What Kind of Guitar
Should I Start On?
What Kind of Banjo
Do I Want?
Fretted Instruments Whatever Happened
to the Banjo?
Axes in my Life
What is a
Circle of Fifths
How to Give
Wannabe? Did God Really
Give Rock &
Roll to You?
Are You a
Who Owns Folk Songs?
Our article on the Circle of Fifths describes the relationship among the three most commonly used chords in any key, and shows how those relationships hold even if you transpose the song to another key. This article goes on to describe other commonly used chords and which kinds of progressions are effective for various kinds of lines. If you ever plan to be a songwriter, this article will give you some of the tools you need to figure out why the songs you like use the chords they do - the first step toward choosing effective chord progressions for your own songs.
You'll recall that, if you choose any major key, then number each chord according to its place in the scale of that key, you will discover that the 4th and 5th chord are also major chords. So in the key of C, you would have the following chords: C major (the 1st), D minor (the "2nd"), E minor (the "3rd"), F major (the "4th"), G major (the "5th), A minor (the "6th"), B diminished (the "7th"), which takes you back to C. The 4th and 5th chord tend to be used more often than any other chords in a key (exept the 1st, or tonic), so they are called the "subdominant" and "dominant" respectively. Sometimes the 5th picks up a flatted seventh note that makes the hearer "expect" the chord to respond back to the tonic. In fact a "dominant seventh," as it is called, is usually the next to the last chord in the song (the tonic being the last chord). The two "three-chord song" examples in the Circle of Fifths articles show how this works.
Why Do Some Chords Follow Other Chords More Often than Not?As you learn more songs and chords, you'll begin to see that there are other patterns to the ways chords are sequenced in a song. Some chord progressions seem to push the song "ahead" more than others.
Jumping a Fourth - For example, music theory teachers claim that the "strongest" transition between chords is the jump up a fourth. When the 5th chord (or dominant seventh, which is a 5th chord with an extra note) resolves to the 1st (or tonic) at the end of a verse or chorus, it is jumping up a fourth. That's actually a sign to the listeners that you're finishing that musical thought - you've brought out the big guns, so to speak.
Of course this isn't restricted to the 5th and the 1st in any key. Jumping from the 1st to the 4th is another way to "push" the song ahead. In fact, some songs work several jumps up a 4th right into the framework of the song, working their way clockways around the "Circle of Fifths." If you have a keyboard or guitar handy, play the following chord sequence: C - Em - Am - Dm - G7 - C. Except for the first transition, the rest of the progressions are all fourths, a sort of slam dunk of harmonic progressions.
That said, not every line of every song needs a "slam dunk." If you want folks to be thinking about the words and not just unconsciously waiting for the harmonic "payoff" of the song, you'll probably want to mix in other progressions that don't overpower the message.
Jumping a Fifth - I'm told that next to jumping a fourth, jumping a fifth is the strongest chord transition. This is most common in a move from the tonic (1st) to the dominant (5th). As often as not, it is positioned in such a way as to make the next move (from the dominant to the tonic - a fourth) seem inevitable. You will not generally hear more than two jumps to a fifth in a row. An example might be C - G - D minor. But 9 times out of ten, that D minor will lead back to the G, which will become a G7 leading back to a C. So the two "fifth" jumps in a row are really mostly a prelude to two "fourth" jumps in a row, a powerful combination.
Jumping a Sixth - Going from the tonic to a the sixth chord is also pretty powerful. Sometimes this is called "going down a third." C to A minor will give you some idea. The old R&R chord progression C - A minor - F - G7 actually has two jumps of a sixth.
A Note About Relative Minors - Every major chord has a related minor chord, which you get to by going up a sixth (or down a third). For G, it's E minor. for C, it's A minor, for F, it's D minor, and so on. Often the relative minor operates as a substitute for the major chord. A few lines down is a harmonization of "Amazing Grace" that uses Em as a substitute for G just to add a little more motion to the harmony.
