(N.B. this article deals with modern rock - ie 21st century. So classic rock progressions aren't included.)
When writing a song, prolly the most important thing is the chord progression. More so than the melody actually, I'd say. Your chord progression is what gives a particular 'feel' or mood to your melody. Every melody can be harmonized by many different chord progressions, so the most impt thing after getting ur melody is to try it out with many diff chord progressions! Don't be afraid of breaking some rules, and having notes that don't appear to fit into the chord theoretically.
In any major key, each triad chord (3-note chords a third apart each) using notes from the major scale can be either major or minor. (except chord vii, which is rarely used in rock) For example, in C major,
I- C major (CEG)
ii- D minor (DFA)
iii- E minor (EGB)
IV- F major (FAC)
V- G major (GBD)
vi- A minor (ACE)
vii- B diminished (BDF)
(I assume that you've got an inkling of what major and minor chords are, btw) note that I denote major chords with a capital letter roman numeral, and minor chords with a small letter.
Most pop/pop rock chorus chord progressions start on a chord I. The progression consists of 4 chords which keep repeating in a cycle. Common examples are:
(N.B. I'm an avid pop hater, so I don't listen to that much pop or pop rock ZYABLA^HUYABLA still I'll try to find common examples :)
I-V-vi-IV, which you can easily find across pop/pop rock (Jason Mraz's I'm Yours, Howie Day's Collide, Click Five's Empty, OneRepublic's Stop And Stare). Heck, even A7X's Afterlife chorus uses this progression. That's why Norwegian Recycling's How 6 Songs Collide Works, cos all the songs there have this progression ._. But that doesn't mean that this chord progression is in any way overcliched. (cliched maybe, but not 'over' yet). 30 Seconds To Mars' From Yesterday uses this progression for the front part of its chorus, and its still a veryvery awesome song :) It's easy to use because chords I vi and IV both share your tonic note (C in C major, G in G major and so on). This allows your riff or your melody to revolve around one note, and you only need to change the base note to a D or B (one step change) over the chord V.
A variation of the aforementioned progression is I-Vb-vi-IV, the 'b' denoting an inversion. Meaning, say in C major, instead of having G as the bass note of the chord V (G major chord), we use B instead, which is the second note in the G major triad. This is called the first inversion. 'c' would denote a second inversion, in which the third note is used as the bass note. But don't worry, cos second inversions are rarely used because of the fact that it sounds rather weak. Ok, anw, the I-Vb-vi-IV progression doesn't sound as upbeat as having a I-V-IV-vi, cos the inversion makes the V less strong, and gives a more stepwise feeling. It definitely exists, but I can't find any examples at the moment, and I don't rly wanna waste time playing thru all my songs, so let's move on, shall we ZYABLA^HUYABLA
I-vi-IV-V, which is another really common chord progression in pop/pop rock. This progression still gives you the upbeat feeling (Simple Plan's Crazy), but not as much as the previous one, and when this progression is slowed down it can give you that acoustic, gentle feel as well (Secondhand Serenade's Fall For You, or the oh-so-well-known Bleeding Love). All in all, it's a pretty versatile progression. Similarly, you can simply base your melody/riff around your tonic for the first three chords before shifting a note up or down for the last chord V.
I-IV-vi-V. This is a great progression that is less common than the aforementioned ones, due to the fact that it isn't exactly your upbeat progression. The I-IV and IV-vi jump gives it a slightly saddish, nostalgic feeling.
I-vi-V-IV. This isn't too common, due to the fact that the vi-V jump gives this progression a stepwise feeling that isn't as natural as the previous progressions. I randomly browsed thru my iTunes library, and the first song I found with this progression is Simple Plan's I Can Wait Forever.
I-V-IV-IV or I-V-IV-V This was used a lot in Classic Rock, but it seems to be getting less common nowadays. This progression doesn't contain any minor chords, but it still can sound rather gentle, with the V-IV jump giving you that suspended feeling. Okay I don't know how to describe it ._. Anyway example is Switchfoot's Dare You To Move!
A variant is substituting the V with a Vb, such as in Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars, which uses I-Vb-IV-V. This gives it a softer feel.
