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Chord Progressions

Chord Progressions

Chord progressions are a series of triads or seventh chords that are played one after another. A short progression can be used repeatedly in a song, while longer pieces of music may consist of multiple progressions that are used for different sections like the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. Some songs may feature a complex chord progression that evolves throughout the piece. The number of triads used can vary depending on the style of music being played. For example, funk compositions may use the same seventh chord repeatedly, while other genres may incorporate multiple chords.

How to create chord progressions?

Experienced music producers often use chromaticisms, deviations, and modulations to build complex chord progressions that give the song texture, dynamism, and drama. However, this may not be easy for beginners. Ornate chord progressions can sound old-fashioned to modern listeners, and novice composers may get confused and end up creating something incomprehensible. To get started, it is best to stick to a few basic rules.

Work in the same key. For instance, the chords Am, Bdim (which can be omitted), C, Dm, Em (often substituted with E), F, and G are part of the A minor scale. Choosing any of these chords is a safe option. However, each tonality has its own unique set of chords.

Aim for the tonic. When creating chord progressions, it’s recommended to begin or end with the tonic triad, which is the first step chord of the corresponding key. For instance, when composing in the key of A minor, the tonic triad is Am. This will give your progression a sense of completeness and stability, and you’ll notice it while playing.

Stick to basic chords. To create a simple yet effective chord progression, you can use the first, fourth, and fifth steps of the scale, which are also known as the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords. In the key of la-minor, these chords are Am, Dm, and Em (E). This is a popular chord progression that allows for a natural and coherent harmonic development.

Add other steps and listen. Once you’ve got a good grasp of the progression from the tonic to the subdominant and dominant, you can experiment by replacing one of those steps with a third, sixth, or seventh step. Alternatively, you can add new chords without changing the foundation. The key is to listen carefully to see if it sounds pleasant. If you enjoy the sound of it, then keep it in your composition.

Use ready-made patterns. There are numerous interesting chord progressions that have already been utilized in both popular and classical music. It is not deemed plagiarism to use one of them as a foundation. Later, we will examine some examples of these combinations.

Learn how to utilize the Chord Generator in Amped Studio and experiment with producing your own melody through the program’s online platform.

Table of steps and chords in major keys

Table of steps and chords in minor keys

What is the notation used for harmonic progressions?

Consider a scenario where you have harmonized a song but haven’t yet found the optimal key and pitch that would be comfortable for all instrumentalists and vocalists. Let’s take a simple chord progression, such as Am-F-Dm-E. If we shift it two steps, we get Cm-Ab-Fm-G, and another step up gives us Dm-Bb-Gm-A. The names of the chords may vary, but the overall sound and relationships remain the same; only the key changes. Therefore, musicians started designating chord progressions with Roman numerals, step by step. For instance, our harmony will be represented as “i-VI-iv-V”, where minor chords are denoted by lowercase characters and major chords by uppercase characters.

Now, chords of any key can be reduced to seven Roman numerals, while some musicians use Arabic numerals. For instance, this is how jazz guitar chord progressions are typically denoted. The primary steps are I (tonic), IV (subdominant), and V (dominant), although other steps are also frequently employed in music. In this way, the chord composition of each key is expressed in steps.

What is diatonic and chromatic?

Diatonic refers to a scale where all notes are arranged in perfect fifths (ascending) or perfect fourths (descending). In other words, it is the common major or minor scale consisting of seven steps. One triad can be built from each step. However, some triads cannot be formed within a diatonic key due to the absence of certain notes. For example, in the key of A minor, a minor triad cannot be built on the note A because there is no C sharp note in the diatonic key of A minor. Working within the diatonic series helps to avoid dissonance and odd chord progressions. Major and minor keys and other “natural” modes such as Phrygian and Locrian are examples of diatonic scales.

On the other hand, the chromatic scale consists of 12 notes arranged in semitones. Two adjacent notes form a “minor second” interval. The chromatic scale allows for any melodies, intervals, and chord progressions since there are no limitations. However, musical works based on chromatics can have a specific sound. Composers can use dissonant intervals and unique harmonic combinations to create original and beautiful music. Chromaticisms, such as an augmented triad in C (Caug) or a minor major seventh chord in C (C7), are notes that are not part of the key of A minor but can be added to create a specific sound or feeling.

