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How to Write Sad, Hopeful & Happy Chord Progressions

Lisa Witt  /  Songwriting / Sep 10

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In this lesson, I’ll show you how to write happy chord progressions, sad chord progressions, and hopeful chord progressions. You don’t need to be an expert to understand this lesson — beginners who are just learning how to play the piano can benefit from understanding chord progressions too!

Chord progressions are the foundation of almost every song. And the types of chords used in a progression affect how a song feels to the listener. And it’s a little more interesting than major = happy and minor = sad!


A Note About Key…

We’ll explore these progressions in the key of G major. Which means all Fs are sharped!

However, you can transpose these chords to any key you like. That’s because I’ll be using the Nashville Numbering System, which means chords are named after numbers (ie. I, V, vi) rather than names (ie. G major, D major, A minor).

You can learn more about the Nashville Numbering System here. It’s a pretty handy system to learn. In a nutshell, it just means we name chords after the scale degree they’re built on. For example, if a chord is built on the fifth note of the C major scale (G), we call it a V chord instead of a G major chord.


Happy Chord Progressions

If you guess we’ll be using major chords, you are right! Major chords have a distinctive “happy” sound.

I – IV – V

To create a happy-sounding chord progression, you can simply use the I, IV, and V chords (or 1-4-5). Each one of these chords is a major chord, and they work together in any order to create a happy sound.

You can also add energy or enthusiasm to the progression by varying the rhythm.

Woman sitting on bed next to laptop jams out happy chord progressions on a keyboard on her lap.
Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

Sad Chord Progressions

As you may have predicted, we’ll be using minor chords for our sad chord progression.

Woman in sad clown makeup leaning on a piano keyboard with hands on keys.
Photo by Hamid Tajik on Unsplash

…And to make things even sadder, we’ll start the progression with a minor chord. This tricks our ears into thinking of the minor chord as the “home base” chord.

I’ll show you a progression that starts on the vi chord, like this:

vi – IV – I – V

While there’s only one minor chord in this progression, we create a sad mood because we start with it. This is a very common progression in pop music.

Here’s another progression with two minor chords that also sounds kind of dark!

vi – iii – V – IV

Is someone cutting onions?!

Chord Progressions For Hopeful Moods

This chord progression works well with many pop songs and fits with the EDM sound.

It’s essentially a combination of the happy and sad progressions we’ve covered. This progression creates an uplifting, hopeful feeling, and it goes like this:

IV – V – vi – I

Stepping up from the major IV chord to the minor vi chord creates a sort of hopeful “lift” before we settle back into the I chord.

Takeaways

Indeed, the greatest songs use the similar ingredients (chords) to convey an emotional impact. As Leonard Cohen says…

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor falls, the major lifts…

from Leonard Cohen’s hit “Hallelujah”
Black and white portrait of Leonard Cohen in a blazer.
The greatest songwriters of all time use these same progressions. Roland Godefroy, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These are just a couple of options that you can try to experiment with when writing chord progressions for different moods. The real fun comes when you start making them your own.

Once you have your progression down, then you can start working on a melody. We have a lesson on that right here.


Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others.

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