For example I am making a 16 bar chord progression for a verse of a song and choose to use the I , IV , V chords of a major scale.. How can I put these chords in a nice rythm so they sound good and how long should each chord be played ideally?

  • It's really up to you and how the song feels. If it is a slow song, you may hold one chord for many bars or if it is a fast song you may change chords twice a bar.
    – Dom
    Feb 16, 2014 at 15:59
  • There are a couple of close votes on this, because as it's phrased, answers have to be mostly opinion-based. If you re-phrased it along the lines of "How long are chords usually played, and how does the speed of change affect the mood of the music", or something like that, then answers could be a little more objective.
    – naught101
    Feb 17, 2014 at 0:24
  • Depends on the melody and the rhythm.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 18, 2014 at 16:19

6 Answers 6


This is an artistic decision for you to make!

The speed at which chords change is called harmonic rhythm. There are songs that change chords twice a measure and get a hectic energy for it, and pieces that change chords once every two or four measures, drawing out each chord's sound dramatically. In addition, as with regular rhythms, harmonic rhythms can be syncopated so that they start a partial measure (sometimes beat) before or after a measure change.

Each harmonic rhythm has its own effect. You know better than anyone else which rhythms would be best in your situation.


Generally speaking, 4 bars is as long as a song will stay on one chord.Even at that the single chord can sound tedious, so towards the end it is often changed, sometimes by adding a 7th. Other songs get away with only 2 chords, but change every bar or 2 bars. 'Dance the night away' and 'Jambalaya' come to mind. Theoretically the concept seems boring, but they are both popular songs.If you do stay on one chord, try to move the melody around, and conversely, maybe keep a more static tune when the changes are frequent.

Listen carefully to the hundreds/thousands of songs that employ only 3 chords - almost inevitably the I, IV and V, and you'll get ideas. Don't think you'll come up with something revolutionary - it's more than likely all been done ! But it won't stop another load of 'three - chord - wonders' being written in the next few years !

  • That depends on the style of music. Drum and bass at 180bpm might have chords playing for 8 bars, so 7-8 seconds. I think you're probably better off thinking about how long a chord plays in terms of time, rather than beat/bars. Also, a more laid back song will tend to play chords for longer.
    – naught101
    Feb 17, 2014 at 0:21
  • @Tim This answer is misleading, there are thousands of songs that NEVER change chords or hold a single chord for 24+ bars.
    – Fergus
    Feb 17, 2014 at 7:57
  • @Fergus - please explain, as I'm confused. 'Thousands of songs that NEVER change chords' - I can't even think of ONE !
    – Tim
    Feb 17, 2014 at 8:52
  • 1
    Almost every funk song ever written. Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin. Run through the Jungle by CCR. Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood. Exodus by Bob Marley. Many modal jazz songs (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_jazz). Showbiz Kids by Steely Dan. The Beat goes on by Sonny and Cher.
    – Fergus
    Feb 17, 2014 at 9:16
  • @Fergus - thanks for that - I'd never realised. Nor played any of them, otherwise I'd have known... In theory it sounds like it'll never work. Wrong !!
    – Tim
    Feb 17, 2014 at 13:28

I agree with other posters that it is important to make this decision for yourself, no one here can have the "right" answer. Having said that, here are a few progressions to consider:

  1. I - IV - V - I
  2. I - V - IV - I
  3. I - I - IV - V
  4. I - I - V - IV
  5. I - IV - I - V
  6. I - V - IV - V
  7. I - IV - V - IV
  8. V - IV - I - I
  9. V - V - IV - I

There are a few ways to "categorize" these progressions, including those that start with I (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) vs those which start with V (8,9), those in which the I chord appears twice (1,2,3,4,5,8) vs those in which the V chord appears twice (6,9) or the IV chord appears twice (7), those which "cycle" through the chords (1,2,3,4,8,9) vs those which "oscillate" between certain chords (5,6,7). These are not all the possibilities, just a few popular ones to get you thinking about your options.