Chord progression in music theory

In the following section, we will explore particular chord progressions that can be utilized in practical application. To avoid the complexities of chromaticism, we will focus on combinations of triads derived from the seven steps of the diatonic scale. As previously mentioned, the number of chords in a progression can vary, and the most straightforward option is a two-triad chord progression.

This structure imparts a distinct color to the song, and the forward-and-backward movement is readily apparent. Although the length of the progression may vary, we remain bound to this trajectory. The duration of each chord can be adjusted, ranging from a whole measure to half a verse, or even shortened to every quarter note. Whether constructing a major or minor chord progression, we can apply several patterns.

  • 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 can be observed, the tonic triad is present in all pairs of chords. Without the first step, any piece of music would lose its foundation, or another note would become the first step. Regardless, there is always an attraction to the tonic. Our auditory perception demands it.

However, let’s consider an example where we can exclude the tonic from a chord progression. Play a verse movement of IV-V-IV-V-IV-V-IV-V (or any other progression without I). Then start the chorus with the tonic. This will create a harmonious course: the verse will alternate between unstable steps, while the chorus will find a tonic outlet.

Contrasting a chord-sparing verse (such as alternating between two steps) with a richer chorus or pre-chorus can also work well. For instance, play a verse progression of i-VI-i-VI-i-VI-i-VI (Am-F), and in the chorus, play i-VI-III-V (Am-F-C-E). Experimentation is key, as even simple movements can lead to unique results.

Three chord patterns

Let’s elevate the complexity of harmony by adding another element. The conventional chord movement comprises three points: the tonic, subdominant, and dominant. These progressions are widely used in various music genres worldwide. However, it does not fit the rhythm for four counts, so one of the three steps is replicated or prolonged. There are multiple variations to it.

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

What if we consider one of the secondary chords? This technique is often used by composers. In addition, the other chords can also serve the same purpose as the primary chords: II as the subdominant, III as either the tonic or the dominant, VI as either the tonic or the subdominant, and VII as the dominant. These chords exert the same gravitational pull towards the tonic as the subdominant and dominant, and have a similar character to them. By substituting the primary triads with these chords or adding them to a basic chord progression, we can create even more possibilities.

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

12 bar chord progression

Essentially, this is the same three-chord progression of I – IV – V but expanded to 12 bars. The first 4 bars are played with the tonic, then 2 bars with the subdominant, returning to the tonic for another 2 bars, followed by 2 bars of the dominant, and 2 bars of the tonic. The beginning and end of the progression can be altered, such as playing the dominant chord in the final bar as a transition to the next pattern and adding a subdominant before that. The overall structure becomes T-T(S)-T-T-S-S-T-T-D-D(S)-T-T(D).

This chord progression is widely recognized in guitar music and is frequently used in blues compositions. It’s also used as an accompaniment for improvisation, where one guitarist plays the chords while the other performs a jam solo. The accompanying musician sets the characteristic shuffle rhythm, which is a triplet pulsation without the second beat. To play the blues chord progression on a single guitar, one must maintain the blues rhythm and play intervals, power chords, and use seventh and sixth chords instead of triads. Solo inserts should also be added in between. If played on a piano, the progression can be divided into a bass harmony part for the left hand and a solo part for the right hand.

Progression of the 1950s

The chord progression known as the “1950s progression” was particularly favored during the 1950s, as the name implies. It consists of the same I – IV – V movement in major, but with the addition of a sixth chord, resulting in a distinct sound associated with the era. In some cases, the subdominant chord was replaced by the second scale degree, giving rise to two variations of this progression.

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

This chord progression has been around for quite some time and was even used in early classical music. However, it gained popularity in the 1930s when it was used in several hit songs, and became associated with the vocal music of the time. It reached its peak of popularity in the 1950s and even became the basis of an entire genre known as doo-wop.

The doo-wop progression, as it is sometimes called, features vocalists performing the main melodic part with lyrics and harmonizing in the accompaniment with “doo-wop” syllables, which gave the genre its name. A complete band usually consists of four vocalists, but performances also included drums, saxophone, piano, guitar, and double bass. Regardless of the instrumentation, the progression always follows the path I – VI – IV (II) – V.

