Over time, there have been many changes in music. Music is constantly moving forward and musicians are always taking inspiration from the masters of the past to discover new ways they can innovate.
In this lesson, Ayla Tesler-Mabe discusses seven chord progressions that changed musical history. The chord progressions that we have music legends to thank for because they are used in so much of today’s music.
Understanding how these progressions were put together is a great exercise in your guitar playing, especially if you’re a songwriter always looking to create something new and unique.
#1 – The Simpler The Better
Also known as the 1-4-5 chord progression, it ruled over most of the blues, rock & roll, soul, R&B, & Doo-wop music back in the day. You can simply play your open C, F, and G chords, but the best way to understand the chord progression is using the bar chords so you can better grasp the intervals.
#2 – Tell A Story
For a while, music consisted only of the 1-4-5 progression and we needed to just add one more chord! Also known as the ‘50s chord progression (being as it dominated the sound of the ’50s), there is the 1-6-4-5 progression. Starting with Cmajor, then Aminor, to Fmajor, then Gmajor — the extra chord movement adds way more emotion!
#3 – Pop Song Formula
There’s a high chance you’ll recognize this progression and could pinpoint a handful of songs that use it. The fact that it’s so common makes it a bit of a running joke in music, however, it’s such a testament to changing music history because of how much it’s used!
This is the 1-5-6-4 progression using the following chords: Cmajor, Gmajor, Aminor, Fmajor. If you were to only learn one chord progression, it should be this one because you could then play most of the songs that have come out in the few decades.
#4 – Jazz Progression
It’s also found in a lot of pop music and sometimes even some classical music. This is the 2-5-1 chord progression where you’ll play Dminor, Gmajor, and Cmajor. But to really live up to its name and jazz it up, turn the Dminor to a Dminor7, the Gmajor to a Gdominant7, and the Cmajor to a Cmajor7. First try it with the open chords and when you’re ready to jazz it up, play it with the 7 chords.
#5 – Take Me Out + Bring Me Back
Now we’re in the more obscure territory. Although it doesn’t get enough credit, this progression changed a lot in music history. Its name refers to modal interchange, which sounds scary, but all it means is you’re adding a chord to the progression that is outside of the key you’re playing in and coming back to a chord that does belong in the key.
For example, “Across the Universe” by The Beatles uses this progression. Using diatonic Dmajor chords, it goes like this: Dmajor, Bminor, F#minor, Eminor, Amajor. Then it goes Dmajor, Bminor, F#minor, Eminor, to Gminor. The Gminor will take you by surprise, in a good way! It’s such a beautiful chord change that carries much emotion. It’s a perfect example of a progression that takes you out then brings you back in with familiar chords.
#6 – Endless Emotions
This next progression is a rule breaker. It reveals how you can take the convention at the time and flip it on it’s head. Take the 1 to 6 movement and move it up a minor 3rd to end up with Cmajor, Aminor, Ebmajor, and Cminor. Then it ends with the 2-5-1 progression. It’s an unexpected but beautiful lift in the chord progression.
Adding a lift creates emotional depth for the listener and is such a great technique to be aware of as a songwriter.
#7 – Lift Me Up
The last one on the list is more of a technique than a chord progression but is still worth noting.
We have Stevie Wonder to thank for creating status around this progression as he uses it in a lot of his music. This technique is used in musical theatre and can be found in some pop songs too. You take a chord progression and keep moving it up, transposing it by a semi-tone to rise the drama of the song.
For example, play a walk down starting with Gminor, Gminor (maj7), Gminor7, Gminor6 then land on an Abmajor7. What’s interesting, even though it’s descending, the song itself is lifting because you take the whole progression, shift it up a semitone to the next key so now we’re in G#minor and do the same walkdown landing on an Amajor7. Lift another semi-tone putting yourself in Aminor and landing on a Bbmjor7 (and so on and so on). This progression was groundbreaking at the time and is an interesting technique you can use in your songwriting to build drama.
Thanks to some of the greatest musicians in the past, we have all of these different chord progressions we can use in our songwriting. The best part is that each progression was taken from one that already existed and changed slightly to make it unique. Hopefully, this inspires you to listen to all types of music so you too can discover ways to create groundbreaking progressions.
Don’t forget to download the chord chart to follow along with this lesson.
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