Learning how to resolve a chord progression can be one of the most potent tools in your songwriting arsenal.
If done properly, it can make your songs feel cohesive, satisfying, and above all, interesting.
But how do you do it?
In this article, we’ll dive into the wonderful world of music theory.
If you are new to this subject, worry not- we’ll cover all the basic terminology needed to understand even more advanced harmonic concepts.
Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a better insight into how you can resolve your chord progressions and take your songwriting to the next level.
Let’s start with the basics.
What Does It Mean To Resolve a Chord?
You may have heard about this phrase before but weren’t exactly sure about what it really means.
To put it simply, resolving a chord progression means “bringing it home,” so to speak.
In musical terminology, it usually refers to the chord progression returning to its tonic or home key.
When done right, it can give your listeners a satisfying feeling of content and met expectations.
To fully understand chord resolution, it’s important to demystify a straightforward concept behind it.
Throughout the centuries, musicians have been playing around with consonance and dissonance.
In layman’s terms, the consonant sound is the one that sounds pleasing and stable and a dissonant, one that causes a sense of disharmony and tension.
These patterns of tension and release are ingrained into most of the music we’ve heard in our life.
By playing dissonant chords followed by their related consonant ones, we “release” or “resolve” the tension created by the dissonance and thus leave our listeners with a sense of relief that most people respond well to.
There are countless ways to resolve a chord, and the “intensity of resolution” is highly dependent on the genre of music in question.
For example, jazz and classical musicians have a vastly different impression about what a proper resolution is.
Every genre has its own unique harmonic language, and the idea of resolution is changed accordingly.
However, some common concepts are being used regardless of the genre.
The Most Common Chord Resolution
This approach to resolving chords has been devised in olden times (around the 16th century or so) and has been used continuously ever since.
The idea is to place the most dissonant chord at the end of the chord progression and afterward give it a nice conclusion with the most consonant one.
The most dissonant and tense chord you can play in any scale is called the dominant. Contrary to that, the most consonant chord we have in any scale is called the tonic.
These chords are more often called by their scale degrees.
Since the dominant is found on the 5th scale degree, it’s usually referred to as the “five chord.”
The tonic is the first scale degree, and it’s accordingly called the “one chord.”
Speaking of scale degrees- they are basically numberings of notes in the scale relative to the tonic.
So, in C Major, C is the 1st degree, D is the 2nd, E is the 3rd, etc.
To give you a practical example, let’s take a simple, generic chord progression in the key of C major.
We’ll start with the C Major, then play A minor followed by F Major and G Major, and back to the home key of C Major.
Now, if you slow things down and analyze the sound of each chord, you’ll notice how it gets progressively tenser with the tension culminating with G Major.
The G major is the dominant or five chord, and the C major is the tonic or one chord.
You’ll notice how that resolution of G to C sounds like the whole musical journey went back home.
You can apply this principle in any key, whether it be major or minor. You have to find out which key your progression is in.
Find the fifth scale degree, and follow that chord with the home key or the tonic.
This is the most widely used chord resolution. In one way or another, it’s found in 90% of today’s music, so you can’t go wrong if you apply it in your chord progressions as well.
Some Common Variations Of “Dominant To Tonic”
Although there’s nothing wrong with the good old v chord to one chord, it can get a bit too repetitive and boring if all the resolutions land on the same chord.
For this reason, we can use alternative resolutions to keep our song fresh and exciting.
All the degrees of the scale are interconnected, but some of them sound more alike than others. This is how chord substitutions came to be. We have three major chord groups:
Tonic group (I, III, and VI)
Dominant group (V and VII)
Subdominant group (II and IV)
In the key of C major, we can take the III (E minor) and VI (A minor) and assign them a tonic function.
This means that you can resolve G major to either of these two, and it will still “feel like home.”
Truth be told, it won’t sound as strong as the real tonic (C Major), but that’s sometimes desirable even.
Likewise, we can use our 7th scale degree and have it act as a dominant. In the C major scale, that chord is B diminished chord.
You can see how our resolution options went up from a single dominant to a tonic idea.
You can freely combine and explore different resolutions- seven chord to one chord sounds amazing (especially minor keys). Five chord to six chord sounds great, especially if you want to modulate to a relative minor key.
All of this gains an additional layer with the introduction of the subdominant function.
The subdominant function acts like a bridge that softens the gap between the tonic and the dominant.
