What are chord progressions?

July 12, 2006


When musicians describe music, very often they will refer to the “chords” that are sounding in or behind the musical texture. There are seven notes in a major scale, each one can have a 3-note chord on it, and our traditional music theory teachers teach us to call those entities “triads.” The most important triad defines the key, so if the first note of your tonic triad is C, the song is in C major, or c minor. This is the “I” chord or the tonic chord and it is comprised of the scale degrees 1 3 and 5, sounding together. As you zoom up the scale the triads are either major, minor, or diminished: the major is described using CAPITAL Roman numerals and minor/diminished use the lower case Roman numerals; the diminished has a little superscript degree symbol “º” next to it. So as we zip up the scale with parallel triads, they are called I ii iii IV V vi viiº. Cool eh? This tells you that I IV and V are all major chords, and ii iii and vi are all minor chords. viiº is diminished. The most important chords in the WORLD are I IV and V. Rock, country, classical, reggae, ska, polka, hip hop, rap, and … Well, nearly ALL western music used these chords. [There is much Asian music that does not use chords at all: traditional southern and northern Indian music, traditional Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. are not harmonically based.]

For you people who know traditional rock n roll, the song “Louie, Louie” demonstrates these three chords beautifully: I – IV – V – IV [repeat over and over]. Look at the first two measures below and listen to “Louie, Louie” not in reality, but in your inner ear. Press ‘play’ and watch these chords repeat over and over. And as you do, listen to the personality of each of these three chords.

And if you don’t know that song, I bet you know “Climb Every Mountain” from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. In your mind, listen to Julie Andrews singing these words. Now look at these three chords (I have not included the melody: you know it). Do it over and over until you hear this chord progression. You’ll hear the bass start on the 4th scale degree, go to the 5th, and then go “home” to the tonic or root, 1st scale degree.

Remember: chords accompany melody. The chords in the example above are not the actual voicing, just a short hand approximation of the notes.

How are chords expressed? The oldest chordal instruments I can think of would be the lyre and its relatives. They evolved into the harp and the lute, and continued evolving to include ukelele’s, bouzouki’s, guitars, banjos, mandolins, and so forth. My dates are fuzzy, but keyboards evolved from lap-held organs (harmonium) to today’s mega-organs, grand pianos, and of course, synthesizers. All these instruments can and do hold down, or repeat over and over, or arpeggiate (roll) chords to accompany a singer or a melody.

Here is an example of a hymn texture, specifically a Bach chorale. The texture is best described as 4-voices that, although somewhat independent, move en mass as chord progressions where the melody (soprano) is on top, the bass on the bottom, the tenor above him, and the alto below the soprano. What you see in handwriting around these chords is an exercise done all over the world by music students who “analyze” chord progressions. (By the way, the little subscript numbers next to the Roman numerals describe what note is in the bass or whether any additional notes need to be added to the triad.)


The ability to hear, and with any luck, compose using a full understanding of how chords work, or function, is what we teach musicians in school. It is NOT necessary to understand any of this in order to enjoy music. Does it ruin the music my listening too hard or knowing too much? No, but yes, if you play the song over and over until you can’t listen to it any longer.

I offer this post because I use the phrase “chord progression” a fair amount and I thought that it would be a good idea to define it. Simply put, it is a series of chords, or a “progression” that is either explicitly articulated by an instrument able to play chords, or is implicitly evoked by many instruments whose overall pitch material adds up to a chord.

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