common chord progressions / major tonality
During a recent conversation, a friend mused that "it was the chords that got left out that created chord progressions." Well that shows you what sometimes goes through a jazz players psyche! Just kidding of course, but perhaps there is a thread of truth in my friend K.B.'s statement. Could part of the process of "jazzing up" a folk or pop tune simply include using more passing chords? Furthermore, is there a hierarchy of theoretical complexities between the chord progressions of various styles of American music? Could very well be.
The following examples of chord progressions start with the common diatonic harmonic motions of the major tonality and gradually increase the complexity of range of motion. This gradually increasing complexity roughly follows the key relationships as found within the cycle of fifths / fourths, and as we move away from our starting point of the tonal center of C major, our creations gradually tend to become more complex. And as we increase the artistic challenge by gradually adding non-diatonic pitches into the mix of our creations, do we see a merging of one musical style into another? Do each of the various styles of American music theoretically create their own vocabulary of sounds? And once recognized, does knowledge of their theory potentially open up new areas for exploration and expansion from within? Thus the challenge for the creative American musical artist?
Perhaps the most common of the harmonic motions within our music is based on the root motion of the perfect fourth. Motion upward by perfect fourth from the tonic in the major tonality creates a very soft and soothing degree of artistic tension. The harmonic motion back and forth between the One and Four chords creates a sense of uniting, it draws in the listeners into a potentially warm and protective environment. This basic harmonic motion and sense of wellbeing can be found in virtually all styles of American music. Example 1.
The simple harmonic motion between One and Four is a key element in American gospel music, one of the essential "cores" from which all of the American musical styles evolve from.
Slipping in the Five chord, here we approach the tonic from a fourth below. We hear this in all kinds of music from kid's music to folk tales. The ever popular One / Four / Five 7 / One. The One / Four / and Five chords are also the principle changes of the 12 bar blues form, endless 50's and 60's rock and roll tunes, on and on. You hip to this motion? Example 2.
Next we simply reverse polarity so to speak to create a classic rock chord progression. One to Five, then down to Four then back to Five before resolving. Try this lick with a modern shred setting on your instrument. Example 3.
|I||V 7||IV||V 7|
A common country / folk / rock progressions similar to the previous idea simply moves back and forth between Four and Five, creating a vamp that is usually released in another section of the tune, i.e., verse / chorus. Example 4.
Check out Bob Dylan's classic "Knockin On Heavens Door." A standard for the folk players. Do we always have to start on One? Of course not, reversing polarity again, here is the all to common Five / Four / One chord progression. A big part of all kinds of American pop music, this one really horrifies the older Euro classical cats. Example 5.
A nice variation of the above idea is to simply go from Five to Six then Four. Example 4a.
Nice motion eh? Try writing a hook for these changes as the chorus to one of your own tunes.
Lets add a diatonic passing chord between One and Four. One / Three / Four / Five. Example 6.
The warmth of the Three chord makes this harmonic sequence perfect for telling an essential story, a children's song, love song or gospel tune. Is this harmonic motion the most common intro of all time?
Lets add another passing chord into the above sequence. One / Two / Three / Four / One. Example 7.
|I||ii min 7||iii min 7||IV|
Simply walking up the diatonic scale. Guide tone melody simply outlining the root and third of the harmonies. The Four to One motion created by the repeat in example 7 above is a very American gospel sound and called a plagel cadence by the theorists. Lets add the Five chord to the end of this sequence creating an authentic cadence. Thus, One / Two / Three / Four / Five then One. Simply moving up stepwise diatonically. Example 8.
|I||ii min 7||iii min 7||IV V 7|
This would make a nice gospel type vamp, almost a kind of stately, ceremonial processional. Check out Charlie Parkers' cool and unique approach to the 12 bar blues in his composition "Au Privave" which uses this type of diatonic, stepwize motion.
Lets continue upward and now include the Six chord with the progression from example 8. This creates the ever popular deceptive cadence. Example 9.
|I ii min 7||iii min 7 IV||V 7||vi|
Calling this cadence "deceptive" has nothing to do with it's beauty, being so warm and sincere in a passionately, earnest manner. It's deceptiveness is perhaps in it's slickness in shifting into the minor environment in such a seemingly effortless way, deceptively easy perhaps? A cool variation of the above cycle simply inserts the motion to Six after Three, then cycles by fourth back towards the tonic. Example 9a.
|I ii min 7||iii - 7 vi - 7||ii - 7 V 7||I maj 7|
The Two / Five cadential motion in bar 37 is a common way to converge towards the resolution. Another very common motion using the Six chord within the major tonal environment is to create the four bar "loop" of One / Six / Four / Five / One. This is a very common intro for songs as well as a harmonic scheme for many pop ballads. Example 10.
|I maj 7||vi min 7||IV maj 7||V 7|
The harmonies in example 10 above are basically the "Teenager In Love" changes from the 50's pop / rock world, softened up a bit by adding the 7th of each of the chords. Love to play this kind of melody, a longing quality that begs to be played behind the beat.
