How to Write Great Songs: Chord Progressions (Song 1)

How do you go from a blank canvas to a great chord progression in half an hour? Easy, just follow these six steps.

Step 1: Choose the scale/mode that reflects what you're feeling
In this video lesson we chose Dorian, which sounds like the cloud with a silver lining. Dorian is a minor mode so it's obviously on the sad side of things, but unlike Aeolian (AKA “the minor scale”), Dorian has an unmistakable optimism to its character. For all the modes' individual personalities and vibes, check out my Hack Music Theory for Songwriting & Producing PDF.

Step 2: Choose a key note for your mode
What note do you want to start the mode from? We went with E this time, which is a favourite for guitarists as it's the lowest note we can play on a guitar in standard tuning. If you're working with a singer though, ask them what range they like to sing in. Start your mode in the lower (but still very comfortable) side of their range, so it climbs up to somewhere on their higher side by the time you get to the octave of your key note. If you can't decide where to start, just start anywhere, as you can always move everything up or down at a later stage.

Step 3: Write out the mode from your key note
You can do this either by counting semitones, or by working out the key signature. I cover the semitone approach in Hack Music Theory, Part 1, and I cover the key signature approach in the aforementioned Songwriting PDF. For Dorian, the semitone formula is 2 1 2 2 2 1 2, so from our E key note, we get: E F♯ G A B C♯ D

Step 4: Write out all the chords in your mode
Do this by using the "leapfrogging" pattern for building chords: play a note (e.g. E), skip the next note (e.g. F♯), play the next note (e.g. G), skip the next note (e.g. A), and then play the next note (e.g. B), resulting in a triad (e.g. EGB). Do this from all seven notes. Here's our chords in E Dorian: Em / F♯m / Gmaj / Amaj / Bm / C♯dim / Dmaj

Step 5: Choose the specific chords that tell your musical story
Every mode has both major (happy) and minor (sad) chords, so pick your chords and their order in a way that exactly conveys what you want to say. Also, pay attention to the harmonic rhythm of your chord progression, i.e. how long you spend on each chord. We chose: Em → Bm → Gmaj → Amaj → Dmaj

Step 6: Use inversions and sus chords to make your chord changes flow
Changing from one chord to another breaks the flow for a split second, and therefore creates a weak link in the music. Most popular music songs are full of these weak links, but here's how you can not only avoid them, but turn them into opportunities for extra awesomeness! Whenever you have a chord change where the two chords share a note, that's called a common note, and they're our best friends. Re-arranging the notes in your chords to keep each common note in the same place within the chords (i.e. bottom, middle, or top), is by far the best way to make your chord progressions sound ultra smooth and professional. Whenever you have adjacent chords though, e.g. Em and F♯m, you won't have a common note, so you need to make a common note by using a sus chord. Check out the video lesson above for details on this mega helpful hack!

Here's our final chord progression:










Asus2/E → Amaj/E → Amaj


Dsus2/A → Dmaj/A →Dmaj/F♯ → Dsus2/E

And that's that, a great chord progression in six easy steps! Have fun writing, and be sure to connect and let us know how you got on with your homework, or as we prefer to call it, hackwork. Until next week, happy songwriting!

Ray Harmony
Music Teacher
Victoria BC, Canada