Are you often left wondering about the bounds of beauty? Do you wonder just how beautiful it can get? Are you looking to expand your own conception of beauty? What about within the bounds of music? Are you looking to be convinced that beauty is indeed a subjective truth?
Then you are in the right place, for today I will be exploring 5 of the most beautiful chord progressions in my opinion. These are simply some suggestions that I think more people should know more about, though they are absolutely not a prescription of any sort, nor are they an objective list of the best.
Table of Contents
- 1. The Moonbeam Song by Harry Nilsson
- 2. ‘Good to Go’ by Elliott Smith
- 3. ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’ from Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
- 4. ‘Blue Skied An’ Clear’ by Slowdive
- 5. ‘Eden’ by Talk Talk
- Final Tones
- FAQs Beautiful Chord Progressions
1. The Moonbeam Song by Harry Nilsson
This first chord progression is one of my all time favorites, especially chosen because it is so simple. There are not even any minor chords present within the sequence, and still it is one of the most stirring and emotional chord progressions, making exclusive use of major chords placed adeptly across the fretboard to tickle those soul strings, including a potent modulation to an F chord that really changed things up.
The song originally comes from Nilsson’s seventh album, Nilsson Schmilsson, occupying an oft neglected spot towards the middle of the album beside the likes of worldwide smash hit ‘Without You’, and ‘Coconut’. These two songs alone made sure that this was easily Nilsson’s most commercially successful work, the former occupying a place in the cultural imaginary of just about every westerner.
As simple chord progressions go, this is easily one of the most stirring I have ever come across, even for lack of a minor chord anywhere to be seen. On other tracks of his, on this album and elsewhere, Nilsson definitely gravitates toward a slightly more complex chord sequence, such as on ‘Gotta Get Up’. Here, however, he maximises the minimalism and uses everything he can to make a lot with a little.
For me, this is a crowning achievement of pop music. The several part vocal harmonies that occur around mid way through the track do nothing less than call to mind the image of a grand cathedral, the vocals themselves prostrate and bowing in reverence to a god of sorts.
You can hear the voices reverberate through the space, the tail echo of them feeling out the various crenellations and particulars of the church’s gothic bodice, the masonic ribcage of the institution rippling in reply.
2. ‘Good to Go’ by Elliott Smith
Any such list of beautiful chord progressions would be remiss without mentioning the late and great singer songwriter extraordinaire Elliott Smith. There are a whole bunch of his songs that I could otherwise have included here, and really in my opinion there is something special about each one of his song, all of which are imbued with that uniquely beautiful harmonic and melodic sense that still leads him to reverence today.
I chose this song specifically, however, purely on the basis of how many hard times it has got me through. There is something so densely melancholic about it, something intangible in the blending of minor chord to major chord, that acted as a dear friend to me at times when I needed it most.
The descending bass line in the middle of the song, for example, seems to represent an external descent in a very real way, not to mention the way that the chords themselves follow this bass line so earnestly. This seemed to say to me that nothing could get worse than this, though in a very comforting way – that it was only up from here.
These were the early days of Smith’s output before he became reasonably better emotionally and became a staple of outsider folk and rock music, and though there is charm to all his discography, this is certainly my favorite area of his work, even if only for having been there for me when I needed it most. And say what you like about the man, he never would use the same chord progression twice, which says a lot considering how complex his fingerstyle patterns could be in the space of his songs.
3. ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’ from Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
Perhaps a more pretentious addition to this list, I simply could not help but indulge my passion for classical music. I would be the first to admit that some areas of classical music are lost rather far up their backside, or at the very least have a little too high an opinion of oneself. The sheer emotional power of this piece, however, cannot be denied.
The piece as a whole is half an hour long and will no doubt be most familiar as the source of the music at the very opening of 2001: A Spacy Odyssey, the highly influential space exploration film that has gone on to garner such a significant impact as to wholly reinvent the meaning of the song. I certainly did not know from whence the song came before I saw the film; I simply knew it as the ‘dun – dun – dunnn – DUN DUN’ music.
And yet, when I went on to listen to the full piece, I was absolutely dumbstruck by the second movement, which in translation would be called ‘Of the Backworldsmen’. Though not power chords, these are powerful chords, the way they journey forth, ascending towards their fitful climax, is reminiscent no less than of the birth of a star, so it really is no wonder that Kubrick so diligently chose to include music from this piece in his space themed film.