In this next example, we simply replace the Four chord with Two, creating, One / Six / Two / Five. This swapping usually signals a stylistic move from the pop / rock / gospel world to a more jazz interpretation. This merging of one style into another is mainly based in the root motion of the chords, as the Two / Five cell is a sleeker, hipper modulator, so essential to the jazz artist. Example 11.
|I maj 7||vi min 7||ii min 7||V 7|
So why are the Two and Four chord so similar? Can you see the Four chord ( F, A, C ) in the upper part of the Two minor seventh chord in bar 47 above? The walking bass line also helps in changing the overall complexion of the music.
This next idea replaces the tonic or One chord with Three, creating the Three / Six / Two / Five chord progression. This grouping of chords just might be the "intro king" of all time. Example 12.
|iii min 7||vi min 7||ii min 7||V 7|
What helps this Three / Six / Two / Five harmonic motion sound so logical and correct is perhaps the way the roots of the chords move by perfect fourth, E / A / D / G. What's a fourth up from G? C, right? Lets add the One chord at the end of this progression. Example 13.
|iii - 7 vi - 7||ii - 7 V 7||I||I maj 7|
Hear how "properly" the chords converge onto the tonic? What we are doing here is to gradually create longer and longer "streams" of chords that are pulled by tonal gravity towards the tonic. As we have progressed down this page, our phrases have simply started further and further away from the tonic, then pedaled back to the tonic. It is the root motion of the perfect fourth that makes it all so easy and sounding "correct." We are in a sense creating musical expectations yes? And we know about expectations right? Well, as artists, we use this ability to create a sense of expectation to draw our listeners in, create the divine longing of love and wonderful, passionate surprises. Here is the idea from example 12 with a bit of a twist. Compare the two examples. Example 14.
|iii - 7 vi - 7||ii - 7 V 7||vi - 9||vi|
The same "sing song" harmonic motion takes us by surprise into the minor tonality, where the minor nine color demands perhaps a deeper reflection. So we play, with colors, with expectations, with the tonal gravity and predictable harmonic motion by fourths, to our own creative advantage. Cool with that?
The only chord not used here so far is the Seven chord. Lets first place it in numerical order with the rest of the diatonic chords in the major tonality. Although one might think that this might be a common chord progression, it is rarely used in it's entirety. Example 15.
|I ii||iii IV||V vi||vii I|
Perhaps it is the predictability, but not one tune in any of the American styles of music I know uses this complete motion. Reversing the order of the chords in example 15 does produce a common chord progression, but only fairly common for the jazz artist. Here is the Seven chord in a popular position. Example 16.
|I vii iii||vi (ii/V7 of IV)||IV iii vi||ii V I V|
Pretty messy huh? Sounds like a nightmare from the Baroque era. Perhaps the important aspect is that once we move by half step away from the tonic pitch, we move almost exclusively by perfect fourth. The easiest way to fix this progression is to simply soften up the chords a bit by adding their 7th's and add a few choice non diatonic tones. Lets do that. Example 17.
|I vii iii||vi (ii/V7 of IV)||IV iii vi||ii V I V|
We can fix this even better by making this 4 bar phrase into an 8 bar phrase. Same changes as example 17. Example 18.
This is the kind of sound that is often associated with various styles Jazz music. All of the seven diatonic chords are present and by adding a hint of modulation, create an 8 bar phrase that flows by like the Kenai river on a Sunday afternoon. Brighter tempo, the sleeker more colorful chord choices meld into one another so that unless we slow it down and take a look, the music flows by with joyous direction and intent. Writing and playing this style of music is not only an intellectual challenge as described hear, but an opportunity to freely express one's ideas at a rather advanced level. Coolness in that most jazz players easily create the above ideas, and can in a couple of keys while swinging along nicely. A sure and solid challenge for the emerging talent. That the jazz art is limitless, bound only by our own imaginations, so naturally it includes elements of all of the American sounds and styles. That Jazz music is potentially the most theoretically involved and technically complex of all of the American styles of music in no way diminishes the joy it so often brings to all who hear it and partake. Perhaps to simply explore Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" when time permits ...
Lest to each forget, that perhaps the best chord progressions for each of us come from the music we love to listen to and play.The following choices continue to theoretically dissect and homogenize the music. Oh well, that's what we theorists do in our spare time! So, pick, click and off ya go!
|common chord progressions / minor tonality|
|common chord vamps|
|Two / Five / One|
|common chord cadences|
|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|
The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. Robertson Davies