What are chord progressions?
There are countless chord sequences possible to make in order to create a song, but some sequences are very common to appear due to their sound effect, and for that reason they are called cadences (or chord progressions). A very common cadence, as seen in the article “Harmonic Functions”, is cadence IV – V – I.
The cadences serve as a pattern (cliché), something that can be applied in different contexts, in order to create some harmonic sensation. Therefore, chord progressions work on top of harmonic functions.
Consider, for example, the sequence of degrees II – V – I. We’ve seen that the 2nd degree performs the subdominant function, the 5th degree performs the dominant function and the 1st degree is the tonic.
We can see that this sequence creates precisely the idea of suspend/prepare/conclude.
Major Chord Progression
When the tonic is a major chord, this chord progression (using tetrads) usually has the following format:
IIm7 – V7 – Imaj7
Example in the key of C major:
Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7
If you are still having difficulty associating degrees (I, II, III, etc.) with its respective harmonic functions, it is better for you to go back and study the topic “harmonic functions” carefully once again, writing it on paper and playing it on your instrument until you memorize that part well. This is very important and needs to be automatic in your head.
You need to see the chords of a key as if they had a surname, which is their harmonic function. From now on, we will talk about the functions and their degrees all the time, so if you didn’t get the essence of it all, you will have difficulties.
It is better to take one step back and then two steps forward. This way will evolve. Otherwise, you may find this study cumbersome and even think about giving up. But don’t make this mistake, we are reaching the most interesting and powerful points of music! It is worth investing in it and moving slowly!!
Minor Chord Progression
Great, for those who understood the previous example well, we can also create this idea of suspend/prepare/conclude when the tonic is a minor chord. In this case, the cadence usually takes the following form:
IIm7(b5) – V7(b9) – Im7
Example in C minor key:
Dm7(b5) – G7(b9) – Cm7
These formats did not come by chance, after all these chords (in the two examples that we show) belong to the major and minor keys of C, respectively. Check them out (in orange):
The only “different” chord that we showed earlier and did not appear in this table is the dominant one in the II – V – I progression for minor chord, because in the minor key it has the format Vm7 (Gm7) and in our example it appeared as G7(b9).
The explanation is that this format (Vm7) does not have a tritone (which characterizes the “tension” of the dominant function), so we turned it into a V7 chord (G7).
In addition, we added a flat ninth (G7b9), because this note b9 of G (Ab, in this case) is the minor sixth of C, which is present in C minor scale (on the major scale, the sixth is major!). This alleviated a little the fact that the G7 chord is major and does not belong to the C minor key, as we just said.
Great, but there is another very common chord progression for minor chords:
IIm7(b5) – V7(#5) – Im7(9)
Example in C tonic:
Dm7(b5) – G7(#5) – Cm7(9)
The difference here in relation to the previous format was to place a major 9th in the tonic. This alteration made the dominant change too (it received an augmented 5th), as this enabled an interesting chromaticism between the D# and D notes (augmented 5th of G and major 9th of C). So this format is widely used and well accepted.
Well, we finished the first part of this study showing the typical chord progression formats that appear most in the songs. Now we’ll talk a little bit about how they can be useful for a variety of purposes.
How to Use Chord Progressions
Now that you know the typical formats of chord progressions II – V – I, we will continue our approach by showing useful applications.
In addition to being pleasing to the ear in any context, the chord progressions can be used to make tonality changes (modulations). So that a change of tonality is not sudden and “painful” to the ears, a progression is used.
Example: Imagine that a song is in A major and, for some reason, you want to change the tonality in the chorus to E major. The most automatic way to do this is to simply play the key of E major in the chorus directly, which would shock the listener (probably in a negative way).
Another way would be to make a II – V – I progression for E major. We would therefore take the F#m7 chord to serve as IIm7 of E. To complete the II, V, I progression we would play, after F#m7, the fifth degree of E, which is B7, and then resolve in Emaj7.
Notice how the sequence F#m7 – B7 – Emaj7 is a II – V – I progression.
The cool thing about this is that the F#m7 chord belongs to the key of A major (it’s the VI degree), in addition to also belonging to the key of E major (II degree). This made this change in tonality much smoother. We were in A major, and the first progression chord II – V – I of E still belonged to the key of A (so far, the listener does not know that the tonality will change). The B7 chord is no longer part of the A major key, so here the listener already sees the change. But, although this chord does not belong to the A key, its appearance in the song is not so sudden due to the F#m7 that precedes it.
Our ear accepts the II, V, I progression very well for its sensation, so our brain adapts quickly by understanding the logic, projecting a II, V, I progression to E instead of rejecting B7 for not belonging to the key of A. When we play Emaj7, this chord is nothing more than an expected consequence of the progression, and is no longer an out of context chord.
In addition to this application, a chord progression can be useful to give more body to a harmony. Consider the song below, which contains only 4 chords and is repeated continuously:
| Dm7(9) | Gm7 | Cmaj7 | A7(#5) |
Since the song returns to Dm7(9) after A7(#5), we have a “dominant – tonic” (V – I) sequence here. We can use the last bar to add a chord that serves as a second degree to complete a II – V – I cadence. The second degree of D is E, so we will use Em7(b5), because the sequence IIm7(b5) – V7 (#5) resolves well on a minor chord, as we’ve already seen. Thus, we are left with:
| Dm7(9) | Gm7 | Cmaj7 | Em7(b5) A7(#5) |
We can work on this harmony even more. Note that we have another II, V, I progression happening: Dm7, Gm7, Cmaj7. However, the fifth degree here is minor instead of major (Vm7 instead of V7). We can then transform it into a major chord with seventh (G7) to further characterize this II – V – I progression that is resolving in a major chord (Cmaj7). Now we are left with a typical II, V, I of resolution in a major chord, notice:
| Dm7(9) | G7 | Cmaj7 | Em7(b5) A7(#5) |
This work that we have done is known as reharmonization, because we have changed the harmony of the song. We will deal with this subject in much more depth in later chapters, but it is good that you already have in mind that you will see many harmonic progressions inserted in this context.
In the next topic, we will continue this subject by differentiating the types of cadences that exist. You will find that not all cadences have this key idea of suspending/preparing/concluding.
Go to: Cadences
Back to: Module 7