Last time in our little Chord Progression Workshop we talked about how to create any emotion you want, now let’s take a look at your next big decision: Deciding whether you want your song to have drive or not.
This decision comes down to the balance between Direction and Color. (Btw, the same thing happens in Melody – check this article here)
By the way, if you’re just looking for a list of usable, commercial chord progressions, check this.
Direction is used to drive the listener’s attention through the song (called “Tension”), Color is used to make your song sound pretty.
Figuring out the best balance for your song largely determines how energetic (direction) or dreamy (color) it will sound. So if your songs just don’t excite people enough, not using direction in your chord progressions might be a big reason why.
So let’s get to it. The possible combinations are:
- Only Direction
- Only Color
- Both Direction AND Color
Direction comes down to working cadences into your progression. Remember, a cadence is a chord or a series of chords that seek resolution. The most important ones are:
- V (dominant)
- IV (subdominant)
- V7 (dominant7)
- Vsus (suspended dominant)
- ii – V (circle of 5th)
- VII (subtonic)
- V7 (dominant7)
- iv (subdominant)
- Vsus – V (suspended dominant – less common in Minor)
What gives these chords direction is the fact that we know them from cadences that resolve to the tonic I/i. In other words, we EXPECT them to go somewhere.
So using any of these chords in your chord progression (even if you DON’T resolve to the tonic) will give you direction. There are more ways of course (circle of fifths, subV, falling bass lines, etc), but they are not as common in Pop.
Here’s a couple of progressions with great direction:
- I – IV – V – V7 (e.g. C – F – G – G7)
- IV – V – I – I (e.g. F – G – C – C)
- I – ii – Vsus – V (e.g. C – Dm – Gsus – G)
- i – iv – V – V7 (e.g. Am – Dm – E – E7)
- i – VII – VI – VII (e.g. Am – G – F – G)
- i – VII – VI – V7 (e.g. Am – G – F – E7)
Since direction comes from classical music theory, these progressions are mostly found in older music, like Ghospel, Classical or Blues. They can still be used to express excitement or fun.
For more on how to create a sense of direction in your songs, check out my book The Addiction Formula.
Chords that don’t give direction to your chord progression add color. The most important color chords are:
And here are a couple of chord progressions that don’t have any direction, only color:
- I – iii (e.g. C – Em)
- I – vi (e.g. C – Am)
- i – III (e.g. Am – C)
- i – VI (e.g. Am – F)
These chord progressions tend to sound dreamy, relaxed and unfocused. Stoner music, Metal, Chillout… all great genres for color chords.
3. Mixing Color and Direction
If you’re not sure what you want, you can NEVER go wrong with a mix. There is a reason that the most famous chord progression in the world is I – V – vi – IV… It’s one of those blends that always work!
(Note: Want to know my Top 5 Chord Progressions? Check this.)
How do you create one? You just use chords with direction (Major: IV, V, ii, V7; Minor: V, iv, VII, V7) and mix them with chords without direction (Major: vi, iii; Minor: VI, III).
Examples in Major:
- I – vi – IV – V (e.g. C – Am – F – G)
- I – iii – V – IV (e.g. C – Em – G – F)
- I – IV – vi – V (e.g. C – F – Am – G)
Examples in Minor:
- i – VII – VI – iv (e.g. Am – G – F – Dm)
- i – VII – III – V (e.g. Am – G – C – E)
- i – V – VI – VII (e.g. Am – E – F – G)
And there you go. Have fun!