Chord progression

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A chord progression (also chord sequence and harmonic progression or sequence) is series of chords played in order. Chord progressions are central to most modern music and the principal study of harmony. Compare to a simultaneity succession. A chord change is a movement from one chord to another and may be thought of as either the most basic chord progression or as a portion of longer chord progressions which involve more than two chords (see shift of level).

Generally, successive chords in a chord progression share some notes, which provides harmonic and linear (voice leading) continuity to a passage. In the common-practice period, chord progressions are usually associated with a scale and the notes of each chord are usually taken from that scale (or its modally-mixed universe).


[edit] Common progressions

The circle progression, named for the circle of fifths, is "undoubtedly the most common and the strongest of all harmonic progressions" and consists of "adjacent roots in ascending fourth or descending fifth relationship," with movement by ascending fourth being equivalent to movement by descending fifth due to inversion.[1]

Shorter common progressions may be derived from selecting certain specific chords from the series completing a circle from the tonic through all seven diatonic chords[1]:

I-IV-viio-iii-vi-ii-V-I (in major)  Circle progression in major.ogg Circle progression in major 

such as

I-                  V-I = I-V-I     Circle progression I V I.ogg Circle progression excerpt: I-V-I 
I-IV-               V-I = I-IV-V-I  Circle progression I IV V I.ogg Circle progression excerpt: I-IV-V-I 

The most common chord progressions, in the common practice period and in popular music, are based on the first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees (tonic, subdominant and dominant); see three chord song, eight bar blues, and twelve bar blues. The chord based on the second scale degree is used in the most common chord progression in Jazz harmony, ii-V-I turnaround.

According to Tom Sutcliffe:

… during the 1960's some pop groups started to experiment with modal chord progressions as an alternative way of harmonizing blues melodies… This created a new system of harmony that has influenced subsequent popular music.

The use of modal harmonies to harmonize the blues came about because of the similarity of the blues scale to modal scales… by experimentation with the possible uses of major chords on the guitar. This phenomenon thus probably derives from the characteristics of the guitar and the way it is used in popular music. This is also linked to the rise in the use of power chords.[2]

Sutcliffe’s thesis is that major chord combinations, such as I-III-IV-V-VII, cannot be explained in pure modal terms; in this combination, they do not exist in the usual modes and must be explained as a new harmonic system combining elements from the blues and elements from modality.

[edit] In contemporary popular music

from Ottman (1997). Elementary Harmony.[3][clarification needed (what page?)]


  • I - IV - I - V.
  • I - IV - V.
  • I - IV - V - IV.
  • I - V - vi - IV.
  • I - V - IV - V.
  • I - vi - ii - V.
  • I - vi - IV - V.


  • I - III - IV.
  • I - III-IV-VI.
  • I - III-IV-VI-VII.
  • I - III - VII - IV.
  • I - III-VII-VI.
  • I - IV - III - VII.
  • i - VI - III - VII.
  • I - VI - IV.
  • I - VI - IV - III - VII.
  • I - VI-VII.
  • I - VII-IV.
  • I-VII-IV-V.
  • I - VII - IV - VI.
  • I - VII - VI - VII.


  • i - iv - VI - V
  • I - IV - V - VII


  • I - II - IV.

[edit] Rewrite rules

Steedman (1984) has proposed a set of recursive "rewrite rules" which generate all well-formed transformations of jazz, basic I-IV-I-V-I twelve bar blues chord sequences, and, slightly modified, non-twelve-bar blues I-IV-V sequences ("rhythm changes").

The original progression may be notated as follows (typical 12-bar blues):

1  2  3  4   5   6  7  8   9  10 11 12
 I/ I/ I/ I// IV/IV/ I/ I// V/ IV/ I/ I

Where the numbers on the top line indicate each bar, one slash indicating a bar line and two indicating a phrase marking, and the Roman numerals indicating the chord function. Important transformations include

  • replacement or substitution of a chord by its dominant or subdominant:
1 2  3 4   5  6   7    8    9  10 11 12
...7    8    9...
  • and chord alterations such as minor chords, diminished sevenths, etc.

Sequences by fourth, rather than fifth, include Jimi Hendrix's version of "Hey Joe" and Deep Purple's "Hush":

1        2        3 4  5          6       7 8   9         10      11 12
♭VI, ♭III/♭VII, IV/I/I//♭VI, ♭III/♭VII, IV/I/I//♭VI, ♭III/♭VII, IV/I/I//

These often result in Aeolian harmony and lack perfect cadences (V-I). Middleton (1990, p.198) suggests that both modal and fourth-oriented structures, rather than being "distortions or surface transformations of Schenker's favoured V-I kernel, are more likely branches of a deeper principle, that of tonic/not-tonic differentiation."

For the ♭ notation, see Borrowed chord.

[edit] See also

[edit] Typical Progressions

[edit] Specific Progressions

[edit] Related Articles

[edit] External links

  • Impro-Visor plays chord progressions, and suggests and generates melodies over them

[edit] Sources

  1. ^ a b Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.178. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  2. ^ Sutcliffe, Tom. "Appendix A (Pt. 4): Pop and Rock Music Modal Blues Progressions". Syntactic Structures in Music. Retrieved on 2008-07-22. 
  3. ^ Ottman, R. W. (1997) Elementary Harmony: Theory and Practice. Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0137755035.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). "Studying Popular Music". Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Steedman M.J., "A Generative Grammar for Jazz Chord Sequences", Music Perception 2 (1) (1984) 52-77.

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

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