The way we build a chord progression has a strong emotional and narrative power. In this article I will share some tools and formulas to assertively create a chord progression. This will help you project the emotions you want to trigger in your audience.

If you don't know what a chord is, or want to refresh your memory, you can check out our dedicated articles regarding chords, what they are, and how to build them.

What is a chord progression?

A chord progression is the sequence of chords in a song.

Usually, the chords are represented by Roman numerals, which show the relationship between two musical notes, and are relative to a scale.

A chord by itself doesn't have a narrative value, but a chord progression does and generates a particular emotional effect.


The cadence will determine how the song unfolds.

To begin with, let's talk about the chord progressions of the scales.

A scale is composed by 7 notes and the octave: I II III IV V VI VII. This means the chord progression will be composed by 7 chords. The rule is:

  • For major scales: the chords of the I-IV-V are major chords, the II-III-VI are minor chords, the VII is a diminished chord.  
  • For minor scales: the chords of the I-IV-V are minor chords, the II is a diminished chord and the III-VI-VII are major chords.

These images will help you visualize this:

Usually, in a song we do not use all the chords of the key. So, how can we choose the chords of our progression to trigger a particular emotion?

The first thing to do is to choose your basic emotion for the song. The first chord of the progression will determine how the audience will feel, so be careful when making this decision. In a nutshell, if the basic emotion is sadness I would go for a minor chord, and if the basic emotion is happiness I would go for a major chord.

You can check out our article regarding how to choose the key and modes to learn which chords are linked to which emotions.

There are two important aspects in a cadence: direction (the thread and resolution) and color (the nuances).

Direction

Bear in mind that a chord progression seeks resolution, it goes somewhere. When you hear a song with no resolution or a weak resolution, you get the feeling that there is something missing, that the song is not quite finished. Which is not necessarily bad, if that's our intention. And this can cause the audience to not feel connected with your song.

Some examples of cadences with a neat resolution are:

  • In major: (I) D - (IV) G - (V) A - (V7) A7
  • In minor: (I) Em - (VII) D – (VI) C

Some examples with no resolution are:

  • In major: (I) G - (III) B
  • In minor: (I) Fm- (VI) Db

Play these progressions and you will understand what I am talking about:

A cadence does not necessarily have to resolve on the tonic, which is the most obvious and effective resolution. We can incorporate different chords to the progression that give direction without the need to resolve on the tonic. These chords are:

  • In major: IV and V (with alterations as adding the 7th or making the chord suspended) .
  • In minor: IV, V (with alterations as adding the 7th or making the chord suspended) and VII.

Color

The color is the nuances in the song, it's what makes it dynamic and more interesting. There are chords that add color, that strengthen the emotion you want to project. So I suggest to add those to your cadence. The most common chords for this are:

  • In major: II and III.
  • In minor: III and VI.

The key is to find the right balance between color and direction, all in the service of the emotion we want to project in our song.

These are some examples of cadences that I really like:

  • In major: II-V-I / I-III-V-IV
  • In minor: I-VII-VI-IV / I-V-VI-VII

Click in here and you will find an interesting tool that you can use to get ideas for chord progressions.

I hope this information help you understand how to choose the right cadence in your compositions.

See you in the next article, which will be the last one of the series How to project emotions through music. I will talk about modulation and how we can change the emotional effect with eloquence in a song.

Thanks for reading,