Apr 5, 2024

7 Best RnB Chord Progressions For Soulful Music

7 Best RnB Chord Progressions For Soulful Music

It's no secret that modern R&B is heavily influenced by jazz and blues music. Rhythm and blues, we call it, right?

But neither jazz music theory nor blues music theory don't seem to be easy at first glance.

Seventh chords, non-diatonic chords, different chord voicings, and chord inversions are those advanced techniques that set R&B apart from other genres and give it that emotional resonance and captivating essence we all love.

In this article, we'll explore 7 popular R&B chord progressions that can be easily integrated into your songwriting, beat making, or music production process.

We'll cover essential music theory concepts, such as triads and borrowed chords, which serve as the basic foundation for many advanced R&B chords.

So, sit tight, grab your piano or guitar, or launch your favorite DAW, and get ready to create your own soulful melodies.

The 2-5-1 Progression

The 2-5-1 sequence is probably the most popular RnB chord progression. Its roots lie in jazz and gospel, and it showcases a seamless blend of three chords that provide a sense of resolution and finality.

This progression is versatile and widely applicable to other music genres, such as neo-soul, hip-hop, and lo-fi.

Here's a closer look at how the 2-5-1 progression operates:

Chord Structures:

In the Major Key (C major): The progression moves from D minor (ii), a borrowed chord from the relative minor key, to G major (V) and resolves at C major (I), creating a harmonious transition that's both pleasing and emotionally resonant.

In the Minor Key (A minor): In A minor, the chords would be B diminished (ii°), E major (V), and A minor (i).

This variation adds a touch of melancholy and introspection to the progression, making it suitable for more somber or reflective pieces.

The diminished ii° chord in the minor key adds a sense of tension and unease, which is then resolved by the V and i chords.

Rhythmic Patterns & Voicing

The progression's chords can be played in different styles, such as arpeggiated or block chords, and can be inverted to change the order, adding depth and complexity to the sound.


Chord inversions and octave copies are employed to further enrich the progression.

This technique not only adds layers to the arrangement but also bridges gaps between chords, ensuring a cohesive sound.

The 1-4 Progression

We move on to another essential RnB chord progression: the 1-4 sequence, also known as 'I-IV'.

This progression creates a sense of movement and anticipation, and it is often found across various R&B subgenres, including neo-soul, hip-hop, and soulful jazz music.

Chord Structure in Major Scale (C Major):

'I' Chord: C Major

'IV' Chord: F Major

Another creative way to expand the I-IV chord progression and give it more complexity is by adding passing chords like Bb7, Cm7b5, and Ddim:

In this expanded version, the Bb7 serves as a dominant seventh chord that leads smoothly into the IV chord (F Major).

The Cm7b5 acts as a minor seventh flat five chord, adding a touch of tension and dissonance before the Ddim (diminished chord) further heightens the tension.

Finally, the progression resolves back to the I chord (C Major).

By incorporating these passing chords, you can create a more engaging and dynamic harmonic progression that adds interest and sophistication to your RnB compositions.

The 1-4 progression includes its use in songs like "Cardboard Box" by Foreign and "Candy" by Cameo.

The vi – IV – I – V Progression

This chord progression is a classic in R&B music and is often used in ballads and slow jams.

The vi – IV – I – V progression creates a sense of tension and release, which is perfect for conveying emotion.

This progression has been used in a number of R&B hits, including "Say So" by Doja Cat and "All of Me" by John Legend.

Both of these songs use the progression to create a sense of emotional intensity and release.

You can incorporate extended RnB chords to add richness and depth to the vi—IV—I—V progression.

Extended chords include notes beyond the basic triad, such as sevenths, ninths, elevenths, or thirteenths.

Here's an example of how you can enhance the vi – IV – I – V progression using extended chords in the key of Ab major:

vi7 – IV7 – I – V6

In this progression vi7 is F minor seventh, IV7 is C# major seventh, I is Ab major (the root), and V6 is Eb major sixth.

The Circle of Fifths Progression

The Circle of Fifths is a circular diagram resembling a clock that organizes the 12 chromatic pitches into a sequence of perfect fifths, with each note a fifth above the last.

Application in RnB

By moving around the circle, you can create a harmony that has a natural flow and emotional resonance.

Here are a few examples of RnB chord progressions derived from the Circle of Fifths in the key of C major:

The I – vi – ii – V progression (C – Am – Dm – G). This progression moves counterclockwise around the circle, creating a smooth and satisfying resolution.

The vi – ii – V – I progression (Am – Dm – G – C). This harmony starts on the relative minor chord (vi) and moves clockwise around the circle before resolving to the tonic (I).

