In today’s video, I wanted to talk a bit more about songwriting and share my favorite chord progression of all time.
The nice thing about this progression is it’s only two chords, so it’s an incredibly easy one. It’s the i-VI progression – but if you don’t know what that means, fear not, we’ll be digging into it today, using some pop music as examples.
We’ll also be looking at variations of the i-VI involving a couple more chords, but fear not! At absolute most you’ll have four chords at once to contend with.
Let’s get started!
My favorite chord progression
First off, the progression. It’s i-VI, or 1-6. The lowercase ‘i’ means it’s minor, and the uppercase VI means major. So it’s a minor chord alternating with a major chord.
The ‘i’ represents the number 1, and VI represents the number 6 (roman numerals).
So if you’re playing in the key of C minor, the two chords would be: C minor (i) and Ab major (count up six notes on the C minor scale).
Another example – say you’re in the key of F major. Your first chord would be Fm (i), and your second chord would be Db major (VI).
Here’s what that chord progression looks like, moving from Fm to Db, using a song I wrote with my band The Criminal Kid. I’ll leave the full version linked here if you want to listen to the whole song.
What my favorite chord progression sounds like
There are so many things I like about this progression, including its simplicity. You can easily jam ideas on just two chords.
But I also really like the quality. It’s in a minor key so it’s naturally more nocturnal-sounding, but alternating with the major chord – specifically the VI – makes it very nostalgic and melancholic. It reminds me of reminiscing during a sunset or something. It’s a little diluted – not so bright and bold. Shaded. But still hopeful, since we start with the minor and end with the major.
Now you’ll notice in my example (from the song “The Lion”), I’m not just playing “pure” chords. As in, I’m not going from the three notes of an Fm chord to the three notes of a Db major chord.
I’m playing an F minor 7th chord to start (adding in the minor 7th note, an Eb – count 7 notes up from F minor scale and you’ll land on an Eb).
I’m then manipulating the Db chord in the same way.
Adding these extra notes makes the chord progression sound further shaded, a little less pure and bright.
Another thing I love about this progression is there is only 1 note that actually changes. Each chord has three notes, but two of those notes overlap. In the example of C minor to Ab major, Let’s look at what the notes are:
C Eb G
Ab C Eb
The only notes that change are the G, and the Ab. On the piano, this makes it incredibly easy to switch back and forth.
It also means these chords sound great imposed on each other. Listen to what we get when we play an Ab in the bass, and a C minor chord in the treble. We get an Ab major 7th chord.
Now let’s look at some popular music you’ll find these chords in – songs I love and have been inspired by.
Tegan and Sara: i-VI
Here’s the pure chord progression, as exemplified in Tegan and Sara’s “Living Room”. I know, some Canadianity for you all. This is Tegan and Sara when they were more folksy, and this one’s got a good acoustic guitar beat.
Radiohead: VI-i variation
But my favorite example of this chord progression is from the saddest song ever written – How to Disappear Completely by Radiohead. We really linger for several bars on each chord, drawing it out and really making our heart hurt.
The guitarist isn’t doing simple, plain 3-note chords either – there’s lots of movement, like the add-9.
It’s a really sad verse. The chord progression changes slightly in the chorus (to include a III chord), but this is the gist of the song. Radiohead reverses the order from how I prefer it – I like it best from minor to major, and here it’s major-minor. Do you notice how that changes the flavor? It makes it sadder and darker, with less of a hopeful feeling.
The Killers: i-VII-VI variation
An even more popular variation of the simple two-chord i-VI is the i-VII-VI, or min1-7-6. So instead of alternating C minor to Ab major chord, you’d add a Bb major chord in-between the two, creating a stepwise motion with all three chords.
Depending on the song you might just see these three chords rotated, with one of the chords being held-extra long (music tends to function in fours) – or with a fourth chord tacked on the end.
“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” by The Killers uses this progression, holding on to the last chord for an extra bar. You’ll hear this right away in the introduction and verse. They create a grand and dramatic effect with this progression (which is true of most of their songwriting).
Nine Inch Nails
A totally different song that uses this pattern is Nine Inch Nails’ “Right Where it Belongs”, with gorgeous effect. They move from i to VII to VI, and then jump down to III for the fourth chord (III is another common chord in these progressions, which we’ll look at in a moment).
Trent Reznor also manipulates the minor chord – instead of simply playing a “pure” minor chord, he shifts it temporarily to a major chord, giving the effect of a shaft of light briefly streaming through curtains.
There’s such a focus on major chords in this progression that the effect is resolute. It doesn’t have the same questioning, open-ended feel that i-VI has – this chord progression is resigned, it’s made up its mind.
Radiohead: i-VI-VII variation
Now we take the chord progression we were just talking about and mix up the order. Instead of going 1-7-6, we go 1-6-7.
I’ve got another Radiohead example for you (I hope you’re not surprised). This is from “Sit Down, Stand Up”, which wasn’t a hit but it’s one of my favorite songs by them. It’s absolutely mesmerizing and electric.
Here we’re going from i-VI-VII-VI. We’re swinging back around to the 6th chord. One thing that’s cool about this is it breaks the mold – instead of a chord progression being in sets of 2 or 4, it’s actually 5 bars long:
I like this version better than the more stepwise 1-7-6 version because it’s a little more true to the simple i-VI in sound. It shimmers like moonlight.
Radiohead: VII-VI-i variation
While we’ve got that 7 (VII) chord in there, let’s share yet another Radiohead song – sorry-not-sorry, their sad music is some of my favorite.
In “Codex”, another tune that could be nominated for “Saddest Song Ever” award, they end with the minor chord instead of starting with it.
They start with the 7 chord, then move through the 6, finally landing on the minor i.
Again, when you end with the minor chord, you’re ending up with a sadder, less hopeful flavor. You have hope in these first couple chords, but the last chord comes along and says “nope, that’s the way it is”.
In that way this chord progression really feels like death to me. Not necessarily the death of a human being, but the death of anything – an idea, a phase of life, whatever. You have this hope, this longing, and then it’s over. Perhaps that’s why it feels so sad and profound.
Mumford and Sons: i-VI-III variation
Another movement, though not as common, is adding a third chord – the 3 chord (III). In our C minor example, this would be jumping from C minor, to Ab major, to Eb major.
In “White Blank Page” by Mumford and Sons, you’ll see this movement, and a little extra oscillating between the III and VI, in the verses. This emphasis on major chords gives the whole song a tender and optimistic feel.
Sia: i-III-VI variation
Finally, let’s reverse that progression we were just listening to with Mumford and Sons, and look at one of my all-time favorite songs – “Breathe Me” by Sia.
We start with the minor chord – C minor, in this case – and then stick the III chord between C minor and Ab major (VI). So our progression looks like this:
It helps that this is a piano arrangement, so you can really hear the progression crystal-clear.
When we land on the 6, it lands with that hope, that little bit of color and sparkle. Totally different vibe than when we end with a minor chord – one of the reasons I love the i-VI progression so much.
I hope you enjoyed this tour through some of my favorite music, looking at my favorite chord progression of all time and its many endless variations. This is really just a starting point – if you look into chord patterns of songs you love, you’re bound to come across this simple pattern.