Understanding Voice Leading To Write Chord Progressions

If you have a harmony in your head, do you have a strategy for getting it onto the fretboard? Here's a little background on how chords move, and how to use that understanding to make your music more effective.

Ultimate Guitar
This is a topic that doesn't seem to get covered this way very often how to make a good chord progression that does what you want it to do. Often what happens, is that we learn a lot of songs, and then over time we develop some kind of intuition for how we want things to sound. It's still easy to get frustrated when going this route because sometimes the song you learned doesn't have the sound you want to make that's in your head. What's needed is a slightly deeper understanding of how chords move. This topic is formally addressed as voice leading, but I'll try to keep it simple. There's important questions to ask about a chord progression.
  • Are all the chords in the same key?
  • How many notes are staying the same from chord to chord?
  • Are the moving notes going up or down from chord to chord? These are important questions. The first is essentially checking to see how easy our job of break down the progression is going to be. If it's all the same key, quite easy, all the relationships are diatonic (the notes of all the chords combined never leave the key). Knowing how many notes are changing or staying the same from chord to chord determines how strong or weak the transition sounds. There's essentially three ways chords can move: In thirds; the most fluid and weak sounding chord movement. Only one note changes, the other two are shared by both chords. For instance, from C to Am, only one note moves. The G note of the C chord moves up to the A note of the Am chord. Both chords share the notes C & E. In fourths; a strong but coherent movement. Two of the chord tones move and one stays the same. For instance, from C to F, both the E & G of the C chord move up to the F & A of the F chord. In seconds; a strong, almost tense movement. All the notes change. For instance, when F transitions to G F, A, and C all slide up to G, B, and D. For thirds and fourths, we have to learn their respective chord cycles forwards and backwards. In one direction, the notes of the chords are going up and feel like they're building energy and momentum, in the other direction, it feels like it's falling and losing energy. By example, moving in downward thirds in C major would progression through the seven chords like so: C-Am-F-Dm-Bdim-G-Em. Then it would start over. As we go from chord to chord, there's a slight rising feeling because the fifth of each chord is moving up one degree of the key to make the next chord. Thirds are counterintuitive because the downward version of the progression (e.g. C to Am) "feels" like it's rising. The upward version (C-Em) feels like it's falling because the root of the first chord is falling to become the fifth of the second chord. If you wanted to be consistent, you could think of it as "rising 6ths," but it's generally easier to think in terms of smaller intervals. It's moving up degree by degree, like it was temperature (roll on snare). Actually, it's pretty literal. Faster vibrations do translate to higher notes and higher levels of kinetic energy. I digress. The rising fourths progression would go: C-F-Bdim-Em-Am-Dm-G. Then it would start over. It has a rising feeling because two of the chord tones are going up from chord to chord. The third and the fifth of the starting chord become the root and the third of the ending chord. Seconds are easy to think about. Spell them out and remember to start over at G: C-D-Em-F-G-Am-Bdim. Going backwards might require some thought though. Lots of good punk progressions rise from the root chord to the fifth chord and start over. It's a really strong disorienting progression that builds a ton of energy. Then you can hit the tonic chord and wail on a high third for whatever open-voweled word the chorus starts with, or the guitar solo, if you prefer. I recommend learning these cycles in at least a few keys. Probably C, G, and A to start. Pick a key each day and write out the cycles. Then experiment with combining them to make the types of sounds you want. You'll find you quickly develop an intuition for how a chord progression is going to sound and feel simply by looking at it. Applying what we've talked about, let's talk about a simple chord progression, and look what's happening to the notes. The anthemic pop song harmony the four chord song chords C-G-Am-F. C goes to G, which is downward fourth. Has a smooth but strong falling feeling. Then it slides up to the Am, which has a strong rising feeling, but it's going from major to minor, so it feels a bit darker. And then it slides down to the F, which is a downward third, but it "feels" like it's rising, because in the downward thirds cycle, the notes go upward. And then as it transitions back to the root chord, the downward fourth movement has a strong falling feeling once more. If the feel of this progression had to be characterized, it would be something like medium fall, hard rise, soft rise, medium fall. I'm playing with my terminology and being a little careless, but I hope that's pretty clear. Let me know what you think in the comments! By Ryan Cwynar
  • 8 comments sorted by best / new / date

      I really liked this. You really break it down and make it easy for a noob like me to understand. Thank you.
      Very good. I like to use the circle of 5ths/4ths to help visualize these types of concepts. Plus it helps to know the piano board when making the nae changes. Thanks!
      Good Ol' Ramos
      Writing them down myself seems like a great idea. I have a guitar chords poster plus a keyboard but it seems that's really not doing enough for me to truly know how to handle my own progressions.
      good lesson on the practical uses of the cirle/cycle of 4ths and 5ths keep the knowledge flowin'
      I think you have done a good job of making a seemingly difficult subject clear. Keep up the good work.
      Seriously, just stumbled on this. Didnt even know UG offered this kind of info. Sat down and worked this out on paper before touching a guitar to hear it. Anyone who puts in the effort to understand this deserves the benefit. Ryan, thank you. Really good work.