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Ultimate Guide to Reading Chords


Whether you’re working on the next pop smash, a killer trap beat with whipping hi-hats, or a nasty bass line for your EDM banger, knowing how to create an evocative chord progression is essential. 


While you don’t need to be a wiz at music theory, knowing how to read chords is going to help you shape that perfect progression. Luckily there are plenty of examples of popular chord progressions to learn from, not to mention the Unison MIDI Chord pack is full of awesome ideas to start you out.  


Chords can make listeners feel all kinds of ways if you know how to use them properly. Some can make us feel happy, relieved, excited, wistful–the list goes on. In conjunction with certain rhythms, chords can take the listener on whatever emotional experience you want them to. 


What is a Chord?


We won’t dive too deep into music theory, but it is helpful to understand why chords can make us feel sweeping emotions, and to get there, we have to understand what exactly a chord is.


A single note is considered just that: the A note. Two notes, and you’ve got yourself a harmony, whether pleasant or not. Three notes, and now we’re talking about a chord. 


The most popular type of chord is called a triad–these include the root note that defines the chord, then a third, and then a fifth. 


Anytime we talk about a third, fifth, or even seventh, we’re talking about the note that is that many steps from the original root note. While chords can have any number of actual notes, the placement of these notes dictates how the chord sounds and how we respond to it. 


It’s also helpful to know what flats and sharps are because these can help us discuss major and minor chords. Let’s say we’re playing middle D on piano. D flat is the note one step below D, and D sharp is one step above. 


While most notes have flats and sharps, some actually don’t. Because of the structure of the western musical scale structure, there isn’t a step between E and F or B and C, meaning that C flat is just B, and E sharp is just F. 


Major Chords

While major and minor chords are technically triads, where we place the middle note, or the third, makes a big difference in how it sounds. 


Major chords sound much more uplifting and positive. When the third is in the major position, it means it’s generally above the minor third note. 


For example, a C major chord would be C, then the major third, which is E, then the perfect fifth, G. 


When writing out or reading chords, you would write this chord as Cmaj. 

Minor Chords

Minor chords, still in the world of triads, are when the third is in the minor position relative to the root note. 


Sticking with our C chord, the fifth is still in the same place, but instead of playing the E, we take it a step down to the E flat note. In Western music, we identify this as a more somber chord because of a single note shift. 


If you were to see a minor chord in writing, it would look like Cm, the lowercase “m” representing the word “minor.” 

7th Chords

Seventh chords start to get a bit more complex, but they’re worth exploring because by adding just one more note to our major or minor chord, we can spice things up and make it sound jazzier. 


As you might have guessed, 7th chords get their name because we’re adding in the 7th interval from the root note. 7th chords can be major or minor, depending on how we construct the notes.


Taking our standard Cmaj chord, we walk up the scale to the major 7th interval and find the B note, which is, as we mentioned, just flat of the C root note. However, since it’s above the root note in the scale and not immediately below it, we get a tremendous harmonic dance between them instead of nasty dissonance. 


This is a Cmaj7 chord. 


If you wanted the Cm7 chord, the minor version, we would start with our C minor chord with the minor third interval and include the minor 7th interval, B Flat. 


Popular Chord Progressions


As we mentioned, a lot of popular songs share the same chord progression and differentiate themselves by using different melodies, rhythms, and instruments. 


Knowing these progressions can help you lock in on a certain feeling and take advantage of the same theories that the hit singles do. But before we dive in, let’s talk about how we describe these progressions. 


In the same way that there are intervals within chords, there are intervals in chord progressions. We talk about these intervals by using Roman numerals, and in case you haven’t used them in a while (we don’t blame you), here’s a chart to refresh yourself. 


1: I


2: II


3: III


4: IV


5: V


6: VI


7: VII


These numerals are either capitalized or lowercase–his shows us whether it’s minor or major, the upper case being major and lower case being minor. There is also an “f” or “b” to represent that it’s either flat or sharp. (“b” is sharp because it looks closest to the symbol for sharp on sheet music.)


We’ll discuss all of these progressions using C as our root, but you can transpose these chords up and down the scale as you please!



You may or may not have heard most of the progressions on this list, but you’ve definitely heard this one. It’s been everywhere for the last 60 years in popular music. 


Why is it so popular? The progression has such a satisfying element to it; it feels powerful and nostalgic at the same time, mainly depending on if you use the major or minor variations. 


For example, this is the progression used in “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, “Hello” by Adele, “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, “Pompeii” by Bastille–we could go on. 


Another incredibly popular progression, especially in pop and rock songs, is the I-IV-V-IV. As you notice, this includes the fourth interval twice- It’s optional whether you return to it at the end or extend the fifth interval chord in your scale. 


Either way, this progression is all over the place. The return to the fourth interval gives the progression a circular feeling, while without it, it’s a classic blues foundation, though it isn’t exclusive to that genre. 


Songs that use this progression include “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2, “All Apologies” by Nirvana, and “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. 


This progression is a bit more complex than the other, more straightforward examples we’ve shown. The bVI means that, from the root note, we’re looking for the 6th major chord and take the whole thing down a step to the flat. 


This progression can feel pretty big and epic because of the space between the first and second chords, but still satisfying and fun to listen to. Just go jam out to Everybody by the Backstreet Boys if you don’t believe us.


In Conclusion


Chord progressions can be a really great place to start when you’re writing, and with so many progressions already outlined by popular music, it’s easy to find one that fits the idea you have in your head. 


Don’t feel like you’re ripping off someone by using the same progression as them, though, because everyone is sharing these chords. It’s what you build on top of the chords that make it sound like your own. 


Explore all of the different progressions provided in the Unison MIDI Chord pack, and you’ll be writing your next big track in no time.





How Chords and Keys Impact Emotion in Music |


A Look at Major 7th Chords – the ‘prettiest’ and most optimistic sounding of all |


Roman Numeral Analysis in Music |




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