Ed Sheeran is one of the most successful songwriters of the past few years, so naturally, many people want to learn how he can write so many good songs. In the songwriting course, I show many tools and techniques that he is using in his songs, including chord progressions, melodies, rhythm, and many more. In this article, I want to write about the system he is using to make chord progressions. For that, I analyzed 16 of his most successful songs, so keep in mind that this is not statistics of all his songs.
At first sight, any qualified musician would say that these songs are really simple because they contain only four chords, in fact, these are those famous-infamous four chords that are used in hundreds of songs. But if we take a closer look, we can realize that there are more details even in the most simple songs. Yes, these songs are simple. But it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to make songs like these – otherwise, many more people would write songs like Ed Sheeran. In fact, I believe it’s harder to write good songs with fewer elements in them.
What chords does Ed Sheeran use?
First of all, Ed Sheeran uses only diatonic chords in his songs. I haven’t found any song he wrote that would contain borrowed chords. This means that he is only using chords from within one key. And he is using only the first six chords, so he never uses the VIIdim chord. For example, these are the first six diatonic chords in the key of C major: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am.
Many people know, and as the chart below shows, most of the time, he is using the four most popular chords (I – IV – V – VIm), like hundreds of other songwriters. But if we take a closer look, the details are more nuanced. Obviously, he doesn’t use only those four chords. In fact, there are songs that don’t contain the “I” or the “V” chords. On the other hand, ALL of his songs contain the “IV” and the “VIm” chords. The latter is interesting because this is exactly what I have found in Ariana Grande’s songs.
So while many people would say to use those four chords if you want to make a hit song, I would say that you should use the “IV” and the “VIm” chords in your song because those are the most used chords in hit songs. Yes, ALL Ed Sheeran songs contain the “IV” and the “VIm”.
Number of chords in a song
We know that most hit songs use four chords, especially those famous-infamous four chords. And of course, we can see that the majority of his songs are using exactly four chords. BUT, he is using those four chords (I, IV, V, VIm) in only about 50% of his songs! On top of that, he doesn’t use these four chords in his most popular song “Shape Of You”.
The chart below shows how many of Ed Sheeran’s songs contain 3, 4, or 5 chords. We can see that the majority of his songs contain 4 chords. But sometimes he varies up by using only 3 chords, making the chord progression more simple, and sometimes he uses 5 chords, making the chord progression a little bit more sophisticated. Either way, I haven’t found a song from him that would contain more than 5 chords!
Three-chord songs are “Happier“, “Beautiful People“, and “Bad Habits“. Five-chord songs are “Overpass Graffity“, “I See Fire“, and “Thinking Out Loud“. All the other songs contain four chords. (From the 16 songs I analyzed.)
And there is even more into this. While the majority of his songs contain four chords, and half of the songs contain those famous four chords, he doesn’t necessarily use them in the same order in a song. One of the ways he varies up is by using a different chord progression in different parts of the song.
One songwriting technique is to use the same chord progression in the entire song (verse / pre-chorus / chorus) like a loop. And these kinds of songs can be performed with a looper pedal. And about 60% of Ed Sheeran’s songs are like these. But about 40% of his songs are not.
He changes the chord progression of the parts in many of his songs, so there’s a different chord progression in the verse, a different one in the pre-chorus, and also a different one in the chorus. So even though he might be using the same four chords, they are in a different order in different parts of the song. For example, look at the chord progression of the song “Perfect”:
I – VIm – IV – V
I – VIm – IV – V
VIm – IV – I – V
The IIm chord
The “IIm” chord is used less frequently in hit songs, and we can see from the chart above that he is also using it sparingly. But sometimes this chord can make your chord progression a little bit less overused. And keep in mind that the most popular Ed Sheeran song “Shape Of You” contains this chord! Take a look at the chord progression below. It looks like he is using the “IIm” chord instead of the “I”.
VIm – IIm – IV – V
Shape Of You
On the other hand, let’s take a look at the chord progression of “Overpass Graffiti“. Again, the chord progression of the chorus resembles those four famous chords, but this time, instead of using a “VIm” chord, he is using the “IIm”.
I – V – IIm – IV
The secret pattern behind successful songs
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About the Author
Producer, songwriter at Bánhidy András, and Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of The Rhythm Code.