Music Theory: Arranging Two-Part Chord Progressions

Ever wanted some tips on how to effectively come up with two-part chord progression arrangements? Lynda Arnold cuts through the choices to help you creatively evolve your song.  

One of the challenges I've come across in my writing process and the writing process of my production students is creating a two-part chord progression arrangement. It's often easy to come up with a series of two, three or four chords for a loop and create an effective groove for part A. But, when it comes time to transition into the next part, whether it is a 'chorus' of a pop song or 'part B' of an instrumental arrangement, it's not always so intuitive where to take the song. For one thing, there are a myriad of choices and that can be intimidating!

When I talk about 'Part A' and 'Part B' in this article, you can think of those parts as a 'Verse' and 'Chorus' in a standard pop song for example. There are many genres of music and styles of arranging. For the purposes of this article, I am going to explore creative ways to evolve your song harmonically from one part to the next and utilize chord progressions effectively to create more dynamic arrangements. Hopefully these examples will help you come up with creative ways to solve harmonic challenges in your arrangements, no matter the type music you create.

The 'Part A' Progression

Let's start with a simple 'Part A' 8-Bar Progression in C Major:  I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-V. This translates to C, F, C, F, C, F, C, G. The I IV tonic/subdominant progression is one of the most common. You can find this in the verse of John Lennon's classic song, 'Imagine.' What's great about this progression is simplicity. We have lots of room to evolve from this harmonic base. I throw in a dominant V chord at the end of the progression to help create tension for our transition to part B. 

Here's the Part A Chord progression played over a simple beat: 

Part A Chord Progression I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-V

As we move forward from here, keep in mind that a strong melody often dictates the chord progression and its rhythmic movement. This is something I can cover in another article. The examples in this article will be helpful from the standpoint of not necessarily having a melody and working on the chord progression only. It's also important to note that I use chord inversions and voice leading between chords, not just root progression chords.

Let's Look at Some Options...

Stay away from I chord in Part B

If we stay in the key of C Major without 'borrowing' a chord from another key, there are 7 basic chords to choose from when building a basic chord progression:

I C Major

ii D Minor

iii E Minor

IV F Major

V G Major

vi A Minor

vii B Diminished

The Part A progression relies heavily on the Tonic or I chord so one option for Part B would be to avoid the I chord entirely and experiment with the others. Here's one example using four chords to create Part B: ii-V-ii-IV-ii-vi-ii-V. This progression relies heavily on the subdominant ii chord alternating between IV, vi and the dominant V Chords. Since I avoid the I chord, there is a lifting or traveling feeling to Part B. Think of this as traveling from our home base and not coming to rest until Part A begins again. To make things more interesting, I change up the rhythm a bit and hold the ii chord in the beginning of the progression instead of change each chord at the beginning of the measure. Also, I create quick changes between chords. 

Listen to an example of Part A into this Part B progression and then back to Part A:

Here's another option with the I chord substituted for the IV and vi chords in the previous example. You will hear a distinct difference in the 'feeling' of the progression between using the IV and vi in the first example and the I chord in the second. 

Part B - ii-V-ii-I-ii-I-ii-V

Get Deceptive with the vi chord

Usually, you'll find a dominant chord (V or vii) or even a tonic chord (I) at the end of a section or cadence. In a 'deceptive' cadence, the section ends on a vi chord, creating a feeling of longing or suspension. This cadence is used a lot in classical music and modern film music but can also be used effectively in songwriting. The 4-chord progression you will hear below is played two times over 8 bars.

Part B IV-I-V-vi-IV-I-V-vi

iii as alternate tonic chord

The iii chord is considered an alternate tonic chord in a harmonized scale and is an interesting chord to try instead of the I chord. But, since it's minor and used in conjunction with the vi chord in the progression below, Part B gets a more reflective feel before ending on the dominant to bring the song back to the happy feeling of Part A.

Part B vi-iii-IV-iii-vi-iii-IV-V

Time to Borrow

If you're bored with the 7 basic chord options available in the key you're in, start playing around with substituting chords from other tonalities that sound good. Often, I stumble upon chord progressions accidently while jamming. When I hit something I like, I figure out what key I'm centered in and what key the 'borrowed' chords are likely from to complete my harmonic and melodic picture. In the example below, I used a Major III chord, which is the dominant or V chord in A minor. A minor is the relative minor of C Major so that substitution works well. In the second half of Part B, I re-establish the home key and cadence before going back to Part A.

Part B Borrowed Chord  vi-III-vi-III-IV-I-IV-V

Find Your Chords!

Coming up with harmonic arrangements takes time and practice. My suggestion is allow yourself to experiment at the keyboard, either in a key or freely, to find chord progressions you resonate with. You'll also find inspiration by studying scores or lead sheets from favorite artists. There's no shame in mimicking other artists ideas' and then finding your own variations. This is a great way to develop your ear. As you experiment, you may hear the perfect melody while playing the chords and then you know you'll have something special.

Lynda Arnold is a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (voice, flute, piano, and guitar), and electronic musician/sound artist who has been producing, performing, and developing her own sound for over 12 years as ‘Divasonic;’ an ethereal, song driven electronic music project with multiple album and single releases on labels EMI... Read More


Could you clarify something for me regarding the chord substitution (use of E major or III) in the section "Time to Borrow"? Since Am is the relative minor of Cmajor, does the substitution work because one can use not only the natural Am scale but also to use chords from the A melodic minor or A harmonic minor scales? Those have Emaj as the dominant chord. Thanks.
Lynda Arnold
Hi There! I think there are a few ways to explain the same concept. the E Major chord can also be thought of as a secondary dominant as well. My intention for this article was to bring in a chord that is NOT in the basic harmonized C Major scale. The E Major chord happens to be in the relative A minor harmonic minor harmonized scale and is related to C major but not originally in the C Major Key, so it can be thought of as borrowed.
Thanks. I just read your entry on secondary dominants and I have a better idea. This is a helpful information. I was aware of some of the additional chords available from the other harmonized minor keys when writing in a minor key, but this is a good reminder that I can use it in a major key, too. Thanks for the speedy reply. And, by the way, I just today started following you on twitter. :)
Greg in MI
You've written a very concise lesson that answered a couple of questions I recently asked. Last week I was searching for tutorials about chord progressions and emotional content. Today I was looking up whether or not the two chord progression relied on by jazz soloists is often set away from the tonic during improvisation, and I landed here due to "two-part" in the title. Your lesson on part B presented more useful information on the power of chord progressions to express emotion than all the drivel I found last week on the topic, even though it isn't the subject. ("For happy use major chords. For sad use minor chords. Write in a minor key for sadness, etc.) (Okay, Einstein. So why is "If You Could Read My Mind" written in G major?) (And who uses all minor chords? Certainly not Handel or Bach.) ( And why is "Moondance" such a happy song?)

Moving to a different set of chords for a chorus or second part goes without saying, but I never considered writing around the tonic as a useful device for heightening the sense of movement. Then there's that pesky iii chord. Best description I've read on its functionality yet. Thank you. Now my search continues for the answer to today's question.

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