Online studio
Make music
Get started

How to make killer chord progressions

Knowing how to make chord progressions is essential to writing great music. A chord progression is like a chain of chords being played one after another. The harmonic movement from chord to chord can make a song feel cheerful, melancholic, ominous, magical, or any other mood you could think of. Make sure you read our guide on how to build chords before you progress to chord progressions.

Roman numeral analysis

All chords within a key have specific functions. Their relationship to each other is the reason you can play the same chord progression in different keys, with completely different chords, and yet convey the exact same emotion and movement.

An F major chord in the key of F major will have the same function as a C major chord in the key of C major. But a C major chord has a completely different function and feel in the key of F major than it does in the key of C major. This is why we need a different way of describing the chords other than C major, F major, etc. That is why we use roman numerals.

Chord chart.png

In this chord progression chart, you can see the roman numerals for all major and minor keys. The order of the chords is the same as the scale degrees, in which each note is the root of a chord. The roman numerals for major keys are at the top and underneath you can see the ones for minor keys.

On the left side, you can see all the major keys, and on the right all the minor keys. This is because each major key shares all the notes and chords with a minor key called the relative minor key. For example, the relative minor key of C major is A minor. The only difference is what note or chord that feels like “home”.

Chords in C major

  • C major I-chord.png
    C major
  • D minor ii-chord.png
    D minor
  • E minor iii-chord.png
    E minor
  • F major IV-chord.png
    F major
  • G major V-chord.png
    G major
  • A minor vi-chord.png
    A minor
  • B diminished vii-chord.png
    B diminished

Harmonic function

According to the German functional theory, there are three functions a chord can have – Tonic, subdominant, and dominant. It all boils down to how much tension the chord holds.

  • The I-chord is tonic and feels resolved and like “home”.
  • The IV-chord is subdominant and has a bit of tension that can be resolved by going to the tonic. You could also increase the tension by going to a dominant chord.
  • The V-chord is dominant and has the most tension that desperately wants to be resolved by going to the tonic.

The rest of the chords have similar functions. In the Viennese theory, these would have different terms since it’s not exactly the same but it also makes it more complicated.

  • The ii-chord is subdominant
  • The iii-chord is tonic
  • The vi-chord is tonic
  • The vii°-chord is dominant

iii and vi are tonic and feel fairly at rest, but they do not have the same “home” feeling the I-chord does. The more time you spend on tonic chords, the safer it will sound. If you spend too much time on the tonic it can sound boring and bland.

You can think about the subdominant chords as bridges between the tonics and dominants. By spending more time on subdominants, you can make it feel like you’re “traveling” more than you’re “arriving”.

The dominant chords are powerful tools to lead back to a tonic chord but it can also sound cliché. You can subvert expectations by playing subdominant after it instead. Avoiding them completely will result in never getting that feeling of clear resolution.

The change between tension and release is what makes a chord progression interesting. You can play with it to create chord progressions that feel like a roller coaster, calm and relaxed, or constantly on the edge.

Creating chord progressions

To put together a chord progression, all you have to do is place a few chords one after another. You don’t have to use all of the chords of the key. In fact, a lot of songs only use 2-4 chords. The most common progressions are made with I, IV, V, and vi. By placing these chords in different orders, you can get a lot of variation.

I-V-vi-IV — 4 chords progression

This is the king of chord progressions. It’s sometimes known as the 4 chords progression, because of a medley by the band The Axis of Awesome showing just how many songs use the progression.


You can easily change up the same sequence by starting from a different chord, for example, the vi-chord. This can be heard in “Faded” by Alan Walker and “Kids” by MGMT.


If you take the same sequence but start on the IV-chord, you get the chorus progression used in “Umbrella” by Rihanna and “Elastic Heart” by Sia.


By simply changing the order of the chords, you can get chord progressions like this one, which can be heard in “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris ft. Florence Welch.


This is another chord order variation that was used in “Die Young” by Ke$ha.


Just because the I, IV, V, and vi chords are by far the most popular, any chord can be switched out. You can for instance change the vi-chord from the 4 chords progression to the ii-chord. Functionally, we have removed one tonic chord and replaced it with a subdominant, resulting in less release and more forward momentum. This progression can be heard in “Hot N Cold” by Katy Perry and “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.


Just like with the 4 chords progression, we can change the starting position of the previous progression to the ii-chord. This can be heard in “Wonderwall” by Oasis and “Mad World” by Tears For Fears.

IV-V-iii-vi — The royal road progression (王道進行)

If you’re a fan of anime or Japanese music in general, you have probably heard the royal road progression, commonly played with seventh chords. This progression, or slight variations of it, can be heard everywhere in modern Japanese music, for example in “Ignite” from Sword Art Online and in “Piranha Plant’s Lullaby” from Super Mario 64.

A western example that uses this progression is “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.

I-IV-V — The rock progression

The I, IV, and V chords are very popular in rock and blues music. This progression can be heard in rock and roll songs like “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens and in punk rock with songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop” by Ramones.


If you flip the order of the previous chords around, you get this progression that is used in “Back In Black” by AC/DC and “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I — 12-bar blues

A longer progression common in blues and rock and roll is the 12-bar blues. Even though it looks more complicated because of its length, it’s still only the same three chords played in a particular order. This can for example be heard in “Johnny B Goode” by Chuck Berry.

I-vi-IV-V — The ’50s progression

This is the most common chord progression from around the ’50s. It can be heard in classics like “Earth Angel” by The Penguins and “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King.

ii -V-I — The jazz progression

Jazz chord progressions can be difficult to understand because of the heavy use of modulation and fancy chords but most of it can be broken down to ii-V-I. In jazz, these chords would at least be seventh chords. Jazz has influenced many other genres like lo-fi hip hop and R&B that this progression would do well in. You can hear it in “Autumn Leaves”.

i — The trap progression

Trap music is usually less about the progression and more about the vibe and rhythm. Therefore, trap beats tend to have very few chords. Stick to minor and diminished chords if you want a dark sound.

It’s not uncommon to only have one single chord, usually a minor chord. You can hear it in “Bodak Yellow” by Cardi B.


By adding just one more chord, like the iv-chord you get more harmonic movement. You can hear this in “Ric Flair Drip” by Offset & Metro Boomin.


If you add the v-chord instead, you get this progression, which you can hear in “ZEZE” by Kodak Black ft. Travis Scott & Offset.

Leave the key

Most chord progressions stay within a single key, but that doesn’t mean you can’t venture outside. Borrowing chords from other keys can be a breath of fresh air and make things more interesting. Experiment and see what you can come up with. An easy trick is to start with a normal key but change one chord from major to minor, or from minor to major.


An example of a chord progression with two borrowed chords is “Creep” by Radiohead. The III-chord is minor instead of major, and the IV-chord is first played normally first, but then changed to a minor chord. This gives it a lot of character and emotion that tugs at your heartstrings.

Steal away

Look up the chords to your favorite songs and try analyzing them with the roman numeral system and use the same techniques in your music. After a while, you will get an instinctive feel for it and notice patterns. There is also nothing wrong with stealing chord progressions from songs since they can’t be copyrighted and are probably being used in countless other songs already. Just make sure to not use the same melody and you’re all good!