So that takes care of the "order" of the chords, but what about the "length" of each chord? I would suggest starting with one chord per bar, which means all the above phrases are 4 bar phrases. Then just repeat each phrase 4 times (for a total of 16 bars). Depending on your tempo, if the harmonic movement feels to slow or too fast, just half or double the number of bars for each chord respectively.

Notice here that each chord is always played for the same number of bars. This is the simplest approach to song structure you can take. As you become more comfortable with how to put chords together, you can experiment with giving certain chords more measures than others. It doesn't change the harmony so much as it changes the feel of the song, the tension and release, the emotional impact and the story you are trying to tell. So that means there are really no rules! Just do whatever you think sounds best.

  • most songs start with I. It pretty well states 'this is home'. For a beginner it is a safe place to start, for that reason.Your nos 8and 9, starting on V, will give a feel that it's written in Mixolydian,(unless the V is an anacrucis) and could mess the OP up.Think Sweet Home Alabama - there are still arguments as to whether it's in D or G.
    – Tim
    Feb 16, 2014 at 17:43
  • @Tim I agree that "safest" place to start for a "beginner" is with the I chord. But I would say Sweet Home Alabama is in the key of G even though it starts on the 5 chord (in this case D) - as do many songs. I believe Freebird (by same artist/band) is also in the key of G (starts on G) even though both use F maj chord which is an example of using a flat VII as a substitute for the diminished natural 7th. Otherwise all the chords in Sweet Home Alabama are in the key of G. I personally cannot reconcile both an F maj AND C being in key of D so I don't know how that argument holds water. Feb 11, 2015 at 17:35
  • @RockinCowboy - exactly. With D,C and G it's squarely in G.But so many bands reckon it's in D. Though there's a quick F that pops in. Allman Bros have been known to make the last chord D, so maybe they're unsure as well... Bit like 'Pretty Woman' is in E. No, it's not!!
    – Tim
    Feb 11, 2015 at 17:43
  • @Tim - I think it's common for untrained musicians to hold the incorrect belief that whatever chord a song starts with identifies the key. I know better (Sweet Home Alabama being a prime example) so I try to educate folks to that possibility when the opportunity arises. I find the LAST chord of a song to be a more reliable indicator as most songs resolve to the home key at the end. Even Sweet Home Alabama when played live ends with F C G (fades out on the studio recording so you never hear the end). Feb 11, 2015 at 18:06
  • @RockinCowboy - there's a version on track that finishes with at least 12 bars on D. Still doesn't make it in D though... Last chord is a good yardstick, as is what 3 chords are prevalent.
    – Tim
    Feb 11, 2015 at 18:13

Chords of I, IV and V are in certain relations among themselves.

They are the "strongest representatives" of the three harmonic "functions": the tonic, the subdominant, and the dominant. It's because their base notes are all a fifth apart. Therefore, each of them is explicit in their meaning. If you think in functional terms, such as, e.g. "calmness", "movement", "tension", it may be more obvious which "rhythm" to use. But, "harmonic rhythm" may not be the same as putting the chords into a "nice rhythm", and depending on other factors, you could make a lot of rhythmic content on only one chord, which introduces purely rhythmic tension, which can also underline the overall tension.

You also have to pay attention to the cadenza, or the ending of the chord progression, or the progression of the phrase: it could end on the V, as well as on the I.


It depends on the genre of music you are playing. If you are playing reggae music, you will play the chords very quickly, you will just "strike" them it must be like 1/16th or 1/8th. If you are playing soul music it will be longer. Ihe s believe it's all about feeling and groove, just play as you feel them. Music is art. Theory is important but there is also a subjective part of the art that gives you a certain freedom. If not, all songs would sound the same.


i agree with previous posters that there is no hard and fast rule on how long and how much each chord should be played. If the song is upbeat or high spirited, i might play the chords twice in a bar, or if a part of the lyrics needs an emphasis i could even play the chords at each beat. Sometimes there is a dominant prolongation that can encompass more than 3 bars. To avoid monotony, i would vary the chords - eg. Using V7 and/or V7sus4 after the dominant triad. Sometimes iii or even #iv dim can be substituted for V. Hope this helps☺

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