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I recently wrote a chord progression for a song that I am working on. I just had the basic melody in my head and found the chords on the guitar, but I can’t seem to fit the progression within any single key and, because of that, I have really been struggling to finish the song. I would really appreciate any help figuring out this dilemma. I understand some music theory, but studying modes and key signatures has only confused me further because the progression doesn’t fit into any specific mode or single key.

Ok, so all of the chords are major and the progression goes as follows;

(First Pattern, played through twice) F# major A major B major F# major

(Second Pattern) D major A major C major G major D major A major B major

After the last B major chord, the progression returns to the top. The timing and rhythm is not super basic, but I can break it down and tab it out if anyone thinks that would help. I just figured that it would be better to start with just the chords and then I can include the rhythm or whatever else later if any of you think that it would help.

Thank you very much ahead of time for any help that you can offer.

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    Melody is kind of important too. Can you post a recording of you playing and singing it? – b3ko Dec 3 '18 at 21:02
  • You combinations of Major chords may not all be in the same key and that's okay. Like b3ko said, melody is important. Chords support melody so the melody would really specify the key in my opinion. By the way are you playing power chords or full major chords with the 3rds in them? – ggcg Dec 3 '18 at 22:38
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    I really like this progression. The second section has some nice complexity and deviates more from a key center, but the first section has a pretty solid tonal center. I'll try to put together an answer. I'm trying to come up with examples of songs with the same I-bIII-IV progression, but I'm coming up blank right now. There are tons though--I'll try to edit that into my answer later. – jdjazz Dec 3 '18 at 23:29
  • I don’t currently have any lyrics, but here is a link to a YouTube video of me playing what I have so far. I really liked the chord progression when I figured it out, but since I couldn’t really break it down and explain it without all your help, I had kind of been stymied working on the rest of the song. youtu.be/qoYlykJ9ROo – user54707 Dec 4 '18 at 1:45
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    @user54707, that progression sounds great. Keep up the composing--that one is a hit. – jdjazz Dec 4 '18 at 3:47
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I really like this progression, and I think it's useful of thinking about the whole thing as focusing around an F♯ tonal center. Major or minor? It's a little hard to say. The notes that are compatible with every single chord are F♯, B, E, so there's room for both major and minor. The resolution is to F♯Maj, but these progressions could very well have resolved to F♯min instead.

Here's my overall summary: the song is in F♯min, but with the i chord replaced with F♯Maj instead of F♯min. The first section draws on the family of chords in F♯ Dorian minor (with the i chord replaced by F♯Maj), and the second section draws on the family of chords in F♯ Aeolian minor (again with the i chord replaced by F♯Maj).

To start out, I think it's worth emphasizing that a song in F♯ Major can contain an A♮, and this makes sense on a theoretical level. Granted, this might seem to go against classical music theory, since A♮ is the flat third and any major scale should contain the major third. However, the F♯ Major Blues scale contains the notes F♯-A♮-A♯-C♯-D♯, where A♮ is a blues note. Your progression (and many other similar progressions) builds off this idea. The second chord of the song (AMaj) is built from that blues note (A♮), and that note (A♮) will work melodically over every chord in the song. This makes F♯min pentatonic (F♯-A-B-C♯-E) a great candidate for soloing/writing melodies. That one scale would sound good over the entire first progression, and it could give some nice continuity to the melodic phrases. (As an aside, it would also sound great to play F ♯Maj pentatonic - A Maj pentatonic - B Maj pentatonic, but this isn't the cohesive description you're seeking. Or you could even play F♯ Maj pentatonic over m. 2-3 and F♯ Maj pentatonic over m. 1 & 4.)

So, I would describe the first section as I-♭III-IV-I, with the note that I-♭III doesn't really disrupt the presence of a single tonal center.

