A few of the chord progressions/songs in this list also appear in my dreamy chord progressions list. The two styles have a lot of overlap and so I decided to re-use a few of my favorites.
When I put together these lists of chord progressions, I try to draw primarily from the music I’ve listened to over the years. And when it comes to an ethereal sound, most of my exposure has come from soundtracks and video games. We’ll see ethereal chord progressions from songs of many genres, but a lot of my list comes from games and movies.
And once we get through all 11 ethereal chord progressions I’ll wrap up with some observations about the themes/trends I heard while listening to music for this article.
1. i VII iv i
I’ll be taking several chord progressions from video game music in this article (since it has been a huge part of my musical upbringing), and this first chord progression comes from Skyrim. The song is called “Ancient Stones” and it is played on a very high pitched stringed instrument, perhaps a mandolin.
The song plays out most of its chord in an arpeggio rather than a full strum, which is something that is very common in ethereal music.
Chords from the song: G sharp minor, F sharp major, D sharp minor, G sharp minor
2. i iv i v
This ethereal chord progression comes from another favorite game of mine, Mass Effect 2. The song is called “The Illusive Man” and in the game the song creates a feeling of intrigue/mystery as well as that of having ascended to a new level of consciousness. Like many of these songs there’s an blurry tempo which comes from the absence of a rhythm section, which I think adds to the vibe.
Honestly, the Mass Effect trilogy has a gold mine of songs to gain inspiration from, but this one is perhaps the most recognizable.
Chords from the song: D minor, G minor, D minor, A minor
3. III I III I
This simple chord progression comes from the song “Aniron” from Enya. Simple as it may be, it doesn’t fit cleanly into our typical major and minor keys. The A flat major and E major chords don’t typically go together, but it certainly works here.
This song makes an appearance in The Lord of The Rings trilogy and is typically considered to be the theme of Aragorn and Arwen.
Chords from the song: G sharp major, E major, G sharp major, E major
4. Imaj7 Imaj7/III Imaj7 Imaj7/IV
This chord progression shows the power of a moving bass line. The underlying chord remains the same here, but the prominent bass changes how the chord sounds.
It comes from the title theme of the now famous Netflix show “Stranger Things.” Like you’ll see in a lot of these chord progressions, the chord itself is played as an arpeggio. If you just strum out these tabs you’ll be disappointed. You’ll need to find a more interesting way to express the notes in the chord to get a good sound out of this progression.
5. i III iv i
When I can I try to take a chord progression from my favorite band, Muse. And it just so happens that they have a handful of songs that fit the ethereal label. This chord progression comes from their album The 2nd Law and the song is part 2 of a two part song. It’s called “The 2nd Law: Isolated System” and it’s the title track to the movie World War Z.
Chords from the song: G minor, B flat major, C minor, G minor
6. i VI VII v VI v iv
This ethereal chord progression comes from the game Final Fantasy X. It’s played on the piano and has such a wonderfully light and almost dreamy sound that I had to include it on this list. The song comes at a time in the game when your party is all alone and the environment seems almost surreal. It almost makes you feel as though you’re walking into the afterlife.
7. i VI VII i
This chord progression comes from one of my new favorite tracks (and shows), “The Mandalorian.” The song manages to song ethereal at times and like modern western at other times. To me it’s just a different take on that sound.
Another prominent chord progression in this song is the i VI iv i, which you’ll also see later from the song “Saturno.”
Chords in the song: C minor, A flat major, B flat major, C minor
8. i V/III VII IV
This chord progression comes from one of the most emotional instrumentals of our time, “Time” by Hans Zimmer (pun intended). The song plays through some of the most intense moments in the movie “Inception” and it really does a great job of making you feel the passage of time.
Chords from the song: A minor, E minor/C bass, G major, D major
9. Imaj7 II6 Imaj7 II6
I found this chord progression in a song called “Moving On” by Dayonas Dream. It’s a I II I II chord progression, but the 7th note in the major scale continues to ring out as the chords change. It makes the I chord into a major 7th and the II chord into a 6 chord.
The guitar tab I put together for it is a bit awkward to play. I play it with my four fretting fingers on the A, D, G and B strings, then I wrap my thumb around the top of the guitar neck to hold down the low E string.
Chords from the song: F major 7, G major add 6, F major 7, G major add 6
10. i VI iv i
I found this chord progression in a song called “Saturno” by the group Universo. This one also appears in my dreamy chord progressions list, and what I love about it is that it’s almost meditative. I can sit and listen to it with my eyes closed and detach my thoughts from everything that’s going on in my life.
11. I V vi IV
Imogen Heap creates the ethereal sound with a cappella vocals that have some very unique effects applied to them. This chord progression comes from perhaps her most famous song “Hide and Seek” and I was honestly shocked to find a relatively normal chord progression (one you might find in funk music) underneath this truly unique song.
Chords in the song: A major, E major, F sharp minor, D major
Writing Ethereal Music
You should know that a chord progression all by itself won’t guarantee a certain sound. Heck you can hear chord progressions like I, IV, V, I in basically every genre of music. There are common themes in music outside of the notes you hear that differentiate the sounds of each genre.
So now that I’ve listened to probably 6-8 hours of music while researching this article, I’d like to write down some of the themes I heard. These are a few of the things that make the ethereal sound different from other types of music.
- Arpeggiated chords – I heard significantly more arpeggios in this music than I’ve heard in other genres.
- Little to no rhythm section – I rarely heard any snares, bass drums or even an instrument that was focused on emphasizing rhythms.
- Slower tempos – Not a rule, but I think of 100-120 bpm as an average tempo. Most of these songs were slower than that.
- More clean effects, fewer distorted effects – You hear delays, echos, vibrato and reverb, but don’t really hear distortion.
- Melodies from treble instruments – If the song had a melody, it was almost always played by a flute, violin, mandolin, etc. and not a deeper instrument.
There are of course many more nuances to the ethereal sound. But these were some of the most common things I heard in the songs on this list and in the songs that didn’t make the list.