common chord progressions / minor tonality

So much of the wonderful music that surrounds us is based in the minor tonality. Whether it's an entire song or simply a section of one used to contrast the major tonality, becoming familiar with basic minor chordal motion is an important addition to our musical palette. Common chord progressions tend to focus around establishing a tonic, then gradually moving away from this tonal center, then gravitating back and resolving to the original starting point. We simply create cycles or loops of chords and create our tunes. The following chord progressions focus mainly on the diatonic possibilities within the natural minor tonality. Are you hip to the 7 diatonic chords in the natural minor tonality? Maybe take a quick click to refresh your memory? As we move deeper into the changes, the music begins to borrow pitches from both the melodic and harmonic minor scales.

Motion by perfect 4th from One to Four in the minor tonality creates a very earthy feel, with the tonic or One chord being the gravitational center. Example 1, in A natural minor.

     i   iv   i   iv

ccpmin1.TIF (6628 bytes)

This kind of motion can go on forever, as warm and passionate as it is. It is a great environment to solo over. A common addition to this group is the Five chord, creating the all too common One / Four / Five chord progression. Example 2, in A natural minor.

   i   iv   v   i

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We hear this above harmony oftentimes in folk and rock tunes. We could easily put these three chords into the 12 bar blues form, very common. Another common harmonic motion with these three principle chords of the minor tonality is to simply start on Five, move to Four then resolve to the tonic or One chord. Let's do that. Staying in A natural minor, example 3.

   v   iv   i   i

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Sound familiar? Really more of a rock groove, although slowing it down a bit and changing the rhythm to a reggae feel would create a very cool dance groove. We oftentimes hear these changes repeated a couple of times as an ending to a song.

The Two / Five / One chord progression is a big player in the minor tonality in many of the styles of jazz music. Here is a diatonic realization created from the natural minor color of this important chord progression. Example 4.

   ii   v   i   i

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Sound familiar? So often this Two / Five / One motion is enhanced by adding various color tones to each of the chords. In the following idea, we add the seventh degree to the Two and One chords, while adding the b9 to the Five chord, which is altered to include a leading tone, creating a major triad as it's basis. Example 4a.

  ii min 7b5   V 7b9   i min 9   i min 9

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Are you hip to the "ii minor 7b5" and the "V 7b9" colors? Very character and potentially very important for the advancing creative artist. Cool with spelling the pitches of chords? Check out the tune "Suger" by Stanley Turrentine to hear these colors in action.

A common chord progression in both the minor and major tonalities rearranges the elements of the above idea and adds in an altered Six chord. The One / Six / Two / Five motion finds it's way into many style of American music. Example 4b.

  i min 7   vi min 7 b5   ii min 7b5   V 7b9

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Explore Thelonius Monk's cool "Round About Midnight" to dig this common cycle in action. 

A cool and reasonably common harmonic motion in the minor tonality is to use a "passing seventh" through a phrase based on the tonic minor chord, using some borrowed pitches of the melodic minor scale. Example 5.

   i  i min / maj 7   i min 7   i min 6

ccpmin7.TIF (5776 bytes)

Cool huh? Again, not all that common but very character. Leon Russell's classic "This Masquerade" and the jazz standard essential "My Funny Valentine" by Rodgers and Hart maximize the emotional potential of this simple shading of the colors in a ballad setting. 

Lets add in some of the diatonic major chords created within the minor tonality. The following harmonic motion is the basis for the classic "All Along The Watchtower" by Bob Dylan. Example 6.

   i   VII   VI   VII

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Perhaps learn this tune if you don't know it. It is a cool and easy jam tune. This next idea is an important variation of example 6 from above. We simply continue the motion downward towards the dominant Five chord to create the four bar cycle. Example 6a in A minor with a twist.

   i   VII   VI   V 7

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Getting a bit dramatic huh? The twist in example 5 is simply the G# in bar 20, which we borrow from the melodic minor scale. This next idea is more of a turnaround than anything else. The Six / Five / One is common. Here we spice things up a bit by adding the seventh chord degree to the Six and Five chords but just the diatonic pitches of A natural minor, example 7.

   VI maj 7   v 7   i   i

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Used in many different genres and grooves, the Six / Five / One are the bridge changes in Bob Marley's reggae classic "I Shot The Sheriff." Another common motion in the minor tonality using the major Six chord is as part of the very common Two / Five / One motion. Example 7a in A minor.