Circular chord progressions

As we have discovered, all the degrees of the diatonic system are constructed up in fifths or down in fourths. This arrangement can be represented as a circle of fourths and fifths. Circular progressions of triads rely on this movement in fifths and fourths. It is generally regarded as the most sensible, powerful, and harmonious. The key consists of six triads (for instance, F, C, G, Dm, Am, Em) that can be located on the circle that we are already familiar with.

Quint circle

Circle of fifths

One of the most powerful and harmonious chord progressions is the I – IV – VII – III – VI – II – V – I sequence, also known as the “golden sequence.” When played, it produces a beautiful sound that is pleasing to the ear. For instance, if played in C major, the chords would be C – F – Bdim – Em – Am – Dm – G – C. It’s worth noting that other progressions can be constructed by starting from a different step, selecting a different area of the circle, or swapping parts around.

Gamma harmonization

So, a natural (diatonic) scale consists of 7 steps, while a chromatic scale has 12 steps. Theoretically, we can build 4 triads from each note, using thirds that are either large (4 semitones) or small (3 semitones). Thus, we can create major (4+3), minor (3+4), diminished (3+3), and augmented (4+4) chords.

However, within the natural (diatonic) scale, we can only build a limited number of triads on each step. For instance, in the key of C major, we can only build a C major chord on the first degree. If we attempt to build a D minor chord, we would have an E flat note, which is not in the key of C major.

As a result, we are left with a restricted set of chords within a key. In major keys, we can build a major chord on degree I, minor chords on II and III, major chords on IV and V, a minor chord on VI, and a diminished chord on VII. Anything else would result in notes outside of the scale, although they can still be used with caution.

Using the seven chords within a key is referred to as diatonic harmonization. Any of the triads from this set can be used to create a beautiful chord progression. Some songs are even built using the sequential movement of these chords up (I – II – III – IV – V – VI – VII) or down (VII – VI – V – IV – III – II – I), or in parts.

Minor and modal progressions

The same chord progressions discussed earlier also apply to minor keys, including ascending and descending movements. Minor keys have the same tonal composition as major keys, only the order is reversed. In minor keys, the I chord is a minor triad, the II chord is a diminished triad, the III chord is a major triad, and the IV and V chords are minor triads, while the VI and VII chords are major triads.

If we are in a major key, such as C major, and we settle on the sixth step, which is A minor, and begin to perceive it as the tonic or root note, we have then moved into the parallel minor key. This same approach can be applied to any other step in the major key, resulting in different minor keys. For example, the Dorian mode is built from the II step, the Phrygian mode is built from the III step, the Lydian mode is built from the IV step, the Mixolydian mode is built from the V step, the Aeolian mode is built from the VI step, and the Locrian mode is built from the VII step.

Although it is not entirely accurate to consider these modes as modifications of the major (Ionian) mode, they are the same sound sequences as major and minor keys, but with less frequency of use. Composers often incorporate individual notes or chords from these modes to add specific colors to their music pieces. In general, this is a vast and fascinating topic that one can explore on their own if interested.

What is the practical application of chord progressions in music composition?

There is no one set method for composing music, but there are several approaches you can take. You could start with the lyrics, a rhythmic pattern, a catchy hook or a musical idea. The conventional approach is to create harmony for the vocal melody by matching chord progressions to the melody. It’s important to ensure that the melodic and harmonic lines don’t clash.

Alternatively, you could build a melody around a chord progression, as harmony can suggest melodic directions. To do this, you can start with a combination of triads and improvise by singing over the recording or create phrases from the notes in the harmonic texture.
To create a chord progression, you can use any chords from the key and swap them around until you find combinations you like. Always rely on the tonic to avoid confusion.

You could also try experimenting with progressions suggested in this article or analyzing popular songs to learn from other musicians’ harmonies. To make your music unique, add elements like catchy hooks, beautiful melodies, cool rhythms, unusual composition structures, and instrument timbres. If you’re lacking inspiration, try using a chord progression generator, but don’t let tools hinder your creativity.

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