--note that the progressions so far all revolve around the same 4 chords--
I-Vb-vi-V-IV-Ib-ii-ii-V. This is a slightly more complex progression. Isn't very common at all, with the only example I can think of offhand being My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade, but this is actually a pretty versatile progression. It's used quite commonly in Mandarin Pop (I live in Singapore, so I'll be talking a bit about progressions from Mandarin Pop and Japanese Pop. Don't worry cos these progressions can definitely be used in Western music :) and it can give a very soft, pleasant sound in addition to the grand Black Parade feeling.
So now that we've finally covered all the progressions starting on I, we can go on to progressions starting on vi. Progressions starting on vi, though less common in pop, form the basis for just about all other genres of rock that exists ._. be it alt rock, metal, punk, hardcore, posthardcore... except indie or postrock or artrock maybe. but then again i dun suppose you came reading this article wanting to compose sth like Sigur Ros or sth.
Something to note is that many of these progressions can be considered as minor progressions. The vi in any major key is the I in its relative minor, say C major and A minor, but I prefer to work in major key terms so that there is less confusion.
So uh we can start with the most basic vi-vi-vi-vi-vi-vi... Yup you've got it. There are actually songs which barely changes chord at all throughout their song. But that's mostly for death metal or sth. (Children of Bodom, anyone?) Composing death metal is a whole different matter altogether tho, so let's move on ZYABLA^HUYABLA
Ok then lets get to our first proper progression.
vi-IV-I-V. This is probably the most versatile progression there is. It can be very upbeat, such as in Boys Like Girls' The Great Escape, when its fast. A slower variation of it is used in the incredibly overplayed Apologize (onerepublic), which substitutes the V with a Vb. It is also used in alt rock and posthardcore, such as in Linkin Park's Numb Escape The Fate's Cellar Doors and Saosin's You're Not Alone, which uses a variation of vi-IV-Ib-V, and has a chromatic addition at the end. But ya you get the point.
vi-I-IV-V. Well forget what I just said. This progression is more versatile than that one. Again it can be upbeat such as in Check Yes Juliet (We The Kings song), and even Kings Of Leon's Use Somebody. Again it can also be used in posthardcore/alt rock. Saosin's I Can Tell or Closure In Moscow's Jewels For Eyes :D In fact, if you dig more I'm sure you can find a lot more, but as usual I'm lazy so hehe.
vi-I-V-IV. Linkin Park's What I've Done or In The End. Doesn't sound all too different from the previous two, but this one is not as natural, due to the stepwise V-IV again.
The previous two progressions tend to sound darker than those starting on I, since it starts on a minor chord. However, they still sound rather bright and cheery when it comes to the chord I in the progression. The following progressions however avoid the chord I so they are a lot more minor-sounding, and used more in genres of rock that are not pop rock. I won't expand on them, since they're rather rare, but I'll give examples just so you can go hear them and get an idea of what they sound like. The list is not exhaustive, but for now I'm just browsing through my library and writing down whichever ones I happen to hear :)
vi-IV-V-iii Alesana - This Conversation Is Over
vi-IV-ii-V VersaEmerge - In Pursuing Design
vi-V-IV-V Linkin Park's In The End intro and verse. (This one sounds really dark)
vi-IV-ii-iii (This is like the minor version of I-vi-IV-V) 30 Seconds To Mars' A Beautiful Lie
vi-IV-vi-IV This is used quite commonly in emo/hardcore/metal music. Esp during the verses. Verses of Saosin's You're Not Alone, Seven Years etc. There are more examples, but from obscure bands so I won't bother listing them.
vi-IV-V-V A Skylit Drive's Wires and the Concept of Breathing chorus
vi-vi-IV-V UnderOath's Down Set Go ending
vi-I-V-vi Evanescence's Bring Me To Life. I wouldn't really advice you using this. Cos when repeating this there will be two chord vis together. It would be easier to use vi-I-V-IV, which doesnt sound too much different really.
Like I said, the list is not exhaustive, but they mostly consist of shuffling chords vi, IV, ii and either iii or V. Ok right here is where a theory tidbit comes in. You'll notice many many progressions end on V. This is because V is called the dominant, and it tends to resolve straight to the tonic, allowing the progression to recycle from I again. (somewhat like classical music's perfect cadence, for those of you who learn classical theory) It can also resolve to vi to give a more morose sound (corresponding to an interrupted cadence). Chord iii can be used as a substitute for V, but it is seldom used to lead to chord I. Chord iii tends to lead either towards a chord vi or a chord IV. Your classical teacher will probably tell you to avoid chord iii, but it is possible to use this as a substitute for chord V when the next chord is a IV or vi. Chord ii is another chord that is harder to use. It is somewhat like the minor equivalent of a chord IV. Ok bad explanation/analogy, but essentially it gives a rather parallel feeling, and is usually used in conjunction with chords IV and vi. The exception being ii-V-I, which is a classical perfect cadence that brings a tone of finality to the section. This three chord progression can thus be used to end the piece, or end the section.
