue, but this time in a new key. This same chord progression can just as easily be used in either a classical or rock ‘n’ roll setting. (By the way, this particular chord progression is the ii7, V, I maj.7, vi chord progression).

Whenever you find yourself at a loss for musical inspiration, try experimenting with chord progressions. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of these tried and true formulas. Composers often recycle common chord progressions for one reason: they work.

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