Such was the veritable power of the chord progressions ascension that I wept upon first listen, and am still stirred each time I listen to it. For me, it seems an utter distillation of all emotions all at once in a puree so intense that not even a god could properly sup it, and yet here we the listener are, able to feast our ears on it. A real treat!
4. ‘Blue Skied An’ Clear’ by Slowdive
This next offering is an example of ‘shoegaze’, a style of music so concerned with sonic experimentation that they would alleged always be staring at their shoes when performing live so as to turn on the right pedals at the right time. Fittingly, this song like all the others on this album – and some of the best examples of the genre as a whole – prioritizes texture over almost everything else.
Though never, ever at the expense of beauty. The sheer majesty of this song is quite hard to comprehend. The way it moves from moment of sublimity to moment of bliss is like wandering through a house that you do not know that feels more as though it is exploring you, where no matter how well you get to know the walls the structure is ever elusive.
There must be only about four chords on display here, five at most. Each section drifts between two chords, and yet the result when paired with the various layers of vocal texture and post production effects is little short of epiphanic.
As musical genres go, shoegaze was relatively short lived in its hey day, though it continues to have a significant impact on artists today, seeing a sort of revival in the last ten years now that popular culture has sort of caught up.
This entire album was written and recorded at a time when shoegaze was on its way out, though still very much the object of vilification in the UK popular music press. Knowing it was their last album before being kicked from their label, they all decided to take their studio experiments as far as they knew how, and we have only to thank them for it now.
5. ‘Eden’ by Talk Talk
Finally, we move on to a band that was an inspiration to Slowdive, who took many preconceived notions of what rock and pop music could be and threw them into the clouds above, vaporized by sunset.
There are many moments I could have chosen from their last two studio albums Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, and I am sure I will at some point wish I had chosen another, such as the gently vibrating and sloping organ drones on a track like ‘Ascension Day’, or even the track ‘I Believe in You’, which in so many ways harmonically and structurally mirrors the Slowdive track aforementioned.
Instead, I chose the second track from Spirit of Eden because of a particular image I once read in a review and which has stuck with me to this day. Someone on Rate Your Music said that when they ‘hear those first few minutes of ‘The Rainbow’, or that first cloudburst of ‘Eden’, I can only bow my head and consider it.’
To describe the music in this form is just infinitely powerful, and goes at least some part of the way to meeting the majesty of their last two studio albums in the middle. The main body of this track is simply piano chords tolling out through the fronds scattered horns and slowly galloping tom drums, and yet, in revelling in the simplicity of its elements in this way, it ensures that we pay attention to every detail and that every detail counts for the whole world to see.
So, there you have it! These have been 5 of some of the most beautiful chord progressions, in my opinion. Though I feel incredibly strongly about these 5 pieces of music and the chord progressions within, I would never limit anyone nor subject them to this music should they not be so enthused as I am. Most important to me is that you find beautiful chord progressions of your own, through which you can vicariously feel the weight of all the emotion in the world.
FAQs Beautiful Chord Progressions
There are too many to even list in this way, especially since beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. It seems that this is nowhere more the case than with music, too. Being the most abstract art form, there is a certain understanding that the subconscious responses of those who listen are to vary from person to person, meaning that the reasons that two people like the same piece of music or the same artist might be wildly different. My own response to this question, for example, might be something by Sun Ra or Talk Talk, whereas it might be something completely different for yourself.
There are too many to even list in this way, especially since beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. It seems that this is nowhere more the case than with music, too. Being the most abstract art form, there is a certain understanding that the subconscious responses of those who listen are to vary from person to person, meaning that the reasons that two people like the same piece of music or the same artist might be wildly different. Though I might suggest something like Erroll Garner’s rendition of ‘Misty’ which I once heard someone describe as though there are butterflies playing the keys instead of a human, you would be likely to say differently.
My own response is very much going to be different from your own, since sadness (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder, much as with any emotion as a matter of fact. My own gut instinct would be to suggest something by Elliott Smith, whose harmonic and lyrical sensibilities are very much geared towards melancholy. You, however, might suggest something different, especially because your own beliefs and emotional sensibilities are going to be different. You might even find something that is meant to be happy or upbeat sad, because of various emotional associations you have with the song.
There are too many to even list in this way, especially since beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. It seems that this is nowhere more the case than with music, too. Being the most abstract art form, there is a certain understanding that the subconscious responses of those who listen are to vary from person to person, meaning that the reasons that two people like the same piece of music or the same artist might be wildly different.