What chord progression do artists like Gotye, Sufjan Stevens, Justin Bieber, Fleetwood Mac, Harry Styles and many more have in common? And if it’s such a common chord progression, why doesn’t everybody use it? Let’s dive into some exciting chord progression music theory!
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This progression is a great starting point for your song or composition. But what is a good pop chord progression? And what makes this chord progression sound so good? Also, how can this common chord progression be so easy, and have many complex and creative possibilities?
Let’s break the chord progression theory into three main topics:
- The melodic direction of the chord progression
- The chord relationships
- The harmonic framework
Video Tutorial: The Best Popular Chord Progression
If you want to hear all these examples with real music, then check out my video on why great artists use this chord progression. If you want to learn more about creative songwriting techniques, check out my creative songwriting, composition and music theory playlist on YouTube.
The Popular Chord Progression
Here is the chord progression that I talk about in this tutorial. The chords are F major, G major and A minor. Sounds simple right? Continue watching or reading to find out just how amazing this chord progression is and can be.
The melodic direction of the chord progression
So what is the progression of chords? When we mention the direction of a chord progression, we talk about if all the notes go up, down or if they stay the same. And of course, what is their end goal? This progression uses parallel movement. What that means is that you just hold one chord shape and move it up all over the neck or keyboard. So remember, everything goes up or everything goes down.
The notes/voices that you hear the most are the bass note and the highest/top note. Just compare when you play the chords like this to the previous picture above. You will definitely hear a difference. The example below sounds more emotional because the 3rd note of the chord is your highest note.
Another important thing is that in this progression everything goes in stepwise motion. This makes the movement very smooth and steady.
The Chord Relationships
One of the reasons why the chord progression above sounds so smooth is because the lowest chord and the highest chord have a mediant relationship. This means that they have many notes in common. Actually, only one note is different. Just take a look at the F major chord and the A minor chord. They both have an A and C in them.
What is also makes it more ’emotional’ is that the lowest chord is a major chord, but the upper chord is a minor chord. This creates a beautiful sound of mixed emotions and contrast.
Keep in mind: chords share the same notes, then there is not that much change. If all notes are different between chords, then it is less smooth. Many different notes = big change
The Harmonic Framework
When we only have these chords in our chord progression, then what should we see as the home key and what is the tonic chord? Could it be Fmajor? That’s not very likely, because then the 2nd chord does not fit in the key of F major. Because that should then be a G minor chord.
Could it be A minor? Maybe… But then again, A minor never really feels like the resting point or final chord. So in this case it seems incorrect.
One way to find out is by checking out how many sharps or flats are in a chord progression. In this one, we don’t have any sharps or flats. So if I look at the circle of fifths, then this progression could be in C major. Now this would be very strange since we don’t play the C major chord. But a different option is that it is in F Lydian. Looking at where this common chord progression starts and stops, I definitely think this could be an option. But we would need some more information to really confirm this option.
The fact that this progression has so much ambiguity is also the beauty of it!
Adding a Pedal Note
You can make this progression even better by adding a pedal note in the upper register. Or maybe somewhere in a middle voice. This repeated note will create more interest, tension and colour! You choose a tone that you could repeat throughout and that sounds good on each chord.
It is a very simple technique. Check out this tutorial to learn more about pedal notes.
Such a simple progression, but so many different options. Do you now see why I think that this is probably the best popular chord progression? Start using it and let your creativity flow! No complicated music theory is needed.
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Why does this progression sound so good?
It is simple yet full of rich tones and musical possibilities.
It creates a great starting point for your song or composition. And you might be thinking… well yeah these are just three chords. What’s the big deal? Technically it’s extremely easy but the musical impact that it can have is absolutely amazing. Artists and composers from all across the musical spectrum have used this chord progression in some way. And in fact… I bet that an artist you like has used this chord progression. If so drop their name and the song name in the comments and let’s get creative!
When looking at the basic version of this chord progression I think there are three things that make it sound so good.
One: the melodic direction of the chord progression. This is all about where it starts and where it ends and also how it moves.
Number two: chord relationships.
And to me the most interesting thing of all number three: is the harmonic framework. In essence is it in the Lydian mode or is it in natural minor or is it in major?
I know that there’s so much more to music than only chord progression so please let’s not fixate too much on this. But… they do create the perfect starting ground for beautiful melodies, improvisations and of course full songs. And at the end, I will show you how you can sweeten up this chord progression even more. So stick around!
When I talk about the direction of the chord progression I’m talking about which way all the voices move and what is their end goal. Do they go up, Do they go down, Or do they stay the same? This progression uses parallel movement on all of the voices and this means that all of the voices move in the same direction.
But of course, be aware that there are two voices that stick out the most. Which are the bass note and your top note. In this case, I find it beautiful if the top note is always the third of the chord.
Apart from parallel motion this progression also moves in stepwise motion and this creates a very smooth movement. It enables a stable atmosphere, creates expectations and takes your listener by the hand.
Number two: chord relationships
Something that contributes to the overall smoothness of this chord progression is the fact that the lowest chord and the top chord they share a mediant relationship.
Chords share a mediant relationship when they are a major or a minor third apart. And most important because they share two of the same notes this creates very smooth chord progressions. When you switch with normal triads you only have to change one note. And the fact that the first chord is a major chord and the top chord is a minor chord, this creates already a beautiful atmosphere of ambiguity and musical possibilities.
Want to learn how to create really great melodies and chord progressions? Check out my video on chromatic mediants later because you will not be disappointed!
Now comes my favourite part. Number three: the harmonic framework.
If we only have this progression what would we see as the tonic chord or as the home key? Is it F major? Well no that’s not possible because the second chord does not fit in the key of F major. Is it A minor? Well, that could be but then again the A minor never is a resting point. Having that as our tonic seems unlikely.
Also there are no sharps or flats in this chord progression. So when I take a look at the circle of fifths I can see that this corresponds with the key of C major. But that feels strange because I don’t even play the C major chord so how can that be my home key?
Another option is to say that this is in F lydian and when i look at where the chord progression starts and stops this is definitely a valid option. But to really confirm it as being F Lydian I would need to have more information, especially from the melodic side.
This ambiguity is definitely also part of the beauty of this chord progression. It is like a chameleon and it can change colours depending on where it is and what the surrounding is.
Now to make this chord progression even better you can add a pedal tone to the upper register to create even more color. Just like I did in the intro. You choose a tone that you repeat while the chords they change. And this creates a beautiful sense of expansion and contraction. It is a perfect technique and I made a very clear video about it, so if interested check it out!
See!? Such a simple progression and yet so good. It’s not without reason that it’s been used by so many artists and composers. And what do you think about my new music room? All sound absorption panels are handmade by me!
Stay tuned for more curiosities and don’t forget to like and subscribe to the channel. And for now…
See you next time!