Creating Diatonic Chord Progressions
Learn how to string diatonic chords together to make meaningful progressions that go where you want them to.
Alright, so you know what diatonic chords are now and you’re asking yourself “which of these chords sound good together?” Well most of the work’s been done for you. By that I mean, it’s rare hear a completely unique diatonic chord progression. If you turn on the radio to listen to the newest Usher wannabe, or pop in a disc of old motown at home the chord progressions you’ll hear will be similar if not exactly the same. That’s because in western music we’re actually pretty limited in the sounds we can use given that there are only twelve possible notes. Plus, most of the time we’re only using the notes from a particular key which narrows down the note count to eight. Of course, you can as many notes as you like in a song but since this article is about diatonic chord progressions we’ll stick with the eight notes per key rule.
With that said, it’s easy to list off a bunch of common chord progressions that you hear all the time and let that be the end of it, but it’s also helpful to know why they sound good. Knowing the sound, or ‘function’, of each chord within a key is the first step to understanding how to use them to create a progression that takes you on a journey. Learning to hear the sound of each chord is a great skill, but for most it will take some practice. In the meantime, here’s a tip that I learned in school which stuck with me and still proves to be useful when jamming or writing songs. When it comes to diatonic chords there are generally three types of ‘functionality’:
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii
(remember, upper case numerals are major chords and lower case chords are minor)
Here are some explanations for each function:
Tonic – The chords that fall into this category will have a feeling of resolution. A song will generally start an end on this function although it’s not a rule.
Subdominant – These chords imply movement and are kind of middle ground chords. Almost any chord sounds good after a subdominant chord and a listener’s ear will generally ear these chords and expect them to give way to more chords. It’s also common for a subdominant chord to resolve back to a tonic chord. The famous plagal, or ‘amen’, cadence commonly heard in church hymns is IV – I. This resolution back to the tonic is also heard in many other musics for it’s smooth sound (the dominant – tonic resolution, explained below, can sound a bit more obligatory or classical).
Dominant – Dominant chords have the strongest tendency to resolve to a tonic chord, and most of the time do. Although resolution is the typical expected destination for a dominant chord it doesn’t have to always be the case.
Putting Them Together
Now that you have an idea of how to use the chords let’s put together a few progressions and see how they sound. As I touched upon earlier in the page, there are many tried and true variations of chords which have stood the test of time. Below are some of the foretold progressions. Each progression will cycle through twice and I’ve added some rhythm to make it interesting. While listening to these you may start to hear melodies in your head, don’t worry this is normal.
I – IV
The I – IV is a really basic progression but provides a lot of space and possibilities for different melodies to play or sing over the top. It’s a gentle progression because both chords are major and there’s no dominant chord present. It’s called a ‘Plagal Cadence’ and is a popular resolution amongst religious and gospel music.
I – IV – V – I
The tonic – subdominant – dominant – tonic movement is as standard as it gets. If you write a song using only this progression it may sound a bit folky but, as always, use your ear and let it guide you. The IV – V – I combination is a common turnaround at the end of a song or verse.