Finally we come to the last part of this longlonglonglong article. Chord progressions that start with chord IV :D These chord progressions are by far my favourites. Thing is, chord IV tends to be more ambiguous than chords I and vi. Chord I sounds strictly major, while chord vi sounds strictly minor, but chord IV is more subtle and ambiguous, due to the fact that it appears in both the major scale as well as the relative minor scale. Progressions starting with chord IV thus give a (for lack of a better word) nostalgic feeling. Paramore is a band that often uses such progressions, and it explains their sorta different sound from other pop rock bands.
IV-V-vi-iii 30 Seconds To Mars' Attack, and also lots of jap music.
IV-V-iii-vi Lots and lots and lots and lots of Jap music. Essentially the chance of finding this progression anywhere in any modern jap pop song is around 70%.
IV-V-vi-ii The Rise Of Science's Making Up For A Long Spell Of Events pre-chorus
I'll explain these three progressions together, because its mood mainly arises from the IV-V and V-vi or V-iii sections. While they aren't exactly that common, these are awesome progressions. Just hear that rise of science song and ull know what I mean. Even when you mix these progressions with heavily distorted guitars, it doesn't take away the nostalgic feelings. It has a rather sparkling quality to it.
IV-ii-vi-iii Another chord progression that revolves around those chords, but this one sounds more dark and parallel-ish than nostalgic, cos of the IV-ii jump. Used in Paramore's Decode. A great many of their songs from their first album also uses IV-ii-vi-sth, such as IV-ii-vi-I-ii-IV-vi-V for Emergency. But anyway these complex 8-bar progressions are beyond the contexts of today's discussion, so another time perhaps ZYABLA^HUYABLA
IV-Ib-ii-V This is a progression that sounds rly good again, and is used in lots of jap music, but not rly in western music. Chobits theme song - Let Me Be With You by Round Table ft. Nino (the link)
Hear the 'oo oo oo oo yeah's? The progression for that is this stepwise descending bass thing :)
Many Pre-chorus progressions start on IV. Essentially pre-chorus progressions must give that feeling of building up, to lead to the chorus.
IV-V-IV-V A very common pre-chorus progression. Offhand I can think of Saosin's I Can Tell again, but I'm sure there's a lot more.
ii-Ib-IV-V - Great Escape Post-Chorus
These three stepwise-bass progressions can also be used in your pre-chorus, but they are rather rare, so I can't rly find examples. I've used them before and they sound great, though :D
So anyway, after having read through all these progressions, what you need to do next is pick one for your verse, another for your pre-chorus, and for your chorus. It is alright to not have a pre-chorus altogether, and have the same chord progression for both your verse and ur chorus. That would form the simplest songs, albeit a bit boring, so playing mix and match would be a lot funner :) The easiest way to make sure they go well together is to choose progressions that give you the same mood. I have attempted to describe their sounds, but words can't really express music, so you'll have to experiment around to rly get familiar with them. Anw an example of mix-and matching would be:
Boys Like Girls' Great Escape
Intro - I-Vb-vi-V
Verse - I-V-IV-IV
Chorus - vi-IV-I-V
Post-Chorus - ii-Ib-IV-V
Bridge - IV-Ib-ii-V
Solo - vi-IV-I-V
So on and so forth :)
If you want to be even more sophisticated, you can try to combine two 4-bar progressions together to form an 8-bar progression, but I would advice against doing that unless you're really pro, cos it's a lot more difficult than it sounds :P Keep your song simple, cos people like simple :) That's why ppl still love songs with the same old chord progressions.
No matter what, though, the most important thing (I can't emphasise this enough) is still that a melody can be harmonized in many many different ways, so always EXPERIMENT!
That more or less sums up this lesson! Soon I'll post up a new one on how to spice up your chords, and how to use chords other than the ones already in the major scale, including diminished chords, augmented chords, borrowed chords, altered chords and secondary dominants blablabla :P