While compiling this list of ominous chord progressions, I took from a lot of my life’s music: video games and movies/tv shows I’ve watched, along with some of the modern rock music that I listen to.
Music can make us feel uncomfortable and make life feel grim, or maybe just that the unknown is fast approaching and that we don’t know how to deal with it.
I’ve long had a connection with music of this type. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve always loved the darker side of entertainment, and music is what drops us into that environment.
To get the most out of this article, listen to the songs as you analyze the chord progressions. So enjoy the list I’ve compiled, and hopefully it will spark some ideas for your writing.
1. i i2 i i2 III i
I found this ominous chord progression while listening to the soundtrack of one of my all time favorite video games, The Last of Us.
Throughout the game you never know when you might round a corner and find yourself face to face with a clicker (zombie). The soundtrack does an incredible job of always keeping you on edge, and it accomplishes this primarily with an acoustic guitar and a bunch of ominous chords.
Chords from the song: E minor, E minor 2, E minor, E minor 2, G major, E minor
2. i III ii i
I recently watched The Imitation Game when it became available on Netflix, and the title theme is an incredible work of music.
The song starts quite ominously (that’s where this progression came from), but then it continues to cycle through basically just these same three chords while managing to move to a hopeful sounding section, a sad section, a happy section and an epic section. It’s a wonderful display of how a single chord progression can produce so many different sounds.
Chords from the song: F minor, A flat major, G minor, F minor
3. i VI iv
This one is from “Climbing Up the Walls” by Radiohead. I think one of the big reasons this song comes across ominous is the dissonant chime-like sounds that play over the verses. But you also have to give credit to the distorted, falsetto vocals that contribute to the song’s dark feel.
Honestly, Radiohead has a lot of music that creates this same kind of sinister sound.
Chords from the song: B minor, G major, E minor
4. i VII iii ii
This chord progression doesn’t fit cleanly into a typical minor scale. The VII chord is actually only a half step lower than the root note.
I found this one in the soundtrack for “Haunting of Hill House.” The family lives in a house that seems to have an agenda of its own. The soundtrack never seems to be truly haunting, but there’s always something just a little bit off in the music.
This song also appears in my list of 13 dark chord progressions.
Chords from the song: E minor, D sharp major, G minor, F sharp minor
5. i5, VI5, v5, VII5, flat iv5
This is from “Raider II” by Steven Wilson. It’s a truly disturbing sounding song, and in general Steven Wilson is coming out with some of the most interesting rock music of today. The chord progression above is from the intro of the song, but it’s like a 25 minute song and it’s chock full of super interesting chord progressions. Give it a listen if you’re not familiar.
Chords from the song: E5, C5, B5, D5, A flat 5
6. i5 VI5 iv5 III5 iv5 v5 iv5 i5
When I can I like to grab chord progressions from some of my favorite music to write these articles. This ominous chord progression comes from “Pretelethal” by Coheed and Cambria.
You could reasonably call this song part of a soundtrack. The singer from Coheed and Cambria also created a comic series called Amory Wars and the band’s albums also follow the events in the comic series.
Chords from the song: E5, C5, A5, G5, A5, B5, A5, E5
7. i VII iv v
This ominous chord progression comes from another soundtrack, Donnie Darko. Few movies have created a more constant feeling of mystery and dread, and as usual the music is a huge part of that.
Somewhat related list: 11 Dreamy Chord Progressions
There’s nothing in this chord progression that’s out of the ordinary. It’s just a pretty standard set of chords from the minor scale. But the instrumentation/voicing and slow, creeping tempo are what make it so uncomfortable.
Chords from the song: E minor, D major, A minor, B minor
8. i VI i VI
Taking another chord progression from a song I love, this one comes from “Vicarious Atonement” by The Mars Volta. What makes this song sound menacing is a poorly defined tempo, with very slow moving chords along with lots of creepy sound effects and the haunting vocals. I also just love the guitar parts in this song.
Chords from the song: C minor, A flat major, C minor, A flat major
9. ib5 ib5 III2 iv7
This chord progression comes from one of the most famous ominous songs I know of, “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. While its true that the song came to popularity by way of Johnny Cash’s cover of the song, the NiN version is far more ominous in my opinion.
It achieves this with an incredibly dissonant chord progression, haunting lyrics, and a slightly crazy sounding vocal performance.
Chords from the song: B minor flat 5, D2, E minor 7
Writing Ominous Music
As you should well know, a chord progression alone isn’t enough to create ominous music. So while I write these chord progression articles I try to take note of the themes I find in the music that contribute to the unique sound.
Here are the things I feel help create ominous sounds:
- Vocal performance – Not all of these songs even have vocal parts, but those that do all have some incredible vocal performances. From distortion effects to sloppy, insane sounding singing, the vocals must match the vibe of the music.
- Dissonance – #9 on the list is a great example of how dissonance can totally screw with a perfectly normal chord progression. Throwing in notes that don’t belong can really add to the creepy factor.
- Sound effects – The sound of a distant crash or just some sound that seems unnatural can make the listener feel uncomfortable.
- Usually slower tempos – Slower tempos aren’t required, but they can often create the feeling of walking slowly, carefully through a world that just isn’t right (see video games like The Last of Us).
Of course there are dozens of factors that add to the threatening feeling that these songs create, but these four items seemed to be present in most of them.
Also, when writing music, I always find it helpful to just listen to lots of music that exemplifies what I’m trying to create. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from other artists.