Jumping a Third - Jumps up a third may move the song forward (C to E minor), but with slightly less emphasis. In many cases, a transition like C to E minor is a prelude to a move to F. Try C - Em - F and you'll see what I mean. On the other hand, jumps from a minor to its relative major (Am to C) aren't usually as strong as jumps the other way.
Jumping a Second - A move up or down a "step" may be fairly static by itself (try C - D minor - C), but in context of more powerful transitions, can be fairly compelling. For example, the move from F to G in the old R&R progression of C - Am - F - G works because it's "setting up" the 5-1 jump at the end of the line.
Jumps up a second can also substitute for jumps up a fourth. As an example, D minor is the relative minor of F. So if you have a melody that seems to demand a C - F transition, but you want a more subtle progression, C - D minor (or D minor 7 - D, F, A, C) is a great substitute.
A Note about Secondary Dominants - Often the power of a 5-1 jump is leveraged using chords BESIDES the dominant (5) and tonic (1). Most often, this "secondary dominant" occurs when a line ends on the dominant (5). In such cases, the secondary dominant is a major version of the 2 chord, often with an added flatted seventh, leading up to the dominant. In a progression like C - F - D7 - G, the D7 is a "secondary dominant."
Other chord progressions may use this effect as well. In the harmonization of "Amazing Grace" below we added a G7 chord in the first line so the transition to the C sounds even more compelling. In some forms of early jazz music, secondary dominants may occur back to back: C - E - E7 - A - A7 - D - D7 - G - G7. You don't need to totally understand this concept, but we thought we'd run it past you now so you didn't say "duh" the next time someone mentioned it.
Amazing Grace (using the relative minor)
G G7 C G
G Em D7
G G7 C G
Em D7 G
Other ProgressionsThese are just a few of the most common progressions. If you study Tin Pan Alley or "jazz standard" songs, you'll learn quickly that there are hundreds of other progressions, especially when you start introducing chord variations that aren't technically in the "scale" of the key. So you might have a chord progression that goes C - F - Dm - C, using the relative minor of F to soften the transition back to C. But another composer might want to emphasize that transition and harmonize the same line with C - F - Fminor - C.
In addition, chord voicings have a lot of effect on whether a transition sounds smooth or ragged. That's one reason why in pop music charts, you'll occasionally see chords listed such as D/F#. That means that the lowest note played (or the note played by the left hand or bass guitar) should be F# even though harmonically we're still on a D major chord. In a progression like D - D/F# - G, this has a similar effect to D - D7 - G without introducing the potentially "bluesy" sound of a flatted seventh in a tonic chord. But a D/F# can also set up a more subtle transition such as D - D/F# - Em7.
When you start paying attention to chord transitions, you'll notice a lot of transitions in rock and dance music that "break all the rules." If the purpose is to be jarring, and the transition achieves that purpose, fine. But as a songwriter, you'll produce a better body of work if you know the rules and know when your "breaking" them than if you're just breaking them out of ignorance. An example might be the Chicago song "25 or 6 to 4", which uses the same progression as Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" (One way of playing this progression is Am - G - F# - F - E). Before you assume those songs tell you all you need to know about those bands' harmonic "chops," take a listen to ANY of their other songs. You'll hear all the transition types described above and about a hundred more.
Putting it TogetherThis content isn't meant to make you a great songwriter tomorrow -it's intended to give you the tools to listen intelligently to music. And as you're learning and playing individual songs, it should help you figure out why some things work and some things don't, really.
As a guitar, bass, or pop piano player, when you start to recognize things like relative minors and secondary dominants, you'll be very far on your way to picking out most pop songs (and virtually all Country songs) "by ear," which really means "by craft."
Above all, as a developing songwriter, you'll start developing a vocabulary of harmonic expression to match your vocabulary of verbal expressions. Or, if you prefer: developing musical chops that match your lyrical chops.
Pop QuizFor a little fun, write the answers to these questions on a piece of scrap paper.
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