As for the second section, I think it mostly fits in this same idea of F♯Maj/min. Just as F♯Maj-AMaj-BMaj-F♯Maj sounds great, so would DMaj-EMaj-F♯Maj. (This ♭VI-♭VII-I progression is part of the Mario Bros. theme song.) However, two chords (CMaj-GMaj) are an exception. These chords don't support an F♯ min pentatonic melody, and they don't really fit into a description of the song as being in F♯ Maj. Accordingly, their function can be explained as a parallel movement. Essentially, you're repeating the DMaj-AMaj (♭VI-♭III) progression, just down a whole step. That sort of technique sounds great when well-placed, as it is here, and it's a good tool to have in one's bag of composing tricks. So I'd describe the second section as: [♭VI-♭III in F♯]-[♭VI-♭III in E]-[♭VI-♭III in F♯]-IV.

Overall, here's how I'd suggest thinking about this:

  • 1st section is I-♭III-IV-I in F♯
  • 2nd section is ♭VI-♭III-[♭VI-♭III in E]-♭VI-♭III-IV in F♯

If you want to go deeper into other chordal options, you can think of it like this:

  • 1st section is in F♯ Dorian minor, but with the i chord replaced with F♯Maj
  • 2nd section is in F♯ Aeolian minor, but with the i chord replaced with F♯Maj

Accordingly, other chordal options available to you might include any progression in F♯ Dorian minor or F♯ Aeolian minor, but with the i chord replaced with F♯Maj. For example:

  • DMaj-EMaj-F♯Maj
  • BMaj-EMaj-F♯Maj
  • BMaj-C♯Maj-F♯Maj
  • Bmin-C♯min-F♯Maj
  • etc.
  • Wow! Thank you so much. I had really been struggling to put that all together, but I really liked the pattern so I didn’t want to abandon it. And you are definitely right, the G major was the chord that I was having the most difficulty contextualizing. That is a really awesome explanation, I am still working on my theory and it helps a lot to have someone actually explain it in a real application instead of just hypothetically. I am stoked now to get back to work on it. Thanks again – user54707 Dec 4 '18 at 1:25
  • I picked out a bridge section that I think might work with the rest of the progression and I wanted to see if you thought so too. So the new section starts with the same pattern as the second part of the progression (just shifted up a full step) and then it resolves back to the F#. The new part would be inserted once or twice as a bridge connecting the end of the 2nd part back to the 1st and would go: E minor B major D major A major E minor B major F# major – user54707 Dec 4 '18 at 18:43
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So, we have all major chords...

Part A

||:F# | A  | B  | F#:||

Part B

 | D  | A  | C  | G  |
 | D  | A  | B  |

I think you could analyze it...

Part A

F#: I bIII IV I

Part B

D: I V  bVII IV   
D: I V F#: IV`

Basically, you have two sections with two tonal centers (keys) and each section has a borrowed chord. The bIII and the bVII are borrowed from the minor modes of the respective keys. Some might like to say the B part is using the Mixolydian mode to get the flat ^7 triad or borrowing bVII from the Mixolydian.

There is no reason to bring in classical style modulation ideas like pivot chords and closely related keys. You can move directly into any key you like.

I think it's worth noting that you use a descending 4th root progression for several of your changes: B to F#, D to A, and C to G but not a descending fifth progression. I find that is pretty common in rock music. Borrowing bVII is common in rock too. Also the roots of your part A - F# A B outline the beginning of a minor pentatonic scale. Playing major chord on those roots in power chord fashion is also something I think you will find in rock music.

Another thing I noticed is all the chord roots are from the D Mixolydian mode - excluding on the E - D (E) F# G A B C.

If you re-analyize part A as...

B: V bVII I V

...and the transition from part B back to part A as...

D: I  V  B: V 

...you get all the chord labeled from the Mixolydian modes of B and D.

All together...

Part A

B: V bVII I V

Part B

D: I  V  bVII IV   
D: I  V  B: V 

Now we can see a pattern common to both parts: I V bVII

I think I like this second option better, because of the pattern, and because rock music is so heavily flavored by the Mixolydian mode.

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