Creating a chord progression is a great way to kickstart your songwriting. A good chord progression helps give an overall feel for your track and can generate catchy melodies.
Sometimes, you may want a chord progression that creates a specific feeling or emotion and in this article, we’re going to cover nostalgic chord progressions. We’ll show you some examples, example piano chords, and some songs that use them, as well as explaining what makes music sound nostalgic and the music theory you must know to achieve this in your tracks.
Common Nostalgic Chord Progressions You Can Use
Here are some common chord progressions that provide a nostalgic feel:
1. I – iv – IV – iv (The Minor 4 progression)
This first example is probably the most recognisable, the most used and easiest way to create the feeling of nostalgia. The technical name for it is the ‘minor plagal cadence’ but we prefer to call it the minor 4 progression.
In the key of C major, the chord progression above would be: C – Am – F – Fm
In a major key the 4 chord is diatonically a major chord. In the key of C that would be the chord F major and we can see this chord in our progression. However, there is also an Fm chord, which is the minor 4 chord.
The use of a minor 4 chord in a major key instantly creates the feeling of nostalgia and what makes it more effective here is the transition from the major 4 to the minor 4 chord. It creates a falling sensation, represented by the way the major 3rd of the chord descends to the minor 3rd, and a feeling of sentimentality.
With this technique, it really doesn’t matter what the other chords in your progression are. Having the major 4 does augment the effect, but as long you have the minor 4 chord in a major key, you will achieve a nostalgic feel.
Another variation of this is to use the 2 chord in your major key instead of the minor 4 chord. In the case of C major that would be a Dm7 chord, but if we flatten the fifth, we get a Ddim7 chord instead.
The notes of a Ddim7 chord are: D – F – Ab – C
That’s right. This chord also contains the same notes as the minor 4 chord Fm (F – Ab – C). The only difference is the extra D note, which adds some darkness to the nostalgia and is a great choice if that’s the sound you’re after.
You can take this one step further, even! Try a chord progression starting with a standard C major triad, then for your second chord use a Ddim7 chord but keep a C in your bass. This still gives the feeling of nostalgia but sounds more tasteful and unique than just using a minor 4 chord.
Now you know this trick, have a listen out for it in other songs. I guarantee you’ll hear it used all the time! It’s a popular and effective trick that every aspiring songwriter should know.
2. I – v – v – IV (The Minor 5 progression)
This is similar to the first example, but instead of using a minor 4 chord, we’re using a minor 5 chord.
In the key of C the progression is: C – Gm – Gm – F
Again we’re switching what would be a major chord in a major key to its parallel minor. So instead of a G major chord in the key of C, here we have a Gm chord.
Like the first example, it doesn’t matter what other chords you have. As long as you have that minor v chord somewhere, you’ll achieve the nostalgic sound. Having the minor 5 chord follow the major 5 chord can work too, but it’s less effective than the major 4 to minor 4 trick.
Although this trick may not create as much nostalgia as the first example, you may prefer to go for this if you want to sound more original. The minor 4 progression is now so commonplace that it’s almost become a cliche. Therefore, if you want to be more unique, using the minor 5 progressions may be a better option.
3. I – III – IV – V (The Major 3 Progression)
The first two examples both achieve the sound of nostalgia by using chords that don’t belong diatonically to the key of the music. The technique is called borrowing chords and the same thing is used here. However, instead of borrowing a minor chord, here it’s the major 3 chord.
In the key of C the progression is: C – E – F – G
If you’re familiar with your major keys then you’ll know that normally the 3 chord is a minor chord. Within the key of C that would give us an Em chord, but here with swapped it for an E chord.
Going from a C to an E chord means that the 5th of the C chord (G) rises to become the major 3rd of the E chord (G#) and it’s this ascending sensation that adds the feeling of nostalgia. It also gives the music some forward motion and when using a major 3 chord in a major key, we’d suggest following it with either a major 4 chord or a minor 6 chord.
This is just a suggestion though. Make sure you find what sounds good to you and always go with that.
It’s interesting to note how the previous examples created a feeling of nostalgia through the use of minor chords creating a falling sensation, whereas this example creates it through the use of major chords and a rising sensation. They’re complete opposites but both achieve a similar effect, so is there any difference?
Well, we feel that the first two examples create a nostalgic feeling that’s more sorrowful and sentimental, whereas the 3rd example has a hint of angst to it. How you perceive the feeling these chord progressions create may be slightly different to us, so we suggest seeing how they resonate with you first and then using the one that best matches the vibe you’re going for.
