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R&B chord progressions

I always say that looking at the chord progression is not the best way to determine the genre of a song. And you can use any chord progression in any genre. In fact, “stealing” musical elements (like chord progressions) from other genres can make your music more unique than other songs in our genre.

But still, there are certain chord progressions that are somewhat suited better for certain genres. That’s why I created this series here in our blog that elaborates on this topic.

Previously I wrote about chord progressions in reggae songs, and also about the doo-wop chord progression, now we will take a look at what chord progressions you can use if you write an r&b song.

TWO CHORDS

Usually, R&B chord progressions are very simple, so it’s perfectly OK to start writing songs using only two chords. Let’s see a few chord progressions that are using only two chords in a song.

One of the examples of a two-chord song is “White Iverson” from Post Malone. The whole song is using only I and IV (F and C in the key of C major):

F – C
IV – I

Another possibility for a two-chord progression is using the IV and the V chords, which are F and G in the key of C major. This might look weird since there is no tonic I. chord in the song! But it works perfectly.

For example, you can hear this in the song “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, or also in the song “Friends” by Justin Bieber.

F – G
IV – V

(Keep in mind that just because the song starts with the IV chord, it’s not a Lydian chord progression. This is a common misbelief.)

Another possibility is writing a song using only the IV and the VIm chords. These are the F and the Am chords in the key of C major.

F – Am
IV – VIm

For example, the song “Closer” by Ne-Yo is using only these two chords:

This song is in the key of G major, and the two chords are C and Em.

Another example of two-chord progressions is the IIm – V chord progression. These are Dm and G chords in the key of C major. I found two songs that are using these chords, one of them is the song “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, and the other one is “Use Me” by Bill Withers. Notice that both of these songs are utilizing the blues scale in their melodies, and they both have a soul/funk groove.

Dm – G
IIm – V

THREE CHORDS

Let’s see a few examples of how you can write r&b chord progressions by using three chords. The previous example was the IIm – V, which is a very common cadence, and usually continues with the I. chord:

Dm – G – C
IIm – V – I

You can hear this in the song “Say So” by Doja Cat, which became extremely popular on TikTok. This song is in the key of D major, so the chords are Em – A – D.

Another example of a three-chord progression is if you use the chords IV – VIm – V, which are F – Am – G in the key of C major. Again, there is no tonic I. chord in this chord progression either, but it still works.

An example would be the song “This Kiss” by Carly Rae Jepsen, which is in the key of F major, so the chords are:

Bb – Dm – C
IV – VIm – V

SMOOTH CHORDS

Many r&b chord progressions are built from “smooth” chords. This means two things:

1. Smooth chord progressions are utilizing seventh chords or even extended chords. So if you take a look at any of the previous examples, instead of triads, you can use seventh chords in any of those chord progressions.

For example, the song “Say So” by Doja Cat is using seventh chords like this:

Em7 – A7 – Dmaj7
IIm7 – V7 – Imaj7

But as I mentioned, you can use seventh chords in any chord progression, for example, instead of I – IV, you can use Imaj7 and IVmaj7.

2. Smooth chord progressions mostly contain major seventh and minor seventh chords, like Cmaj7 or Cm7. This also means that in order to avoid dominant seventh chords, sometimes they use a borrowed Vm7 chord instead of a diatonic V7 chord.

For example, the new song “Positions” by Ariana Grande is using a typical smooth chord progression with only major seventh and minor seventh chords:

Dm7 – Am7 – Bbmaj7 – Gm7
VIm7 – IIIm7 – IVmaj7 – IIm7

Another smooth chord progression example is the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. This song is in the key of F major.

Dbmaj7 – Cm7 – Cm7 – F
bVImaj7 – Vm7 – Vm7 – I

As you can see, instead of using the diatonic V7 chord, he is using a Vm7 borrowed chord to make the chord progression more smooth.

Conclusion

Since these kinds of songs are very simple, r&b chord progressions can be built from using only two or three chords.

Using triads is OK, but many r&b songs are using seventh or extended chords.

R&B chord progressions also typically use “smooth” chords, which means using almost entirely minor seventh and major seventh chords.

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About the Author

Producer, songwriter of the band Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of the Songwriting Essentials.