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Chord Progressions

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17.01.2022

Chord Progressions

Chord progressions are sets of triads or seventh chords that follow each other. One short chain can be closed and repeated throughout the song. A piece of music can also consist of several combinations: one for the verse, another for the pre-chorus, and the third for the chorus. A song can also be one complex chord progression that creates constant development. The number of triads may vary. Many funk compositions are built on the same seventh chord, but this is the specificity of the style. Other pieces of music tend to have multiple chords.

How to write chord progressions?

Experienced producers build chains with chromaticisms, deviations, modulations and other harmonic heaps. Such moves give the song an interesting texture, dynamism and drama. But there is no difficulty. First, ornate chord progressions may seem old-fashioned to a modern listener. Secondly, a novice composer can get confused and compose something incomprehensible. So stick to a few rules to get you started.

Work in the same key. For example, la minor includes the chords Am, Bdim (you don’t have to use them), C, Dm, Em (E is usually played instead), F, G. Take any of them and you definitely won’t go wrong. But a different tonality will have a different chord composition.

Aim for the tonic. Try to start or end with the first step chord (tonic triad). This is Am (la minor) in the key of la minor. The chord progression will sound complete and solid. You will feel it yourself when you start playing.

Stick to basic chords. Take the first, fourth and fifth steps as a basis. These are tonic, subdominant and dominant. In la minor they are represented as Am, Dm and Em (E). This is the most common chord progression. It provides the most logical harmonic development.

Add other steps and listen. When you have mastered the passage from the tonic through the subdominant and dominant to the tonic, try replacing one of these steps with a third, sixth, or seventh step. Or add the composition without changing the base. And be sure to listen to whether it sounds beautiful. If you like it, leave it.

Use ready-made patterns. There are many cool chord progressions that have already been used in popular and classical music. Taking one of them as a basis is not considered plagiarism. Later we will look at several examples of such combinations.

How are harmonic chains designated?

Imagine that you have harmonized a song, but you have not yet found the optimal tessitura and pitch that would be comfortable for both the vocalist, and the guitarist, and the bassist. Let’s take some simple chord progression: for example, Am – F – Dm – E. If we move it two steps, we get Cm – Ab – Fm – G. Up another step: Dm – Bb – Gm – A. Designations are constantly changing.

But we understand that the overall sound and relationships of the chords remain the same, only the key changes. Therefore, many musicians began to designate chord progressions with Roman numerals, step by step. For example, our harmony will look like “i – VI – iv – V”. Minor chords are denoted by lowercase characters, major chords are denoted by uppercase characters.

Now chords of any key are reduced to seven Roman numerals. Some musicians use even more familiar Arabic numerals. For example, chord progressions in jazz are denoted this way. The main steps are I (tonic), IV (subdominant) and V (dominant). But the other steps are also very often used in music. Just in case, keep a chord cheat sheet. Here the chord composition of each key is written in steps.

I Ii iii IV V vi vii°
C C Dm Em F G Am
C# C# D#m E#m F# G# A#m B#°
D D Em F#m G A Bm C#°
D# D# Fm Gm G# A# Cm
E E F#m G#m A B C#m D#°
F F Gm Am A# C Dm
F# F# G#m A#m B C# D#m E#°
G G Am Bm C D Em F#°
G# G# A#m Cm C# D# Fm
A A Bm C#m D E F#m G#°
A# A# Cm Dm D# F Gm
B B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#

Table of steps and chords in major keys

i ii° III iv v VI VII
Cm Cm D° D# Fm Gm G# A#
C#m C#m D#° E F#m G#m A B
Dm Dm E° F Gm Am A# C
D#m D#m E#° F# G#m A#m B C#
Em Em F#° G Am Bm C D
Fm Fm G° G# A#m Cm C# D#
F#m F#m G#° A Bm C#m D E
Gm Gm A° A# Cm Dm D# F
G#m G#m A#° B C#m D#m E F#
Am Am B° C Dm Em F G
A#m A#m C° C# D#m E#m F# G#
Bm Bm C#° D Em F#m G A

Table of steps and chords in minor keys

What is diatonic and chromatic?