  VI maj 7   ii min 7b5   v 7   i

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Although we use the same melody in examples 7 and 7a, can you sense how the minor color deepens with the addition of the Two chord? The Two chord in the natural minor tonality is a diminished triad, so named by it's diminished 5th, a rather dark and unique character.

Another common idea using the major chords within the minor tonality is to simply start from the tonic and move down the scale, building diatonic chords on each degree. Although this entire progression is not very common in creating tunes, pieces of it are, and it does survey what's available diatonically. Example 8.

     i       VII  VI    v  iv     III  ii      i

ccpmin12.TIF (7518 bytes)

To my ears, the harmonic motion in example 8 would work fine in it's entirety as music to take the tune out, to end the tune, as the tag or coda if you will. I think using the inverted pedal tone of the melody helps. 

The minor tonality has additional resources that create additional harmonies not found diatonically with the natural minor scale. Lets explore those possibilities. First, lets compare the natural, harmonic and melodic minor scales. Using A as the fundamental or root, lets compare these different hues of minor color. Example 9.

natural minor scale harmonic minor scale  melodic minor scale

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Close your eyes and see if you can identify the three variations of the minor scale in example 9. Easy huh? The raised 7th degree of the harmonic minor group is a dead giveaway. While the melodic minor seems to struggle with the notion of coming into the distinct light of the major tonality, yes? However described, the distinction between the three hues of the minor color are potentially important. So what additional harmonic colors do we get from adding the leading tone of the harmonic minor scale. Lets place the leading tone G# into example 7 from above then look extract for the common practice, everyday, garden variety harmonic coolness. Example 10.

  i      vii   VI   V 7   iv   III+5   ii     i

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Not too pretty huh? The really important new chord comes from bar 53, the E 7 chord. By adding the G#, our Five chord in the minor tonality evolves from a minor triad to a major triad. In all of the styles of American music, basing the dominant color on the major triad is very common, cool and to a certain degree, necessary. Why? Well having a leading tone, makes all the difference in the theory and practice of tonal gravity. Compare these two authentic cadences, one authentic ( bars 56 and 57 ), one perfect authentic ( bars 58 and 59 ). Example 11.

   v 7   i   V 7   i

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Which of the two cadences do you prefer? Both are very common in many different styles of American and European music. So, which one do we use and where? Well, that's why we are artists right? We each choose for ourselves, based on what our art tells us. A dominant to tonic cadence becomes "perfect" when the leading tone is present. Interesting in that in common practice, we often find the sub tonic seventh used in the melody while the leading tone is used in the harmony, to sure up the cadential motion. This happens all the time in blues music. Here is four bar phrase in the minor tonality using the above idea. Example 12.

   i   iv   V 7   i

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See? No harm done. Again the idea that in the blues world, this happens all the time. Check out the blues magic.

What about the addition of the major 6th from the melodic minor scale, what new harmonies do we obtain? Here is the comparison of the three varieties of minor scales from example 9 above. Example 13.

 natural minor scale harmonic minor scale melodic minor scale

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Lets place both the F# and G# from the melodic minor scale into the format used for example 11 above and look for cool new chords created by the addition of these pitches. Example 14. 

    i            vii vi     V IV    III    ii    i

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Yes indeed, very ugly, needs a bit of work eh? Well as we destroy the beauty of the harmony of the minor tonality, does anything emerge worth keeping? Well yes, we retain the major triad on Five, pick up a major triad on Four, ruin the Six chord completely and soften up the Two chord to a generic minor seventh possibility. Of all of this, the major Four chord becomes the common Five of Five ( D maj / G maj ) in the relative major key to A minor, C major. The softer Two chord creates an important vamp in the minor tonality, used in many styles of American music. Here is the vamp. Example 15.

   i   ii   i   ii

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Recognize this vamp? Learn Van Morrison's cool classic "Moondance", a rock standard from the 70's that is motored by these two changes. Did you pick up any new ideas on this page. Lots more on the clicks below, so pick and click and off ya go!

common chord progressions / major tonality
common chord vamps
Two / Five / One
common chord cadences
modulation
Three / Six / Two / Five
modern chord progressions
chord substitution concepts
cycle of fourths / chord progressions
blues chord substitutions
American music styles
songs / form in music
non diatonic chord progressions

"Be nice to people on your way up because you meet them on your way down." Jimmy Durante