SONGWRITING TIP: Chord progressions that fit together

Here’s my first entry on my new blog, Songwriting and Recording Tips…. chord progressions that fit together.

When I first got into music and songwriting, I wrote everything by ear, just “feeling” stuff that fit together. It’s a fine way to write, as it’s the way I usually write (I don’t think much about music theory when I write songs… I just go)… but, later I found that it’s extremely helpful to at least know the “Nashville Number System” which is the way most good, catchy songs are written. Ultimately, most good songs are boiled down to only SIX CHORDS total (usually). Here’s how it works:

Take any major scale… we’re going to use C major, and then A major.

C major is C D E F G A B C (in between the starting and ending notes is the scale “formula” 2212221 (whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step). This 2212221 (think of it like a phone number without the area code) 221-2221, is the major scale formula… always. It never changes! So if you pick any starting note (the “root”), you just use that formula in between each note from beginning to end, and the major scale is made (be sure to not repeat or skip letters/notes, and to use all sharps or all flats if you need them, and not a combination of both).

So, now… simply assign Roman Numerals (you’ve seen an old clock before, haven’t you?) to each of the notes, like this:

I ii iii IV V vi vii

You might be wondering, “why did he use lowercase Roman Numerals on some of those?” It’s simple… the lowercase Numerals mean “minor chords” and the capital Numerals mean “major chords”. Hang on, you’ll understand in a second…

When you build the major scale, you’re establishing a “key”… the scale is the same as the key. Ever hear the expression “that’s in the wrong key” or “I can’t sing in that key, it’s too high”… or “what’s the key of the song?”. Each scale is a key, and each key has chords that fit it, and sound perfect together. This is the Nashville Number System.

So now, all we have to do, is rename the notes to CHORDS…. like this:

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
I ii iii IV V vi vii

Now if you know your basic open chord shapes (which all songwriters should know), you know all of those chords, except B Diminished (Bdim). The diminished chord is basically useless in pop/rock/indie songwriting for all intents and purposes… so let’s kill it, and now we have a total of six chords that fit together (we don’t count the last C because it’s already there in the beginning):

C Dm Em F G Am
I ii iii IV V vi

SIX CHORDS…. that’s it. Play around with them, and you’ll see that everything you play, in whatever order, sounds good… because all those chords fit together.


Let’s now build the notes of the of A major scale using the 221-2221 formula (and at the same time, we’ll assign the Roman Numerals and the chord types, while getting rid of the diminished chord that falls on the 7th scale degree):

A Bm C#m D E F#m
I ii iii IV V vi

All the chords above now fit in the key of A major. One of the most famous songs in A is the Beatles “In My Life” – notice the first two chords (before the singing) are A and E…. and then when the singing starts, you have A and F#m, and a few other chords. Those three chords I just mentioned are all above, and they belong to the key of A major.

For those of you who love to use a capo (I’m definitely one of those people)… throw it on random frets and do all of the shapes above (in the key of C, or key of A) and you’ll STILL notice that all those chords fit together and sound great together. It’s such a simple thing to learn, but it’s essential.

Comment with any questions… or shoot me an email!

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  1. Waffel

    thanks, finally a good explanation 🙂

  2. Joas

    This is brilliant, so far I’ve made a few songs just by listening whether or not it fits together. However, it’s interesting to know the ‘music theory’ behind it. I’m wondering what makes these chords sound nice together? In other words, what’s the logic behind 221-2221 and then adding the Roman numbers?

  3. Tobias Juler

    I have a question about the Key of F. The chords would be F Gm Am B C D right?

  4. Richard G. Dybowski

    For example, in C major how do you find all the chords that can be played in the first box position ?

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