Diatonic is a scale in which all notes are arranged in perfect fifths (up) or in perfect fourths (down). Simply put, this is the usual minor or major scale of seven steps. We can set aside one triad from each of the steps. It will be either major or minor. For example, if we want to build a minor triad in the key of la minor from the note la, we will not be able to do this, because in the diatonic key of A minor there is no do diez note that is included in the la major chord.

Thus, diatonic gives us a clear set of notes, intervals and chords. When we work within the diatonic series, we avoid dissonances and odd chord progressions. Roughly speaking, any key (for example, mi major, etc.) is diatonic. In terms of chords, we have three major chords in major (root, subdominant, and dominant), three minor chords, and one diminished chord (VII degree). In minor, we have three minor chords (root, subdominant and dominant), three major chords and one diminished chord (second degree). As we can see, the composition remains the same, only the order changes. Therefore, major, minor and other «natural» modes (Phrygian, Locrian, etc.) are diatonic.

The chromatic scale is 12 notes arranged in semitones. Two adjacent notes form an interval called a «minor second» (for example, do and do diez). Within the chromatic scale, any melodies, intervals and chord progressions are possible. But musical works based on chromatics can have a specific sound, since the composer is not limited by anything here. Any dissonant intervals and the strangest harmonic combinations will not break the chromatic.

But the careful weaving of chromatisms into the music adds beauty and originality to it. For example, an augmented triad in do (Caug) or a minor major seventh chord in do (C7) for the key of la minor are chromaticisms, since Caug has a sol diez note, and C7 has a si bemol note. These notes are not included in the key of la minor. But you can weave Caug or C7 into an la minor song in a way that fits.

Simple chord progressions

Next, we will consider specific chains that can be applied in practice. We will not take chromatisms, as this is a complex and specific topic. We will use combinations of triads built on the seven steps of the diatonic scale. As we have already said, the number of chords in a chain can be different. The simplest option is a chord progression of two triads.

This form gives the song a specific coloring. Here the return movement is clearly audible. We seem to be walking back and forth, but we cannot jump off this trajectory. And its length can be different. You can give one chord at least a whole measure or even half a verse. Or for example, you can shorten the distance and change every quarter. It doesn’t matter if you’re building a chord progression in major or minor, we have a few patterns anyway.

  • I – V (for example, Am – E or C – G)
  • I – IV (Am – Dm or C – F)
  • I – VII (II) (Am – G or C – Dm)
  • I – III (Am – C or C – E)
  • I – VI (Am – F or C – Am)

As you can see, the tonic triad is present in all pairs. Any piece of music has a first step, otherwise, the music loses its foundation or some other note becomes the first step. But there is an attraction to the tonic in any case. Our auditory perception demands it.

But let’s look at an example where we can remove the tonic from a chord progression. Play the whole verse movement IV – V – IV – V – IV – V – IV – V (or any other, but without I). And start the chorus with the tonic. You will get a harmonious course: the verse darted between unstable steps, but the chorus found a tonic outlet.

The contrast between a chord-sparing verse (let’s take the same wandering between two steps) and a chorus-rich or pre-chorus will also work great. For example, play the whole verse i – VI – i – VI – i – VI – i – VI (Am – F), and in the chorus – i – VI – III – V (Am – F – C – E). Experiment. Even simple moves make it possible to come up with something unusual.

Three chord patterns

Let’s complicate the harmony and add another link. The standard movement consists of three points: tonic – subdominant – dominant. This is perhaps the best chord progression in all the variety of world music. But it doesn’t fit the rhythm for 4 counts, so one of the three steps is duplicated or extended in it. There are several modifications.

  • I – IV – V – V
  • I – IV – IV – V
  • I – I – IV – V
  • I – IV – I – V
  • I – V – IV – V

Why don’t we take one of the side steps? Composers often do this. Moreover, other steps are able to perform the same functions as the main ones: II – subdominant, III – tonic or dominant, VI – tonic or subdominant, VII – dominant. That is, they create the same attraction force in the tonic as the subdominant and dominant, and have a character similar to them. You can replace basic triads with these chords or add them to a basic chord progression. It turns out even more options.

