The truth is that there’s no right way to write dark music. You can find examples of tragic music across many genres and in many styles. I listened for hours and hours to pull out 13 dark chord progressions from pop, country, instrumental, metal, electronic and video games.
And I’ve also tried to glean some of the most common characteristics of all the dark songs I’ve listened to in the past few weeks.
Here’s what I found.
The Common Theme in Dark Music
I’ve listened to everything from Slayer, Pantera, and Metallica to the Dark Souls soundtrack. The one thing that seems to be present in all dark sounding music is dissonance.
Music feels dark when something sounds off. There isn’t clear harmony, or if there is, then the harmony is disrupted by something else in the music. Something in your chord progressions need to convey that there’s something very wrong in the world. And the best way to do that is to create some dissonance somewhere.
13 Dark Chord Progressions
I found dozens, but these 13 seemed to cover the most ground and provide the most diversity among the music I listened to while researching this article.
1. i VII iv v
I found this one while listening to the Donnie Darko soundtrack. In his instrumental tracks, Michael Andrews creates some incredibly haunting, dark sounds. And this progression, while very simple, maintains tension with three minor chords.
2. i III VII IV
Speaking of Donnie Darko, it’s the movie that made Mad World one of the most popular dark songs ever. And this is the chord progression that makes it all work. “I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad. The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.”
3. v VI v VI v VI v iv i VI i VI
I found this one while listening to a playlist on Spotify called “Dark Synthwave” and this dark chord progression comes from a song called Covenant by Electric Dragon.
4. i VII VI v
It may come as a surprise, but even country music can be dark. This set of chords comes from a song called Slow Farewell by Raphael Lake and Royal Baggs.
I also recommending checking out Devil’s Gonna Come by these same two artists. It uses just one chord for the majority of the song, but manages to stay interesting and create some feelings of dread.
5. i i III IV – B minor flat 5, D2, E minor 7
This dark chord progression comes from another super famous dark song. The song is Hurt, originally written by Nine Inch Nails and later made even more famous by Johnny Cash.
The real chiller in the NiN version is the flat 5 that gets thrown in the first minor chord. In the song its a B minor flat 5. It creates so much dissonance, but that’s what makes it feel truly dark.
6. i VII VI iv v iv v
This progression is taken from another very famous dark song, Metallica’s song about the mental terrors of war, One.
7. D5 D#5 D5 D#5
I couldn’t make a list of dark chord progressions without including the intro from Killing in the Name by Rage Against The Machine. This intro sets the tone for something that is very wrong in this world, “some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses.”
8. Emin Ebmaj Gmin Gbmin
I remembered watching the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House and thinking it was very creepy. I found this really unique chord progression hidden in the soundtrack for the show.
9. Emin Emin2 Emin Emin2 Gmaj Emin
This one comes from one of my favorite video games The Last of Us. Something is seriously wrong in that world, and Gustavo Santaolalla does a masterful job of conveying that in his music. The soundtrack is full of textbook examples of how to create dissonance both through your notes and through how you play your instrument.
10. i III VII iv i III VII VI
My wife suggested this one since its one of her favorite songs from her past, and she assured me it’s definitely “dark.” The song is Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri.
11. i VII i VI III VI III
Perhaps the most well known dark songs ever written, this chord progression comes from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.
This song is a tribute to the fact that your tempo, voicing and style can have a huge impact on the feel of your songs. This chord progression can just as easily sound hopeful as depressing.
Chords from the song: E flat minor, A flat major, E flat minor, B major, G flat major, B major, G flat major
12. Gmin Gbmaj Amaj Cmin
While this doesn’t come directly from the song, this chord progression was found while I played along with Chop Suey by System of a Down.
13. i VI VII i
I pulled this dark chord progression from band I’d previously never heard of called Life’s Decay. The song is called Etasthesie and it’s quite haunting. This chord progression is front and center throughout.
Making Dark Music from Chord Progressions
A chord progression isn’t enough to make dark sounding music. In fact, I would argue that your chords are half of the equation at most. You’ll find several of these progressions in upbeat, positive songs as well.
So what’s the difference between The Sound of Silence and The Sound of Music?
Well during my research I’ve noticed a handful of things that seems to crop up time and time again in dark music.
We’ve already mentioned dissonance a bit. One thing that seems to be present in most dark music is some notes that just don’t seem to fit quite right. When every note seems to fit the music perfectly, there’s not much create feelings of hopelessness and defeat.
In mild cases this can just be a minor chord or two, but often you’ll hear something much more shocking, such as notes that are a half step off from the song’s key.
They say that about 120 beats per minute is the ideal tempo to make people want to dance. Well I’ve found that most dark music is either too fast or two slow.
Particularly when going through soundtracks for movies/games/tv shows, I found tempos moving along at a crawling 40-60 beats per minute.
When you get to the metal and electronic genres it is much more common to hear songs moving at 180 bpm or higher.
This is a big one. The way you play your instrument and/or the instruments you choose to play can significantly change the way a dark chord progression sounds.
Think about the difference between an opera singer, a pop singer and a rock singer. You’ll hear long, loud, vibrato-ridden notes at the opera with immaculate enunciation. Pop singers typically sing clean, punchy and opt for predictable rhythms. Rock singers often sing with a growl, and sometimes even yell or scream instead of singing.
For guitarists, effect pedals can significantly change the way your instrument sounds. And that’s not to mention a number of other techniques that can influence your instrument’s sound (fingers vs. plastic picks vs. metal picks, guitar slides, string muting, whammy bar, etc.).
There are so many ways to change the sound of a given instrument.
Dark music often has less mainstream voicings, like extreme distortion, perhaps slightly out of tune instruments (or effects that give that impression), violent playing over slower moving accompaniment. Anything that contrasts with the norm can create a darker feel in your music.
It probably goes without saying, but “hello darkness my old friend” is clearly creating a darker vibe than “the hills fill my heart with the sound of music.”
Your lyrics can go a long way in sparking darker emotions.
Similar to the idea of dissonant notes, anything in your music that differs from what your listeners expect to hear can add to the way your music feels.
I’ve heard music that felt a little off and I didn’t know why until I realized that there was a voice speaking underneath, just barely audible.
I’ve heard sounds in music that to this day I have no idea how they were created. I know that artists are out there experimenting and finding noises they can just splice into their works at an opportune moment. Some of my favorite moments in music I’ve written/recorded are random bad ideas I just decided to try out and see what happened.
Creating dark music isn’t all about picking the right chord progressions, but that’s often where the creative process starts. I’ve researched, listened and put together 13 chord progressions found in dark music of many genres.
The list of 13 certainly contains plenty of similarities between them. Based on what I’ve heard, the common themes all boil down to writing music in a way that outside the norm of what listeners typically hear:
- Dissonant notes
- Too fast, too slow tempos
- Unusual voicings
- Dark lyrics
- Something surprising or unexpected
There’s no one way to write dark music, so hopefully these dark chord progressions have given you a starting point to express your innermost emotions through your music.