In major scales, it’s found on the 2nd (D minor in the C major scale) and 4th (F major in the C major scale) scale degree with the 4th being the main subdominant and the 2nd being its substitute.
Strangely enough, these subdominant chords can act as dominant ones in certain situations.
Although by themselves, they won’t have the same “gravitational pull” towards the tonic chord as a real dominant chord, they can still perfectly land in the home key and evoke that feeling of release.
If you play F major followed by C major, this resolution might remind you of the gospel, blues, and rock and roll.
Although it is mostly used in these genres, it’s not uncommon for this resolution to appear in classical music. In classical terminology, it’s called a “deceptive cadence,” usually found in church hymns.
I love this resolution and often use it to evoke “Hallelujah” vibes in my songs.
Using Unrelated Chords As Resolutions
Resolutions that we’ve covered so far are only a tiny part of all the possibilities that could grace your songs.
So far, we have focused on more common approaches to resolving chords, but there’s a whole world of harmonic language based on resolving chords to completely unrelated keys.
Although this topic is too complex to cover in a single section fully, let’s take a look at some of the cool ideas you can implement in your songwriting right now.
I really enjoy throwing in a cool sound when the context allows it to resolve to a mediant chord.
This means that if you have your standard major chord progression (C major, A minor, F major, G major to C) instead of going back to the home key, you resolve the progression a minor 3rd up (B flat major).
It sounds sudden and unexpected but somehow still feels like it belongs there.
A Great Little Trick
There’s also an “out there” sound that you can get by; instead of resolving to a major tonic, you resolve to a minor chord half-step up.
The C major key would have a chord of C# minor.
The idea behind it is that both of these chords have the same third interval (e note), so you can use it to your advantage if the melody allows it.
It sounds quite dark and moody, but it can come in handy if the song calls for it.
The general idea behind this concept of resolving unrelated chords is to find an important note in the melody and then find a completely unrelated chord with that note in its structure (either a root, 3rd, or a 5th).
Experimenting this way should lead you to some exciting discoveries.
FAQ – How To Resolve A Chord Progression
How do you make tension chords?
Tension in the chord can be achieved by stacking intervals not found in the main structure of chords (root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th chord or ‘chord tone”). The more dissonant they are, the more tension you’re going to get out of a chord. Some nice intervals for maximum tension would be b5, b9, #9, and b13.
How do you know what chords will sound good after the tonic?
A common way of developing a chord progression after playing the tonic is to play a subdominant chord (IV or II chord) followed by a dominant back to either tonic or subdominant. Of course, this is just one among numerous ways of starting a chord progression. Always go after what feels good to you regardless of what is a “proper” way of doing it.
How do you know if a song is major or minor?
A good key indicator is usually the first, or the last chord played in the song. It isn’t always the case, but it’s a good starting point on a path to determining whether a song is in major or minor.
Which progression do you like the best?
I very much enjoy mediant chord progressions. Instead of a regular I, IV, V flow, you move harmonically using major and minor thirds. I especially enjoy minor mediants. They sound so ethereal and mysterious.
What chords to use for a sad song?
You’ll probably want to go for a minor key if you write a sad chord progression. Perhaps something like I, V, VII, IV in a minor key could be something you’re looking for.
How do you improve your chord progressions?
You can always enrich your progressions by adding tension notes to your chords. On tonic, it’s always nice to add a 9th interval or a 13th. However, you have many more options on dominant chords as you can add b9, 9, #9, b5, b13, and 13 tensions. You can also try and substitute chords of a similar function and see if they provide you with a more interesting sound.
How many bars should a chord progression be?
This is totally up to you, but a recurring pattern seems to be 4, 8, or 16 bars.
What chords go well with a minor chord?
Essentially all the chords belonging to that minor scale should go well with that minor chord.
What are the most common chord progressions?
There are specific chord progressions that a certain genre might favor more above the rest. You obviously have the 12 bar blues progression in blues, which is essentially I, IV, V dominant seventh chord played in a specific fashion. Modern pop and electronic music favor ethereal minor chord progressions or I, VI, V, IV major progression. Another one that keeps coming back in one form or another is I, III, II, VI in a major key.
If you are new to music theory, that’s probably quite a lot to take in, so maybe go through it a couple of times.
Hopefully, this will help you get your head around how to resolve a common chord progression and how you can improve your songwriting by doing so.