  • I – II – V – V
  • I – II – II – V
  • I – II – II – V
  • I – II – I – V
  • I – V – II – V
  • I – II – IV – V
  • I – IV – II – V
  • I – III – IV – V
  • I – III – VI – IV
  • I – IV – VI – V
  • and so on

12 bar chord progression

In fact, this is the same basic three-chord chain I – IV – V but stretched over 12 bars. We play the first 4 bars of the tonic, then 2 bars of the subdominant, come back to the tonic and stay on it for 2 bars, then 2 bars of the dominant, and 2 bars of the tonic. The beginning and end can be varied: you play the dominant in the very last bar as a transition to the next pattern, and before that insert a subdominant. In general, the following scheme is obtained: T – T (S) – T – T – S – S – T – T – D – D (S) – T – T (D).

This is a fairly recognizable guitar chord progression and is used in many blues pieces. But even more often it’s used as an accompaniment for improvisation. One guitarist plays this combination with chords, the second guitarist performs a jam solo. At some point, they change. The accompanying musician also sets the rhythm characteristic of this form, the shuffle. This is a triplet pulsation (one-two-three-one-two-three) without a second beat. If you understand durations, then this is a repetition of the quarter-eighth pattern.

The blues chord progression is also played on a single guitar. You just need to harmonize with chords from time to time and keep the blues rhythm. You can also play intervals and power chords. Often, seventh and sixth chords are used instead of triads. The rest of the time you need to do solo inserts. And if you play this chord progression on the piano, it’s easy to break it down into a bass harmony part (for the left hand) and a solo part (for the right hand).

Progression of the 1950s

This combination was especially popular in the 50s, as its name suggests. It’s based on the same movement I – IV – V in major. Add a sixth step here and you have a 1950s pattern. The subdominant was in some cases replaced by the second step. Thus, we get two varieties of this chain.

  • I – VI – IV – V (for example, C – Am – F – G)
  • I – VI – II – V (C – Am – Dm – G)

This beautiful chord progression was invented even earlier. It was even used in early classical music. But in the 1930s, several hit songs were built on it, and it became associated with the vocal music of the time. And in the 50s, it reached its highest popularity and even became the basic element of an entire genre, doo-wop.

This chord progression is sometimes referred to as a doo-wop progression. In doo-wop, the vocalists perform the main melodic part with lyrics and the harmonic part of the accompaniment. They often sing the «doo-wop» syllables that gave the genre its name. Four vocalists can make a complete band. But the performances still involved drums, saxophone, piano, guitar, double bass. And all this necessarily moved along the path I – VI – IV (II) – V.

Circular chord progressions

As we have learned, all the steps of the diatonic system are built up in fifths or down in fourths. This structure can be depicted as a quarto-quint circle. Circular chains of triads are based on this movement in fifths and fourths. It’s considered the most logical, strong and harmonious. Pieces of six triads make up the key (for example, find F, C, G, Dm, Am, Em already familiar to us on the circle).

Quint circle

Quarto-quint circle

The strongest version: I – IV – VII – III – VI – II – V – I. Play and listen to how harmoniously this chord progression sounds. It is also called the «golden sequence». In do major, these are the following chords – C – F – Bdim – Em – Am – Dm – G – C. Of course, you can build other chains if, for example, you start from a different step, cut off some area of the circle or change parts in places.

Gamma harmonization

So, each natural (diatonic) scale includes 7 steps. The chromatic scale includes 12 steps. Theoretically, we can set aside 4 triads from each note. The triad is built on thirds, which are large (4 semitones) and small (3 semitones). Accordingly, we can compose a major chord (4+3), a minor chord (3+4), a diminished chord (3+3) and an augmented chord (4+4).