The I – IV – vii – iii progression (C – F – Bdim – Em). Moving clockwise around the circle, this sexy chord progression uses a diminished chord (vii) for added tension and interest.

The iii – vi – ii – V progression (Em – Am – Dm – G). This minor chord progression, often used in neo-soul and jazz-influenced RnB, starts on the mediant chord (iii) and moves counterclockwise around the circle.

By using the Circle of Fifths and exploring different progressions based on its structure, you can create a wide variety of emotionally engaging chord sequences for your RnB songs.

Experiment with different starting points and directions around the circle to discover new and interesting progressions that suit your musical style.

The 12-Bar Blues Progression

The 12-Bar Blues progression, a staple in the evolution of RnB, jazz, and popular music, traces its origins back to the early 20th century, blending work songs, spirituals, and country music.

Here's a breakdown of its structure and variations:

Basic Structure

Standard Form: Consists of 12 bars divided into three 4-bar sections, using the I, IV, and V chords of a key.

The pattern typically follows I-I-I-I, IV-IV-I-I, V-IV-I-V.

Common Variation: The 'quick change' or 'quick four' version introduces the IV chord in the second bar, adding a dynamic twist to the progression.

Chord Types

Dominant 7th Chords: These are predominantly used throughout the progression, adding a bluesy texture and depth to the music.

Major and Minor Forms: While the standard is major, there are minor versions like John Coltrane's "Equinox", showcasing the progression's versatility.

Examples in Music

Iconic Songs: "Stormy Monday" and "Tutti Frutti" demonstrate the progression's adaptability to both slow and fast tempos.

Modern Usage: Songs such as Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" and Duffy's "Mercy" highlight the progression's enduring relevance in contemporary music, with slight modifications to fit modern styles.

Diminished Chords for Tension

Diminished chords, with their closely packed notes, play a pivotal role in adding tension and intrigue to RnB chord progressions.

Here's a deeper dive into their construction and application:

Building Diminished Chords:

Formation: Start with a major chord and flatten the third and fifth notes by one semitone each to create a diminished chord. For example, a C diminished chord (Cdim) would consist of the notes C, Eb, and Gb.

Applications in RnB Music:

Passing Chords: Utilized to create tension or lift, especially when transitioning to a minor chord.

Inversions and Voicings: Experimenting with inverting the chords or changing the voicings can yield unique sounds, enhancing the auditory interest of a piece.

Dominant Seventh Substitutions: By playing a diminished chord, musicians can substitute four different dominant seven chords, offering the potential to modulate between keys.

Popular R&B Chord Progressions with Diminished Chords:

In C Major Scale:
I – IV – #iv° – V (C – F – F#dim – G)

In this progression, the diminished chord is used as a chromatic passing chord between the IV and V chords. The F#dim chord adds a brief moment of tension and dissonance before resolving to the dominant chord (G).

This progression can be heard in the song "Redbone" by Childish Gambino.

In A Minor Scale:
i – v – vii° – VI – vii° – i (Am – Em – G#dim – F – G#dim – Am)

This progression showcases the use of the diminished chord as a means to create a descending chromatic bassline. The G#dim chord is used twice, first to lead to the VI chord (F) and then to return to the tonic (Am).

This progression is often used in neo-soul and contemporary R&B, such as in the song "The Bird" by Anderson .Paak.

Dominant Progressions

Incorporating dominant chords into your RnB chord progressions can add variety, tension, and a sense of movement to your music. Dominant chords, built on the fifth degree of a scale, have a strong tendency to resolve to the tonic chord of that scale.

Secondary Dominants: I – V/ii – ii – V – I

Secondary dominants are chords from outside the home key that are related to chords within the progression by a V-I relationship. They create a temporary shift to a different key before returning to the home key.

Example in C major: C – A7 – Dm – G – C

The A7 chord (V/ii) leads to the Dm chord (ii), creating a brief shift from C major to D minor.

Dominant Chord Cycles: I – VI7 – II7 – V7 – I

Dominant chord cycles use a series of dominant seventh chords that resolve to each other, creating a sense of continuous movement.

Example in C major: C – A7 – D7 – G7 – C

Each dominant seventh chord resolves to the chord a fourth above it (or a fifth below it), eventually leading back to the tonic chord (C).

By incorporating secondary dominants and dominant chord cycles into your production, you can add surprisingly satisfying movement to your R&B compositions.


Emotion, groove, and harmonic richness are what makes an R&B chord progression unique.

It gets complex at times but doesn't necessarily need to be all the time.

These 7 soulful chord progressions will help you kickstart your journey into the world of R&B.

So dive in, experiment, and most importantly, have fun!