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3 Chord Progression Songwriting Games: Writing Chord Progressions Using Only 3 Chords

Songwriters, let’s play a songwriting game! Here are 3 quick games to help you explore and write chord progressions, even if you only know how to play 3 chords!
3 Chord Progression Songwriting Games, The Author posing in front of a fisheye photo of a guitar

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Songwriters… want to play a game? Here are three songwriting games to help you play with and write chord progressions. 

Try one of these songwriting games to add a little fun to your songwriting session, or if you’re feeling stuck, or you only have a few minutes to write today. For bonus points, use these games to help you write chord progressions for your songs.

You can watch an explanation of the games and hear examples in the video below, or skip the video to read the game rules and see some examples to get you started playing the games.

Games are Fun!

 Don’t worry about your results, just play and explore. The only way to lose is to not play! 

These games are quick, you can play most in 5 minutes, longer if you’re having fun. They work because you explore a small game space with only a few variables so you don’t get overwhelmed with too many choices. 

For example, the games in this video use only three chords. You can play them many times using different chords and explore the effects of various chords and keys. Once you’ve worked through the process a few times you can try writing with 4 chords.

Keep Track of What You Discover, Not Your Score!

Write down your best discoveries so you remember them and use them in your songwriting. 

If you find something that doesn’t fit with the rules you’re using for a game, that’s a great thing!

Try different variations of the “rules” to keep things interesting and to discover new songwriting ideas. 

If you think of a game variation or have a game request, tell me about it in the comments at the end of this article…

Let’s play a game…

You can do more in 5 minutes than you'd expect, smiley ball sitting on a piano keyboard

Chord Progression Songwriting Game #1: Write a 4 Bar Chord Progression

The first chord progression game is “4 Bars with 3 Chords.” Choose any 3 chords you like to play and come up with as many 4 bar chord progressions as possible. You can just play them or you can start without your instrument and write down several combinations, then play them later to hear how they sound.

Keep track of your favourite progressions so you can use them in your songwriting.

If I pick C D and G major chords, IV V and I in G major. I could try:

G C D G

G D C G

C D G G

G G C D

G C G D

Let’s play again with different chords…

Perhaps: A- C major and G major.

(A- is the tonic chord, C acts as a a tonic substitute chord and G major is a substitute dominant chord)

A- A- C G

A- C G A-

A- C | A- C | G | A- 

A- C | A- C | A- C | G 

A- C A- G

Every Song is an Experiment Some Experiments Fail, Cat about to pounce on a dog, songwriting meme

Chord Progression Songwriting Game #2: Place the Tonic

The second game is Place the Tonic Chord. You create a 4 bar chord progression using three chords, but start by choosing where to play the tonic chord first. 

Choose 3 chords in the same key, then decide where you want the harmonic tension to release, that’s where you put the tonic chord. 

This game helps you control the harmonic tension in your chord progressions.

If you’ve already written lyrics, you can choose where you want the harmony to resolve so it matches the tension in the lyrics.

For Example…

If you choose A D and E major chords, A is the tonic chord, the chord where the progression ressolves and the harmonic tension is released.

There’s a difference between

A A D E, where the chord progression starts on the tonic and moves away to E, and

D E A A, where the chord progression resolves to A in the third bar. It’s even more obvious when you’re playing within a song section. If you have your instrument nearby, try playing them so you feel and hear the difference.

With A D E, you can place the tonic in the first chord and move away

A A D E

You can put the A chord at the end

D E A A

You could put the A chord in the third bar, and move away from it in the 4th bar

D E A E

You could play A in the first and third bars

A D A E

Experiment to find out how you can control the feelings created by the harmonic tension in your chord progressions.

In a Minor Key…

For A minor, try the same combinations with: 

A- D- and E-, or 

A- D- and E major, or 

A- D major and E major, or

A- D- and G for different minor flavours.

Chord Progression Songwriting Game #3: Write an 8 bar Chord Progression

The third game is writing an 8 bar chord progression, starting with a 4 bar chord progression you wrote with one of the other games.

There are 4 main choices to expand a four bar progression into an eight bar chord progression…

  1. Stretch it, turning each bar of the 4 bar progression into 2 bars, doubling the length.
  2. Repeat it exactly,
  3. Repeat it with a change
  4. Use two different 4 bar chord progressions together.

For example: using A- A- C G from game 1

1- stretch it by doubling each bar

A- A- A- A- C C G G

2- repeat it twice for a faster harmonic rhythm with the same pattern

A- A- C G, A- A- C G

3- change the second repetition

A -A- C G, A- C G A- (so the progression resolves in the last bar)

4- use two different progressions

G C A- G then A- C G A-

Before I started playing it…

I’d thought to use A- A- C G, but A- C G A- came out. I’ve learned over the years to accept “mistakes” are often my intuition giving me a better idea. In this case:

G C A- G then A- A- C G both end on G which isn’t wrong, but it’s a little less exciting because the last bar is the same chord G. 

Listen to your intuition, even when you’re writing with deliberate songwriting strategies.

Try the Same Game With Different Chords

You can change the chords to play a new game… with A, D and E major chordS. I could start with 

A D A E, then 

1- stretch them, doubling each bar to two bars for an 8 bar progression 

A A D D A A E E

2- repeat the progression twice

A D A E A D A E

3- repeat the progression with a variation 

A D A E A D E A

4- or use two different 4 bar progressions

A D A E D E A A 

sometime you have to get messy to be creative, border collie covered with mud, songwriting meme

Chord Progression Songwriting Games: Summary

These games are a great way to playfully explore ideas and possibilities. Use a game for a break or to get your song unstuck. Try one out and see what you find!

Remember, while you want to write down your best results, keep your focus on fun and don’t stress about your results while you’re experimenting!

For more help writing chord progressions for your songs

More Songwriting Games…

Songwriting Games: Brainstorming Prompts

Songwriting Games-Brainstorming Prompts for Songwriting, Two Extra Large Dice sitting on a Guitar Fretboard

Songwriting Games: Lyric Writing

Songwriting Games, Lyric Writing, Condenser Microphone
Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff has taught, played and written music professionally for the last 25+ years.
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