But within the framework of the natural (diatonic) scale, we will not be able to build 4 triads on each step. For example, in the key of do major, we can only build a major chord from the do note. If we try to play a triad in do minor, we will have a mi bemol note, which is not in the key of do major.

And we get a limited set of chords within a key. In major keys, a major chord is built from degree I, minor chords are built from degrees II and III, major chords – from IV and V, a minor chord – from VI, a diminished chord – from VII. And nothing else. Otherwise, we will have notes that are not included in the gamma. Of course, they can also be used, but with great care.

The use of seven chords within one key is called gamma harmonization. Use any of the triads from this set and you’ll have a beautiful chord progression. Some songs are built even on the sequential movement of these chords up (I – II – III – IV – V – VI – VII) or down (VII – VI – V – IV – III – II – I). Such combinations can also be used in whole or in part.

Minor and modal chains

The chord progressions discussed above also apply to minor, including ascending and descending movements. Minor has the same chord composition as major, only the order is reversed. I – minor triad, II – diminished triad, III – major triad, IV and V – minor triads, VI and VII – major triads.

The chord progressions discussed above also apply to minor, including ascending and descending movements. Minor has the same chord composition as major, only the order is reversed. I – minor triad, II – diminished triad, III – major triad, IV and V – minor triads, VI and VII – major triads.

If we are in a major key (let’s take the same do major), but at some point, we settled on the sixth step and began to feel it as the first (tonic), this means that we have moved into a parallel minor (in this case la minor). We can do the same with any other step. The Dorian mode is built from II, the Phrygian mode is built from III, the Lydian mode is built from IV, the Mixolydian mode is built from V, the Aeolian mode (minor) is built from VI, the Locrian mode is built from VII.

Of course, it’s not entirely correct to consider these modes as modifications of the major (by the way, it’s called the Ionian mode). These are the same sound sequences as major or minor, they are just used much less frequently. Composers usually add individual notes or chords from them to give a piece of music certain colors. In general, this is a separate large and fascinating topic. If you are interested, study it yourself.

How to use chord progressions when writing music?

There is no single correct algorithm for composing music. You can build a composition around lyrics, around a rhythmic base, around a hook or a musical idea. But the traditional method is to harmonize the vocal melody. You simply match the chords to the melody and listen to which combination you like best. At the same time, you need to ensure that dissonances and tessitura conflicts don’t arise between the melodic and harmonic lines.

The reverse way is to build a melody based on a chord progression. Harmony already produces many sounds that can suggest a melodic direction. And if you’re out of ideas, try recording a combination of triads first, and then improvise by singing whatever comes to mind over the recording. Or just compose phrases from those notes that are included in the harmonic texture.

How to put together a chord progression? We learned the first way at the very beginning of the article: use any chords included in the key. Swap them the way you want. Listen and leave the combinations that you like the most. Rely on the tonic so as not to get confused, you will always be drawn to it.

The second way: iterate over the chains suggested in the article. Take combinations from the tables. Try two-chord combinations. Try three-chord combinations. Maybe you’ll like the 12-bar blues. Maybe a 50’s chord progression will work for you. Work with the golden sequence. Experiment with upward or downward movement.

When you have mastered the steps and functions, try to break the system. play a major triad where a minor triad should be. Hear what you can do. Try adding some unsuitable chord to the standard scheme. Look for beautiful transitions into a parallel key. Combine different options.

A very useful activity is the analysis of popular songs, both modern and classics. Check out chord progressions in R&B, rock, reggae and more. See how famous musicians build harmony. Pick up the chords and put them into steps. Surely, you will find many examples that will surprise you. Capture the logic and apply it to your songwriting. Learn from the best.

In conclusion, we will say that you should not get hung up on chords. There are many elements that will make your piece of music original and expressive. These are tenacious hooks, a beautiful melody, a cool rhythm, an unusual compositional structure, instrument timbres and much more. But if you add a unique harmony to all this, you have every chance to create something outstanding. If you’re out of inspiration, run some software chord progression generator. But don’t let circumstances hinder your creativity.

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