Apr 4, 2024

4 Dark Chord Progressions That Made It to the Top Charts

4 Dark Chord Progressions That Made It to the Top Charts

It's hard to deny that hip-hop has massively affected modern pop culture with its dark, aggressive subgenres, such as trap and drill.

Hard-hitting beats with aggressive 808s, crispy hi-hats, and 2-bar trap chords now dominate the top charts more than ever.

Today, we'll explore 4 dark chord progressions in Billboard charting songs from Travis Scott to Billie Eilish and analyze what makes them so effective.

We'll break down the basic triads and explore how to achieve those darker undertones by using the extended seventh, suspended, and diminished chords.

But before we dive in, let's cover some fundamental music theory concepts so this article will be easy to follow.

Feel free to navigate the contents and go straight to the chords, if you're confident at music theory.

What Is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is simply a sequence of chords played in a specific order. It's the foundation of a song's harmony and provides a framework for the melody and rhythm to build upon.

Think of it as the musical equivalent of a story's plot - it guides the listener through different emotions and creates a sense of movement and resolution.

Chord progressions are typically described using Roman numerals (E.g. I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii), which represent the chords' positions relative to the key of the song.

For instance, in the key of C major, the chords would be:

I - C major

ii - D minor

iii - E minor

IV - F major

V - G major

vi - A minor

vii° - B diminished

What Makes a Dark Chord Progression?

Most dark hip hop chord progressions are written on a minor scale.

To create a minor chord, start with a major chord first.

An easy example is a C major chord that is made of C (the root note), E (the third), G (the fifths).

Then lower the middle note (the third) by a half step.

This will give you a C minor chord: C, E♭, G.

By transposing minor chords up or down, you can see that the same principle applies to any of the twelve keys in the chromatic scale.

While a minor chord progression by default has a more melancholic sound compared to a major scale, it doesn't necessarily mean that you can't create a dark and spooky chord progression in a major key.

Using the suspended and diminished chords in your progression is the secret sauce that can really give your harmony that gritty vibe.

Now, let's explore our 4 hit songs that use some of the most ominous, dark chord progressions.

1. IV - III - ii - I ("Sicko Mode" by Travis Scott)

Key: Bb Major | BPM: 155

"Sicko Mode" is Travis's first number-one single on the US Billboard Hot 100 and the third song on his Astroworld album.

Produced by a collective of the most wanted hip-hop producers in the game, like CuBeatz, Hit-Boy, OZ, and Tay Keith, it has an unconventional arrangement with three beat switches where each section has its unique harmonic structure.

The signature intro that sets the whole mood of the song uses the IV - III - ii - I chord progression in the key of Bb Major.

The IV and III chords alternate between the tonic Bb and the mediant D, giving that unresolved feeling of tension and thus keeping listeners engaged until the drop.

The Bbm (ii) chord near the end of the progression adds a darker, more foreboding tone that resolves into the I chord.

To give certain chords more depth and complexity, producers added a seventh on top of the IV, ii, and I chords, so the final chord progression looks like this:

IV7 - III - IV7 - III - IV7 - III - ii7 - I7.

The solo section is written in G# Phyrigian scale and starts right after the intro with the repetetive II - i - II - i sequence, which is very common for dark trap chord progressions.

These additions, along with strategic beat drops and switch-ups, transform a simple progression into an intricately textured sonic experience.

The II (A) chord, followed by the i (G# minor), is a simple progression that evokes a sense of instant tension and release and makes it perfect for drill music.

2. isus2 - i - VI - isus2 - i - VI ("Just Wanna Rock" by Lil Uzi Vert)

Key: D# Minor | BPM: 150

Uzi's "Just Wanna Rock" is a Jersey club banger written in collaboration with producers MCVertt and Synthetic. It went viral on TikTok even before the official release, gaining over 500 million views.

At its core, the song is built on a straightforward I - i - VI minor chord progression.

But what really makes it sound evil is the combination of suspended and extended chords played with a supersaw synth sound, creating a unique harmonic structure in the mix.

The initial D# (i) chord becomes a D#sus2 and instantly creates tension.

The B# chords are transformed with added 11ths and 6ths, which lend a spacious, dreamy atmosphere.

Here's what the final chord progression looks like:

isus2 - i - VI(add11) - isus2 - i - VI(add6)

The sequence feels unresolved and leaves a listener with a sense of endless anticipation.

Note how the passing i (D# minor) chord is played off-beat in the progression, intentionally breaking the rhythm and giving it extra groove.

The combo of dark chords, hard-hitting drums, and catchy hook drives that infectious energy, which made "Just Wanna Rock" a staple on dance floors and at festivals worldwide.

3. iv-iv-isus2-i ("Child's Play" by Drake)

Key: D# Minor | BPM: 80

"Child's Play" was primarily produced by Noah "40" Shebib, Drake's close friend and a long-time collaborator.

40 helped Drake develop that signature dark R&B or "underwater" sound and made it mainstream in modern R&B and trapsoul music.

He often borrows chord progressions from jazz and soul music, then filters out high frequencies of the entire beat, giving it that dark vibe and leaving more space for Drake's vocals.

In "Child's Play", 40 uses one of those dark jazz chord progressions that follow the sequence:

iv - iv - isus2 - i

To spice it up a bit, he replaced the basic triads with the extended seventh chords:

iv7 - iv7 - i7sus2 - i

The transition to the tense i7sus2 (D#7sus2) chord in the third bar is a brilliant move. It heightens the sense of unresolved angst before finally coming to rest on the somber i (D#m) chord.

4. I - iii - IV (Billie Eilish - "What Was I Made For?")

Key: C Major | BPM: 78 Intro & Verse: I - iii - IV7

You must have heard the lyrics from Billie Eilish's massive world hit "What Was I Made For?" even if you haven't watched the Barbie movie yet.

The song was composed by Finneas O'Connel, Billie's brother, in collaboration with Greta Gerwig, the director behind "Barbie" film.

He used the basic I - iii - IV sequence in the C major key and turned it into a mysterious chord progression by adding the seventh chord to complete the harmony.

I - iii - IV7 (C - Em - Fmaj7)

These dark piano chords complement Billie's tender vocals, making the song so emotional and resonant with the audience.

"What Was I Made For?" reached number-one in Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, peaking at 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, and won the Grammys for the Song of the Year.

Adding Diminished Chords

Diminished chords can be a powerful tool for crafting haunting chord progressions with an ominous, tense atmosphere.

To create a diminished chord, take a minor chord and lower the fifth by a half-step.

For example, a C diminished triad consists of C, E♭, and G♭.

When used strategically, diminished chords add dissonance and a strong desire to resolve to more stable harmony.

One effective approach is using diminished chords as passing chords to connect two minor chords separated by a whole step, such as in a i-i°-ii progression (e.g. Am-A°-Bm). This creates an eerie descending bassline.

Some modern songs that showcase diminished chords include:

Billie Eilish's "bad guy" - The pre-chorus features a i-vii°-vi pattern that builds tension before the aggressive chorus hits.

Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" - The intro moves through multiple diminished chords, establishing a mysterious vibe from the start.


To wrap it up, let's summarize how you can start creating your own dark chord progressions in various genres:

- Use minor scales as they provide a dark, melancholic vibe naturally

- Add extended chords to enrich your harmonic structures

- Integrate suspended and diminished chords in your progressions

- Leave your progressions unresolved for suspense and cycle them

- Use a low-pass filter to give your instrument a darker undertone

Start simple, trust your ear, and you'll soon be able to produce the best dark chord progressions in the game.