How Chord Progressions Work

Here’s a common chord progression used in many popular songs. You’ll hear it in songs like What a Wonderful World, and Cupid, by Sam Cooke, as well as some more modern tunes. I highly recommend singing a song you like as you play these changes. That makes the song come alive.

A note on strumming: strum four beats per bar with a pattern that feels natural. Focus on keeping a steady rhythm. You don’t even have to use a pick. Your fingers or thumb can strum.

Chord Progression

The “||:” and “:||” symbols tell you to repeat what’s between them. “D.C. al Fine” means to go back to the start and then play until you reach the word “Fine.”

How it Works

Let’s discuss why this song sounds as good as it does. You don’t need to know this to play around with the song. Feel free to skip ahead. You don’t have to read this to simply enjoy playing, but it might help you out. With just a few elementary facts about chords, you can begin writing your own progressions. Let’s talk about these facts.

First, learn some Musical Math. Here are some introductory concepts to it. Chords are built from scales. The chords in the song we’re working with come from the C major scale. Here are all the chords in C major:

C major scale

*Any “diminished” chord consists of a root, a minor (flatted) third and a flatted fifth. If you want to know more about how chords are formed read the Guitar Noise Column The Power of Three. Since a B diminished has notes B, D, and F, you can see how close it is to a G7 in its overall sound.

Five One

The strongest chord movement, or cadence in Western music is the Five One. In the key of C, that means playing a G7 chord, and then playing a C chord right after it:

G7 and C

Do you hear how strongly that sets up C as the key center or tonic? Right after you strum the G7 (the Five), your ear is just itching to hear the C (the One). Just try playing the G7 and don’t play the C. You’ll feel like there’s something important missing, like you forgot to put your underwear on this morning.

Here are Five Ones in some other keys.

Five Ones

Two Five and Four Five

Here’s another strong chord movement. Play a D min (a Two in C major) followed by a G7 (a Five from C major). This movement doesn’t happen in the song we played, but something like it does: an F (a Four) to G7 (a Five). Let’s play more examples of Four-Fives and Two-Fives in other keys:

Two Five Four Five

Two Five Four Five in A

Two Five Four Five

Two Five Four Five in G

One Six

This chord movement, which shows up in measures 1 and 2 of the Sam Cooke song, is not as strong as the Five One and Two Five movements, but it’s just as important. Let’s play some examples.

One Six

One Six

Do you hear how close the Ones and the Sixes are? This is because, in a major scale, Six is the relative minor of One. When you move to the A minor from C, it just doesn’t feel as final or complete as playing a G7 to C. It’s almost like you’re playing two different flavors of the same chord. The music doesn’t have the sense of completion that a V to I change has.

To summarize these rules: for strong chord movements, play Five to One and Two to Five. For not so strong chord movements, play One to Six.

Other Resources

Here are other places on the web where you can learn about chord progressions:

This is an excerpt from the ebook Guitar Chords: a Beginner’s Guide