It’s not easy to find nostalgic chord progressions because nostalgia means different things to people born at different times, and in different environments. I was born in the U.S. in the 1980’s so this article is biased towards things that are nostalgic for me.
But hopefully, I’ve found at least a few tunes (and respective chord progressions) that give you a sense of nostalgia as well.
1. I7 IV7 I7 V7 IV7 I7
This chord progression comes from the main riff of “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown & The Famous Flames. Lots of chord progressions using the I, IV and V chords will feel nostalgic because those chords permeate nearly every genre of music.
Related List: My Top 10 Funk Chord Progressions
For me, when I hear this song, I think of dancing at weddings when I was a kid. I think this song has been a staple dance pretty much since it came out in 1964. Hopefully this will hit the nostalgia vibes for many even older than me.
Chords from the song: D dominant 7, G dominant 7, D dominant 7, A dominant 7, G dominant 7, D dominant 7
2. I vi V IV
This chord progression comes from a pretty nostalgic song (in my opinion), “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. A lot like you’ll hear people sing “Sweet Caroline” at baseball games, this song seems to come up every year or two for me. When I’m around friends and family, someone will just starting humming the song and before I know it the whole group is smiling and singing together, perhaps with a few diva moments in there as well.
Chords from the song: A major, F sharp minor, E major, D major, A major
3. i VII VI V
This upbeat (and old school) chord progression comes from The Beach Boys’ popular song “Good Vibrations.” The chords in the chorus are a little boring, so I decided to take this from the verses.
Related List: 10 Upbeat Chord Progressions
One of the things that makes The Beach Boys stand out among other great bands is that so much of their rhythm is created by a cappella vocals. You’ll here drums and bass distantly in the song, but the bulk of the music comes from their voices.
Chords from the song: D sharp minor, C sharp major, B major, A sharp major
4. I V I V
What could be more nostalgic than a popular, older song about nostalgia? This chord progression comes from “Summer of 69” by Bryan Adams.
Not only is this a song from my childhood, but it’s a song about Bryan Adams’ childhood. When the chorus ends with “those were the best days of my life,” then you can’t help but think about the best days of your own life as well.
Chords from the song: D major, A major, D major, A major
5. i VII i VI III VI III
Perhaps the most well known dark/sad songs ever written, this chord progression comes from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.
Related List: 13 Incredibly Dark Chord Progressions
This song may not be nostalgic for many, since it’s not something you would commonly find played anywhere outside of the radio. But for me the song played often in cars and homes during my childhood. And since the song came out in 1965, perhaps this chord progression will remind you of the past as well.
Chords from the song: E flat minor, A flat major, E flat minor, B major, G flat major, B major, G flat major
6. I I IV I V ii7
Few of us are probably old enough to remember this song coming out (1939!), but we’ve probably all heard “In The Mood” by the Glenn Miller Band several times throughout our life. From TV commercials to school dances to other media, this song is definitely part of American culture.
Heck, I even learned to swing dance in high school. It’s a lot of fun, and a great way to get physically close to the opposite gender at any age. And “In The Mood” is a classic swing song.
Chords from the song: G major, G major, C major, G major, D major, A minor 7
7. i VI V
As a kid who grew up in the 90’s I’d be remiss not to include a song from that time period. This chord progression comes from “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys.
This one reminds me of my seventh grade lip sync competition, where there was a group of popular guys that did this song and the girls went totally crazy. I’m actually smiling while I type this remembering that performance.
Random side note, my buddies and I performed to the song “Stand and Deliver” by Adam & The Ants and we got a lot of love for our performance as well (to this day many still say we should have won the Crowd Pleaser award!).
Chords from the song: B flat minor, G flat major, F major
8. i III iv VI i V
This nostalgic chord progression comes from the traditional Folk song “House of the Rising Sun.” The song has been covered by hundreds, possibly thousands of artists over the years, but I took these chords directly from the first cover I ever heard by The Animals.
Related List: 12 Folk Music Chord Progressions
Because this song has been done so many times by so many artists across many decades, I think it will hit those sentimental feelings for people of all ages.
Chords from the song: A minor, C major, D minor, F major, A minor, E major
9. I V I
Not sure if this is a nostalgic song for everyone, but this one comes from “Jarabe Tapatio.” This is one of those songs that everyone knows, but doesn’t know the name of. When I hear it, I think of Tom and Jerry chasing each other around (maybe Jerry was wearing a sombrero?).
Related List: My Top 10 Mariachi Chord Progressions
Either way, I definitely think of my childhood watching cartoons on Saturday mornings when I hear this song.
Chords from the song: C major, G major, C major
10. I ii V7
For some reason, when I started writing this article, the first song that popped into my head was “Rockin’ Robin,” by Michael Jackson (albeit the original version was done by Bobby Day). I immediately had this memory of eating custard ice cream and listening to this song.
So maybe this song will spark some nostalgia for you as well.
Chords from the song: G major, A minor, D dominant 7
Can You Really Write New Music That Feels Nostalgic?
I think you probably can, but since nostalgia is such a personal thing, I think if you want to write something that evokes this response, then you should just focus on yourself.
Sometimes also the way you record your music, or the effects you use on instruments and vocals can make the recording sound much older. Unfortunately, the feeling of sentimentality is something created by the passage of time.
So the best way to create new nostalgic music is just to write new music and keep living your life. One day you’ll happen upon the music you wrote 5, 10, 20+ years ago and immediately be thrown back to that time again.