4. I – iii – iv – iii (The Minor 3 progression)
So we’ve just explained that using borrowed chords and major 3 chords is good way to create nostalgia and now we’re telling you to use minor 3 chords in a progression that only uses diatonic chords…what’s going on here?
Yes, while this example contradicts what we’ve just said it’s still another way to create that nostalgic feeling. It may be the most straightforward of all our examples but it’s important to remember that there are many different ways to create a specific feeling and what people interpret as nostalgic can vary from person to person.
In the key of C, this chord progression would be: C – Em – Am – Em
It’s the minor 3 chord that creates the nostalgia here, and it’s not easy to explain with music theory as there’s nothing really that advanced going on here. Instead, it’s more to do with the fact that we’ve heard this particular chord used in a nostalgic context many times and so, when we hear it again, it recalls this emotion.
This idea will be explained further in the next section and we’ll also look at a piece of music, later on, that uses this exact chord progression, so you can hear the nostalgia it creates.
What Makes a Chord Progression Sound Nostalgic?
What makes a chord progression sound nostalgic isn’t so much to do with the notes or music theory itself, but rather the fact that we’ve heard these specific harmonies used in a nostalgic context so frequently, that every time we hear them again we immediately associate it with that same feeling.
In the previous section, we discussed the music theory behind why some of these harmonies may sound nostalgic, however, we believe the cultural and contextual factors are what have the biggest impact on what we perceive as nostalgic.
Ask yourself, would you find these chord progressions nostalgic if you’d never heard them in that context before? Do they sound nostalgic because they simply are and always have been, or is it that way because of cultural conditioning?
Take horror music as another example. When we think of horror music we think of either low, dark, and tense textures or piercing high-pitched strings. If those sounds hadn’t been used in countless horror films, would we still perceive them as scary? The same can be said of major and minor chords. Is one truly happy sounding and the other sad or is it more complicated than that?
It’s an idea that is strongly debated in the music world and has been for a long time. Whatever the answer is, however, either way, the chord progressions mentioned have proven to evoke nostalgia. So, if that’s the sound you want, using any of them will do the job.
How Can I Write A Nostalgic Chord Progression?
1. Build a basic progression using triads
The first step is simply to put a chord progression together. Don’t worry about coming up with something too complex, anything that sounds good to your ears will work.
We’ve gone with: C – Am – F – G
2. Apply our nostalgic chord progression tips
The next step is to apply some of the tips we mentioned. Try adding a minor 4 or 5 chord, a major 3 chord or even a mix of both!
We’ve swapped our G chord for an Fm chord: C – Am – F – Fm
Here we’ve used the minor 4 technique, one of the best ways to evoke nostalgia.
3. Add extensions/suspensions for colour and depth
Extensions and suspensions are another great way to add more nostalgia. Any type of seventh chord can work well here, but major 7ths are especially impactful.
We’ve gone for a mix of major and minor 7ths as well as a sus4 chord:
Csus4 – Am7 – Fmaj7 – Fm7
4. Try using bass notes other than the root of the chord
Play around with some inversions, that means using a note other than the root of your chord in the bass. It could be the third or fifth of your chord or even a note that doesn’t belong to the triad.
Drone notes (where you keep the bass note the same whilst the harmony on top changes) are also effective and is what we’ve gone for here:
Csus4 – Am7/C – Fmaj7/C – Fm7/C
The /C after each chord means that we play the note C in our bass, creating a drone effect.
5. Consider other musical elements
Whilst harmony is incredibly important in achieving nostalgia, there are other musical elements that we must consider. These are dynamics, tempo, instrumentation, and especially lyrics.
Dynamics is the variation of loudness within your music. When creating nostalgic music, having high dynamics (loud) is probably not the best idea. Low dynamics (quiet) is better, however, we’d recommend going for a mix of the two. This means the music can ebb and flow and build to climactic moments.
Tempo is how fast or slow your music is. We recommend avoiding fast tempos as this gives an energy level that’s too intense. If you want something more sentimental, a slow tempo work great, however medium tempos can also achieve a nostalgic feel.
Instrumentation is the instruments you use in your track. A vocal and a solo instrument, such as piano or acoustic guitar, creates a certain intimacy and personal feel perfect for nostalgia. If you want a thicker texture, then adding things like strings, choirs, and synths can work well.
The playing techniques and sound design of these instruments are also important.
