In this post, I'll be going through some chord progressions commonly associated with a grand feeling, or "epicness," with some examples of how they've been used in popular media.
Chords & Expression
Expression isn’t strongly intrinsic to a chord progression. On their own, chords don’t do much and are reliant on the arrangement for their expressive power. Even if it is a simple strings arrangement, every aspect of it contributes to which facet of the chords is being expressed and how strongly it comes across.
So, when we go through these examples, take note of how the composition is arranged.
The chords in this post are written out as text. A slash (“/”) refers to the end of a measure and a hyphen (“-“) refers to a beat. If there are no beats written out, a chord lasts for the full measure.
Examples of Epic Chord Progressions
This is a selection of my personal favourites when it comes to chord progressions that fit into the definition of “epic.” I’m writing these down as they come to me, and I’ll try to include an equal number of examples from film and video game soundtracks.
Howard Shore – A Journey in the Dark
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 2:48 and 3:06.
F / Am / F / G / C
My favourite musical moment of the entire trilogy. The fellowship walks inside the massive dwarven city of Dwarrowdelf. ‘Tis indeed an eye-opener. The chord progression is simple; two upwards movements (from the F) combined with upwards step-wise melody in the strings.
Note the amount of tension created by the initial upwards third, from the F to the Am, which is then enhanced by one of the most powerful movements of them all, a downwards third, in this case back down to the F, followed by an upwards second and then finally released by a perfect cadence, G to C.
Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard – Honor Him
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 1:12 and 2:18.
F#m / D(add6) / E / E / F#m – E / D / D / Bm / E / C#m / F#m
I’ve always been fond of this track since it employs one of my favourite chord movements; going from the i to the VI with an added sixth, here sung by the vocals.
It’s built as a classic rise-and-fall, and it employs two downwards stepwise movements in a row with the melody playing the thirds, resulting in a harmonic and pleasing progression; a good juxtaposition between strong triad harmony and the sixth.
Klaus Badelt – He’s a Pirate
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 0:05 and 0:18.
Dm / B♭ / Am / Dm / B♭ / F / C / Dm / Dm / B♭ / Gm / Dm / Dm / A / A / A
The score to the first Pirates of the Caribbean films was a bit of a mess and Hans Zimmer is often falsely accredited with many of the compositions that were later used in the sequels. I’m quite sure that this is Badelt’s work because it’s back to basics. The melody is the very typical “upwards to chord note”-pattern that is the underlying structure of so many themes (I’ve often compared this track to the seminal Jeremy Soule’s Nerevar Rising.).
He’s a Pirate plays at a quick pace at double-time and both the chords and melody jump back and forth, creating an expression that is somehow epic but still friendly and jaunty. Perhaps the word is “cool.”
Inon Zur – Fallout 3 Title Theme
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 0:00 and 1:00.
Cm / C
A♭ / B♭ / Cm
Whilst this track may not be the best example for either of these progressions, it is a well-known one and it deserves mention because of the arrangement.
The upper chord progression is used at the beginning of the track. That Zurian brass blares up just a half-step and turns the initial minor tonic into major. It’s a small movement that has nevertheless become quite popular since.
The lower progression is the climax, which begins at 0:47, and it is our old friend the three-chord progression.
Jack Wall – Suicide Mission
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is almost the entire track.
Dm / B♭ / C / Gm / B♭ / F / Gm / Dm
You’ve got to love this one. Excellent melody, great ostinato, an exciting time signature and it’s played during one of my all-time favourite battle scenes from any video game; the ending to Mass Effect 2. It starts off on a high note and grows throughout the full length of the piece. I’ve always thought that Jack Wall has a very good understanding of video game music and this track is a testament to that.
You can examine the entire arrangement in the YouTube video linked above. I should mention that the rhythm is unusually integral to the expression of this piece.
Clint Mansell – Earth
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is almost the entire track.
Em / C / D / Em / Em / G / Am / Bm
Since we’re on the Mass Effect theme, we might as well include this one. This track is an excellent example of when a chord progression is almost enough on its own to express an emotion. There is no melody; the piano plays the tonic and third above the bassline and even the orchestral arrangement is without motif.
Following the Am with a Bm after the stepwise movement from the G is a bold move. At that point, you’re outside the three-chord area and without common tone. This creates an almost strained sensation, a rather mechanical upwards movement, as if the music is dragging something heavy along with it as it moves.
Harry Gregson-Williams – Metal Gear Solid 3 Main Theme
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is from 5:32 to 6:14. Make sure you wait for 5:55.
Am / F / C / G / Am / F / Em / Dsus4 / D / Bm / G / D / A / Bm / G / F#m / Esus4 / E
This chord progression, i – VI – III – VII, is pivotal and common enough that it should have a name. It is the easiest chord progression to grab if you want to create high drama and emotion and it works almost regardless of what you place on top of it. The one danger is that it is very generic and you have to work hard to make it sound yours.
The title theme to Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of those golden video game songs because it is epic and it plays the heartstrings of what video game music used to sound like back when it was simpler and more straightforward, owing in part to heavy use of the classic chord progression. It even has a key change in the middle. It doesn’t get any more classic than that.
Howard Shore – The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is from 4:44.
Fm / D♭ / A♭ / E♭
Same chord progression but arranged with gentle string harmony and vocals to evoke a kind of poignant sadness. In The Fellowship of the Ring, this is after Gandalf’s death and the fellowship is out on the rocks mourning. If you’re Swedish, or speak Swedish, you may have had this scene ruined by Sagan om de Bannlysta.
Garry Schyman – The Ocean on His Shoulders
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is from 1:22.
Am / Em/G / FMaj7 / G/D
Only a little one and perhaps not necessarily epic but it’s worth pointing out because of the excellent use of the moving bassline and inversion of the final G.
Also, Schyman is responsible for the famous song Praan which incidentally employs the exact same chord progression as the above two examples, in this case Cm – A♭ – E♭ – B♭.
Hans Zimmer – Time
Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is the entire track.
Am / Em / G / D / Am / CMaj7 / G / D
The reason behind all the Zimmer in this list isn’t necessarily because of his skill but rather because he so often employs the classic chord progressions and most people know his songs so he makes for very good examples.
I hope this list will be of some use. I could probably spend all day listing tracks, famous or otherwise, with effective uses of good chord progressions, but this will do for now.
All the best,