Avoiding Circle/Basic Chord Progressions?

Whenever I compose music, my melodies tend to gravitate towards the predictable I-V-vi-IV in Major, or i-VI-III-VII in minor. Is there something I can do to avoid having such basic or predictable chord progressions, or is this not a problem?

I assume that most people who listen to music won’t mind or can’t tell the difference, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not being creative if I don’t throw in some obscure or unpredictable chords. Moving down a fifth or up a forth seems to be the most “stable” way to create a progression (hence the circle progression), but after seeing Axis of Awesome’s “Four Chord Song,” I feel like I want to do something different, yet still sounds good.

I’d say it’s not a problem, remember the saying “if it’s not broken don’t fix it”.

You may feel it’s not very creative to use those particular progressions often, but what makes the difference is the arrangement of the song, that’s where you can be the most creative in my opinion.

You mentioned Axis of awesome and i know how you feel in that respect, however it really comes down to what you’re trying to achieve. Do you want people to enjoy your music and have it be very popular or do you want to attempt being a pioneer and risking your popularity?

Don’t limit yourself by saying I can’t/shouldn’t use a chord progression because it’s already been done a lot. Do what you like to do at the end of the day. Also the message that axis of awesome bring to the table is not “it’s bad to use that chord progression” but rather “Music is simpler than you may think at first glance” so don’t feel bad about using a particular progression just because it’s popular. I hope this helps in some way.

Thanks! that’s the answer I was hoping for and, frankly, it makes a lot of sense. One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Wayne Chase’s “How Music Really Works,” which explains how breaking conventions such as the cadence can lead to “non-human” music that doesn’t sound good because its so “out there” so to speak. There’s a lot more to an original composition than just the chord progression; perhaps melody and sound design are more crucial to “good” music than the chord progressions themselves. I definetly don’t want to sacrifice listenability at the expense of enjoyment, and there are a lot more places to go with a “traditional” chord progression in terms of harmony and development than a more avant grade progression.


As @fealow said, there is no shame in using progressions that have already been done before. In fact, I’m blown away by songs that find new and interesting ways of using tried and true progressions. It seems like every month a new song pops up on the radio that uses some variation of I → V → vi → IV. Let It Go from the Frozen soundtrack has won numerous awards and is one of the most memorable Disney songs a long time (at least the part that goes I → V → vi → IV is).

That being said, there are lots of things you can do to spice up your chord progressions. Here’s a couple of tips for you to start:

  1. Try incorporating ii or iii into your progressions (our book, Hooktheory I, discusses these chords in chapter IV). The ii chord is easy to use because it fits almost anywhere. It’s a great replacement for vi or IV, and is an excellent pre-cadence chord to V. The iii chord is also very easy to use, because it has a very specific continuation: usually IV or vi. To see how various combinations of these chords are used in real songs, Hooktheory Trends is a great resource.

  2. Try incorporating inversions. Great chords to invert are I and V to start. For example, instead of I → V → vi, try: I → V6 → vi for a different take on a similar idea. The I6 chord is great for expanding I: I → I6 → IV, or for bridging ii and IV: ii → I6 → IV. Again, Hooktheory Trends is a great way to explore these chords.

  3. Try varying up the rhythms of your progressions. Instead of hanging on each chord for 4 beats, try playing a 4-beat chord followed by 2 2-beat chords. By varying when your chords change you can achieve a different sound even if you’re using the same chords.

Happy songwriting!

In addition to what has already been said, strictly speaking of chord progressions these are some suggestions that can be useful:

  1. @Ryan commented on using ii and iii. These are diatonic chords and provide interesting alternatives. However, you could also try the III chord, which functions as V/vi → vi. This one naturally resolves to vi, but it is an interesting alternative to V. For instance, iv → IV → I → V could become iv → IV → I → V/vi
  2. Similarly, ii can replace vi in the basic progression. This produces ii → IV → I → V, an interesting Lydian progression.
  3. Sevenths don’t drastically alter the essence of the progression but can overall add some colour to the song. A seventh chord in third inversion (usually V42) is a very powerful chord. Try using it after IV in the bridge of a song: IV → V42 → iii → vi or IV → V42 → I6
  4. Try combining two plagal cadences for a resolution: IV/IV → IV → I (or IV → I → V, which is the same but admits less expansion of chords.
  5. Try sorting the same four chords in a different order. I → V → vi → IV, vi → IV → I → V and IV → I → V → vi are the most used ones, but what about the lesser-known V → vi → IV → I, IV → I → vi → V, iv → V → IV → I or vi → I → V → IV? Strictly speaking they are more of the same, yet they produce different effects and moods in a song. My point here is to show the incredible versatility and flexibility the four chords have.

Wow, you know so much about music theory… I’m very impressed.
Something little I want to add: The vi - I - V - IV is a quite popular progression nowadays, e.g.:

•Reckoning Song (One Day) - Asaf Avidan

•Wrecking Ball - Miley Cyrus

•Counting Stars - OneRepublic

•Hard Out Here - Lily Allen

•Down by the Water - The Decemberists

•Good Feeling - Flo Rida

•I Hate This Part - The Pussycat Dolls

•Levels - Avicii

•All Good Things (Come to an End) - Nelly Furtado

•Hate (I Really Don’t Like You) - Plain White T’s

•The Bad Touch - Bloodhound Gang

•Another’s Arms - Coldplay (ii i.p.v. IV)

•Jerk It Out - Ceasars

•‘74-’75 - The Connels

•Call on Me - Eric Prydz

•Timber - Pitbull feat. Ke$ha

•Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You) - Enrique Iglesias feat. Ludacris, DJ Frank E

•Polly - Nirvana

•Children of the Damned - Iron Maiden (vi - I - V - IV,V)

•I Could Have Lied - Red Hot Chili Peppers

ii → IV → I → V, isn’t that a Dorian progression?

Different modes such as the Dorian, Phrygian, etc, are mostly just ways to express which chord is the resolution chord. For example, That progression that you mention (except with a vi replacing the I) is used in the MW3 theme by Brian Tyler which I put as D Dorian but could easily just by written as C major, A minor, whatever have you.