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

1. Direction

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:

in Major:

  • V (dominant)
  • IV (subdominant)
  • V7 (dominant7)
  • Vsus (suspended dominant)
  • ii – V (circle of 5th)

in Minor:

  • VII (subtonic)
  • V(dominant)
  • 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:

in Major:

  • 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)

in Minor:

  • 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.

2. Color

Chords that don’t give direction to your chord progression add color. The most important color chords are:

in Major:

  • vi
  • iii

in Minor:

  • III
  • VI
  • v

And here are a couple of chord progressions that don’t have any direction, only color:

in Major:

  • I – iii (e.g. C – Em)
  • I – vi (e.g. C – Am)

in Minor:

  • 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!


Creating Specific Emotions With Chords (Hit Song Chord Progressions Part I)

My Top 5 Chord Progressions (+Chord Rotations) – incl. Video

143 Royalty-Free Chord Progressions

About the Author Friedemann Findeisen

I’m Friedemann Findeisen, a creative weirdo from the middle of nowhere. I love making things, learning things and helping people. If I don’t make, I get restless. If I don’t learn, I feel empty. If I don’t help, I feel ungrateful. Good things have happened when I managed to balance all three.

In the past, I’ve been a magician, public speaker, music video director, songwriter, producer, board game designer, author, publisher, YouTuber, music profiler, illustrator, musician and film composer.

The best things I've ever made are Holistic Songwriting Academy, my book The Addiction Formula, the YouTube show The Artists Series, my Grunge album Canohead and my board game Cantaloop.

  • I like you way or framing color and direction…

    One of my common analogies for tonality is a string, straight between two points would be sitting on the tonic chord. Progressions pull the ‘string’ further away, until returning to the starting state on the tonic, where the tension on the string is released….

    I’m going to drop you idea into my back pocket so I can pull it out the next time I am writing a chord progression!

  • I m really pleased with your publication. I m interested in the relations between melodies , chords and emotions and I have found many answers. The usage of chords is my main concerned

  • I like your analysis. I recently wrote a 4 chord pattern that sounds a bit like Radiohead to me. I don’t believe it’s a ‘normal’ progression.

    Following a semitone drop in the bass from C – B – Bb – A the chords are:

    C major – Bm – Bb major – A5 – (Asus)*

    And the melody following that is really cool too. There is a bit of a lift in the melody when I move from Bm – Bb major that wouldn’t be so prominent if I made it more than a half step move (say Am or G).

    Also, the song is in 3/4 time, with a 12/4 to the bar I guess (12/4 for each chord). I count by 3’s four times before changing to the next chord.. 1,2,3 – 1,2,3 – 1,2,3 – 1,2,3 CHANGE chord…

    Just hoping you can shed some light on that particular progression. I know that Bm relates to the A chord, Bb relates to the C chord, but it appears to me that they are separated by chords that they don’t really relate to (unless I am wrong about that?)…

    Any info will be appreciated.

    🙂 T h a n k s !

    * the bass rises back up with a B note to bring us back to C major

  • Dear Friedemann Findeisen, thaks for your article.
    I have a question:
    In the first part of the article you talk about choosing your first chord based on emotion.
    For example, if it’s happiness major chords and if it’s sadness minor chords.
    And in the second part of the article you tell us how to give it direction and color.
    I wonder, if the emotion is Nostalgia, where the chords are a mixture of major and minor chords.
    For example a progression would be:
    I ii vi,
    here I have color, but I don’t have the V chord, which is the one that helps me generate tension.
    If I combine it, I wouldn’t tend to sound happier than nostalgic ?

    • Hi Daniela,
      Yes, it would sound happier. First of all, do you need tension? Do you need the V? If yes, there’s still ways you can implement it so it doesn’t sound too major. For example, you could omit the 3 or just let the bass play the chord (assuming that’s what you do for the other chords as well, it would sound weird if your harmony instrument suddenly dropped out of course). You can use simple intervals instead of full chords, too – that also weakens the majorness of the V.

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