MUSIC THEORY—Chord Progressions


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Chord progressions are the formulas that make up songs. Most everyone is familiar with the blues progression. But do you know the formula? We’ll have to go back to scales and then chords to understand how the formulas are put together.


As you will remember from the article on scales, a major scale consists of the root or tonic note, followed by the second (two half-steps higher), the third (two half-steps higher again), the fourth (1 half-step higher), the fifth (two half-steps higher), the sixth (two half-steps higher) and the seventh (two half-steps higher still). Another half-step higher from the seventh brings us to the octave of the tonic note. We also know by using the major (or minor) scale that we can develop chords. A major chord consists of the root, the third and the fifth while a minor chord consists of the root, the minor third and the fifth. We didn’t get into it in the chord article because I’m saving the discussion of chord extensions for a future article but the dominant 7th chord (G7 not Gmaj7) is arrived by adding the minor seventh to either the major or minor chord. So what does all this have to do with chord progressions?


Chord progressions are spelled in much the same way chords are spelled. Major chords are denoted by upper case roman numerals while minor chords are noted by lower case roman numerals. In both cases, if there are chord extensions such as sus4 or 6/9, they follow the roman numeral such as I7b5. This tells us that we play the major chord of the tonic note with the dominant 7th added and a flatted fifth in place of the usual fifth note. Progressions can be as simple as two chords or as complicated as necessary to define the harmony of the song. Many jazz progressions have 4 chords per measure with a total as many as 8 or more measures. That’s 32 or more chords! Typically, in popular music, you won’t find a progression of more than 3 or 4 chords in a particular section of a song.


The chords in a progression are mostly derived from the scale of the key that a song is in. So, using the good old key of C as an example, the C chord is denoted by the roman numeral I and is spelled 1-3-5. The second chord of the key, Dm, is the minor second chord (ii) and is spelled 2-4-6, relative to the root. The third chord of the key, Em (iii), is spelled 3-5-7, again relative to the root. The next two chords F (IV—4-6-8 or 1-4-6) and G (V—5-7-9 or 2-5-7) are special because they are the only major chords in the key other than the root. The sixth chord (vi) holds it’s own special place because it is the tonic (i) chord of the relative minor of the key (we’ll get into this later when we discuss the circle of fifths). It is spelled 6-8-10 or 1-3-6. The seventh chord of the progression (vii) is a diminished chord (7-9-11 or 2-4-7). The V7 chord can be substituted in it’s place and is quite common in blues and popular music whereas the diminished form is almost exclusively used in jazz. What if the song is in a minor key? Just flip everything upside down so that the upper case chords are lower case and vice versa and you’re golden. If you’re curious as to why roman numerals, the answer is that it allows musicians to change keys easily if they know their scales.


Ok, let’s spell some common progressions. We’ll start off with the 12 bar blues. I’m sure everyone is familiar with it but as a refresher, the basic form is 4 bars of the I chord followed by 2 bars of the IV chord followed by 2 bars of the I chord. Then we bring it home with one bar each of the V and IV chords followed by 2 bars of the I chord ( or one bar of the I chord followed by the V7 chord). So to spell what we’ve outlined I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I (or I-V7). Another variation replaces the first two bars of the I chord with I-IV. Typically, adjacent chords share at least one note. Using the blues progression we just outlined as an example in the key of C, you will notice that the I chord (C -E-G) shares it’s G with the V chord (G-B –D) and its C with the IV chord (F-A-C).


Other Popular Chord Progressions— click here

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