For example, you’d probably want your piano part to play sustained or broken chords with the use of the pedal. Strummed patterns from an acoustic or clean electric guitar are better than distorted electric guitar riffs. With strings, long and lush sustained notes are preferable to spiccato or pizzicato playing.
If you include choirs, long oohs and ahs make more sense than staccato chants. Synths may not seem like the right match for nostalgia at first, but if you know your synthesis or pick the right presets, you can find something appropriate.
We’d suggest something more mellow, such as a pad with a slow attack.
Lyrics are arguably as important as the musical factors themselves. Now, this isn’t a guide to writing nostalgic lyrics but content that covers themes such as childhood, loss, regret, memories, and change is what we’d suggest.
Popular Songs With Nostalgic Chord Progressions Broken Down
1. Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger
This popular Oasis track creates a feeling of nostalgia both through its lyrical content and its harmonic language. Let’s take a look at the chord progression from the chorus of this song.
Chorus: C – G – Am – E7 – F – G – C – Am – G
This song is in the key of C major, however, we’ve highlighted the E7 chord as it doesn’t belong diatonically. In fact, it’s the major 3 chord that we spoke about earlier!
The verse uses the same chords but how about the pre-chorus?
Pre-chorus: F – Fm – C (x3) – G – E7/G# – Am – G – F – G
In the first half of the pre-chorus there’s a major 4 chord (F) followed by a minor 4 chord (Fm), a technique commonly used for a nostalgic feel. Then, in the second half, the major 3 chord (E) has been used as a slash seventh chord (E7/G#).
As you can see this song has used many of the techniques we’ve spoken about, including major 3, minor 4, and slash chords.
2. Danny Elfman – Ice Dance
This next one is a piece music from the film Edward Scissorhands. Although a well known film, the popularity of this track is partly in thanks to its frequent use in tv adverts and a recent surge in recognition after becoming a viral sound on TikTok.
So what gives it the nostalgic feeling? Let’s take a look at the chords from the main theme of this track (0:42-1:10).
Bb – Dm – Gm – Dm – Eb – Ebm – Dm – Gm – C – D
This track is in the key of Bb major and a chord that’s used a lot is the minor 3 chord Dm. Earlier we said this chord can create nostalgia even if it’s used in a simple way. We think this is more evidence that cultural conditioning is taking place. This track and chords (I to iii) have been used so often to evoke nostalgia, that we immediately associate this harmony with that feeling.
There’s two more harmonic techniques used in this piece. One is the major 4 to minor 4 chord change (Eb – Ebm) and the other is the use of a D major chord (the major 3) at the end of the progression.
It’s not just the harmony that provides nostalgia in this track, the instrumentation is also very important.
It’s lead by tremolo strings and an emotive choir, specifically a boys choir that conjures the feelings of youth. There’s also heavy use of harp and celeste, which add to the magical and delicate feel. All these elements combined give the piece a huge nostalgic vibe.
3. James Taylor – Fire and Rain
A much older track but one that definitely conjures the feeling of nostalgia is ‘Fire and Rain’ by James Taylor.
Here’s the chord progression of the chorus: D – Bm – A (x3) – G – Em – A
This song is in the key of A major, although the chorus starts on the 4 chord, and the technique used is the minor 5 trick (Em). The use of the G chord also adds nostalgia as it functions in similar way to the Em chord. Both contain the note G, which isn’t found in the A major scale and is actually the flat 7th. The use of the flat 7th gives the music a mixolydian feel, suggesting this mode can be used for creating nostalgia.
When it comes to creating nostalgic chord progressions there are a few tricks you can use. Borrowing chords such as minor 4 and 5 chords as well as major 3 chords work very well (as does extended, suspended, and slash chords).
Another thing to point out is that using minor chords in major keys is more effective than a minor key or minor scale.
Other elements, such as tempo, dynamics, and instruments are also very important, but perhaps the most crucial is lyrics.
Remember that what we consider to sound nostalgic is mostly due to cultural and contextual reasons rather than the actual music theory itself. Furthermore, it’s also a subjective thing, so what might sound nostalgic to you may not to someone else and vice versa.
However, have a go using the tricks and tips we suggested and you should be well on your way to creating some nostalgic chord progressions.
Adam is a TV & Film composer who is an avid music theorist. He plays the Guitar and Piano to an expert level, with over 10 years of experience and classical lessons under his belt. He heads most of the Orchestral Library Review Content and Music Theory Tutorial content on our site. Give Adam any task related to chords, scales, progressions, and composition, and he’ll return an absolutely stellar result. Adam is also a Songwriting graduate from BIMM Institute.