Understanding Chord Progressions-It’s Easier than What you Think

For all guitar players, understanding chord progressions is an essential skill. This topic combines theoretical knowledge with practical skills. It allows you to learn songs, understand songs, and create your own songs if you choose to go down that route.

Since I started teaching guitar, I have had countless students ask me about chord progressions. I’ve been able to successfully get each and every one of them comfortable and confidently strumming along with their favorite songs and understanding what the progression is doing. 

Using the understanding of chord progressions, I’ve also been able to help them write their own progressions and songs. 

If this is a direction you want to go down then keep reading this article. I’m about to take you on a journey through chord progressions and help you take your chord work to the next level.

What is a Chord Progression?

Firstly, let’s define the term.

A chord progression is a series of chords that all come from a key. In music, a key is a family of notes and chords that comes from a scale. All the notes contained within this scale have specific chords associated with them and this is what allows us to start building progressions of chords that always work together.

Understanding this system is essential, especially if you want to write your own progressions.

Check out these useful resources that give you a basic overview of how to start putting together chord progressions:

  • How to Write Major Key Chord Progressions 
  • How to Write Minor Key Chord Progressions 

If you aren’t familiar with the words major and minor, think of them as descriptive terms. A progression that comes from a major key often has a happier or more upbeat sound. A minor key progression is often sadder sounding. 

This major and minor descriptive term is the reason we feel certain things when we hear certain songs. Major key songs make us feel happy, think of upbeat pop, and sing along style tracks. Minor key music makes us feel sad and reflective, think of ballads or blues music.

Chord progressions are often referred to by a series of intervals which is a numbering system that is applied to them. You can read more about that in the two lessons linked above.

Chord Progression Ear Training

Ear training is a particularly important skill for a guitarist to have in their toolkit. Once you develop your musical ear, it allows you to start playing songs by ear without needing to reference chord charts or books.

As you can imagine, this skill takes a little time to really learn and perfect. It doesn’t come easy. 

Ear training for chord progressions relies heavily on familiarity with a few different areas:

  • The ability to hear how the different chord types in a key should sound together
  • The ability to pick out which chord is the “root” chord that all the other chords are centered around
  • The ability to hear the distance of pitch changes when chords are being changed.

Let’s try this with both major and minor progressions.

Major Chord Progressions

We will do this in the key of A Major. Start by playing the A Major scale:

Then, play each note of the scale, preceded by the root note each time:

The intervals you’re playing are:

  • Root > Major 2nd
  • Root > Major 3rd
  • Root > Perfect 4th
  • Root > Perfect 5th 
  • Root > Minor 6th 
  • Root > Major 7th 
  • Octave

This exercise jumping from the root helps your ear lock into the distance between the notes.

Now try it with the scale’s chords:


Then play each chord of the scale preceded by the root chord.

Minor Chord Progressions

This works exactly the same way as the Major chords, but you now need to root everything from the A Natural Minor scale:

Now play each note of the scale preceded by the root once mote:

The intervals for this are:

  • Root > Major 2nd
  • Root > Minor 3rd
  • Root > Perfect 4th
  • Root > Perfect 5th
  • Root > Minor 6th
  • Root > Major 7th
  • Octave

Now you can try it with the chords:


Then, once again, each chord preceded by the minor root chord:

Chord Progression Flow Chart

In theory, you can play chords in a progression any way you wish. They will all work together because they’re all part of the same family.

However, there are a few formulas you can follow to speed up the process. Using a chord progression flow chart is one of those.

The aim of this flow chart is to give you a specific path to take with chord progressions. It helps write and compose songs that always fit together in the right way.

The I chord is our root. The V and VII are known as dominants and the iII and IV are known as predominants.

If you’re going to play one of the dominant chords, a predominant will lead into it perfectly.

Resolving with a Cadence

The root chord is the overall key. When you hit this chord, the progression feels resolved. A cadence is the feeling of resolve within a progression. You can split this into two main groups

  • Perfect cadence – Feels totally resolved and complete
  • Imperfect cadence – Feels like it hasn’t quite resolved

A perfect cadence is when you always land back on the I chord.

An imperfect cadence is when you land on a note that doesn’t feel like a total resolution, for instance the III chord.

The dominants on the flow chart work well for perfect cadences. If you are playing a progression and you resolve the V or the VII to the I chord, it will sound finished. If you finish your progression any any other chord without hitting the I, it gets that incomplete feeling and creates anticipation.

Building a Progression with the Chart

If you start on your I chord, this chord can go anywhere. It doesn’t matter what chord follows, it will work. Let’s imaging we’re going to the IV first:

I > IV

The IV chord always fits nicely into the II or the IV chord. This means you can choose either of those chords next. Let’s go with the II.

Now you have:

I > IV > II

The II is a predominant chord, so a dominant chord should follow. This gives you V or VII to choose from. Let’s go with V. Now you have:

I > IV > II > V

This 4 bar progression works well, and it also resolves perfectly back to the I chord.

Chord Progression Map

A chord progression map works in a similar fashion to a flowchart, except it gives a lot more options along the way.

The aim of a chord progression map is to give you a path through various chords to the home chord, which is your root.

If you’re playing chords at a more advanced level, it can also show you which chord extensions work well at each stage of the way.

This allows you to pick a starting chord and trace a path through the arrows to other chords, and back to your root chord. If you’re starting from the root chord, then you can go anywhere from it and then work back through a variety of paths.

For the more advanced players, here are a few chord extensions that you can place on various interval chords:

  • On a II chord you can use a min7 or min9
  • On a III chord you can use a min 7
  • On a IV chord you can use a 6, maj7, min or min6 chord
  • On a V chord you can use a 7, 9, 11, 13 or sus chord
  • On a VI chord you can use a min7 or min9 chord
  • On a VII chord you can’t make anything else work, but this does resolve nicely back to the I when you pass through it

It might look intimidating at first, but if you lay out your chords over their respective intervals and then imagine it as a progression of notes, you should easily be able to trace your way back to the root of whatever progression you put together.

By trying different paths through this map, you may also hear things that resemble famous songs. Many famous songs stick to “safe” progressions in order to work in the right context. This is a great tool for speeding up your own songwriting and building of chord progressions.

Over time, progressing through this chart will feel natural and you will become familiar with many of the changes that work and the paths that sound great. This will really expand your chord playing repertoire and make any progressions you create sound awesome.

You would also like to check our articles related to blue songs and Jazz songs and relevant chord progressions.

Article Name
Understanding Chord Progressions-It's Easier than What you Think