Absolute Beginner's Guide To Chord Progressions

author: Publius date: 03/25/2006 category: the guide to
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Hello everyone, thanks for taking some time to read my first lesson on Scales and Chord Progressions. I am writing this to help guitarists understand the basics of progressions so that they will be able to write better music. I was inspired to write this after forming a band in high school, but we had great trouble writing music because we had no knowledge of chords or how to write progressions. Now that I am a music student, I have learned a great deal about progressions, and wish to share what I have learned with everyone, I hope you enjoy the lesson and take away quite a bit from it.

1. Scales

Many people know about the "scale" do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. Scales can be found in many different keys and modes, and across cultures scales can be very drastically different. But we will concentrate mostly inside Western music, which is based on a 7 tone scale (we get 8 notes to a scale because we double the first note). For each note in the scale, it is assigned a "degree," for example; first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and octave. These degrees can also be written down with just the numbers of 1 through 8. Here is a list of all major scales in a diatonic key (scales starting on a "white" key) (# = sharp, b = flat)
C Maj = C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C D Maj = D-E-F#-G-A-B-C# E Maj = E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E F Maj = F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F G Maj = G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G A Maj = A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A B Maj = B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A#-B
  • 1A) Intervals An "interval" is any distance between 2 notes. Because this is another huge can of worms, I have decided to provide a link to a page on Wikipedia about intervals. This thoroughly explains intervals which I talk about later. Ok, now that you have a general idea of what the actual scale is, let me define it a bit more in depth. The scale degrees I spoke about earlier each have their own individual names per degree. For example, the first note of any scale is called the tonic. This is a very important note in the scale, because to give a musical piece a feeling of completion, you should always end on this note. Another important name you should know is the dominant, which is built off the 5th scale degree. In western music, the dominant almost always precedes tonic in a chord progression. Below is a list of the names of the scale degrees (it is best to remember the names for the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th scale degree, as they are used the most often in chord progressions). 1 - Tonic 2 - Supertonic (super = Latin for "above") 3 - Mediant 4 - Predominant (pre = Latin for "before") 5 - Dominant 6 - Submediant 7 - Leading Tone 8 - Octave or Tonic Alright, now that you know a few critical basic things about the scale, let's move on to what types of chords are based off each scale degree.

    2. Chords

    What exactly is a chord? Generally, a chord is a group of three notes called a triad, consisting of the tonic, Mediant, and dominant of any scale (the first, third, and 5th scale degrees). Often, musicians and composers add the leading tone of a scale on to a chord, making it consist of the 1-3-5-7 scale degrees. For now, let's just look at triads in the scale in the key of C. (o = diminished)
    I = C - E - G - Major (Perfect) ii = D - F - A - Minor iii = E - G - B - Minor IV = F - A - C - Major (Perfect) V = G - B - D - Major (Perfect) vi = A - C - E - Minor viio = B - D - F - Diminished
    Notice how some chords are major, and some are minor. For the major chords: I, IV, and V, are referred to as perfect chords. In any major scale, the I, IV, and V chords will always be referred to as Perfect chords. Why am I referring to these with roman numerals? That is how it has been done for hundreds of years. Notice that an Uppercase Roman Numeral ( I ) means major, and a lowercase roman numeral ( i ) means minor, BE very careful which one you write, as each offer drastically different sounds. Musicians refer to the first note of the chord as the "root." A triad is built off the root by adding a 3rd above the root, and then a 5th. A major triad is adding a major 3rd above the root, and a perfect fifth. The root can be any note of the scale, and it can also be "inverted," meaning that the third, or fifth of the scale can be the lowest note in a chord (ex, C-E-G inverted is either E-G-C, or G-C-E, I will talk about inversions in a later lesson). A minor triad is a triad in which a root has a minor 3rd, and a Perfect 5th above it. A minor third is simply a major third lowered one half step (ex E - Eb, C#-C, F-E, C-B). So in any minor chord, it is simply the major chord, but lower the 3rd by a half step. Notice in both major and minor chords, the Fifth is always perfect. That is why the third is the MOST critical note in a chord. If you had just a Root, Fifth, and the octave, the chord is ambiguous as to whether it is major or minor (however, these are not completely useless, e.g. power chords). You can also add the 7th to the chord, making it V7, which is used frequently in chord progressions. Notice in the viio triad of the major scale, it is diminished, meaning that both the 3rd and 5th above the root have been lowered 1 half-step. This chord is a very dark sounding chord, and requires special rules to resolve back to tonic.

    3. Chord Progressions

    Whew, finally, time to talk chord progressions! First, we take a look at the absolute most basic "phrase" The Basic Phrase = I - V7 - I. That is the basic phrase, the tonic chord, moving to the dominant chord, moving back to the tonic chord. For each chord, we can label each "area" that the chord is in. For the I chord, musicians refer to it as the "tonic area," which is an area that contains notes of the tonic chord. For the V chord, musicians refer to it as the "Dominant" area, which contains notes of the five chord. When arriving back on tonic, that is referred to as the "tonic closure." Let's take the key of C, and examine its basic phrase.
    Cmaj - Gmaj7 - Cmaj
    In order to build this cadence, you look at the C Major Scale, figure out what chords are built off the 1st and 5th Scale Degrees, and then write them out like above. We have just built our basic phrase. Cadences: A "cadence" is a way of ending the phrase. In the basic phrase, a V7 - I, is referred to as an "Authentic Cadence." It is called this because in an Authentic Cadence, it implies closure of the music, and a feeling that the phrase is concluded. Other types of cadences include the "Half-Cadence," which is written as (any-chord) - V, then starting your basic phrase over again. This is neat because it allows you to prolong your music from ending, or even can transition from part to part.

    4. Expanding The Basic Phrase

    In most music, while a I - V7 - I progression is very common, using just three chords can get very boring, in which the topic of "expansion" is then introduced, in which you "expand" or add more chords to each area of the phrase. The purpose of these expansions is to prolong reaching the tonic closure.
  • 4a. The Predominant Area First, we are going to add a completely new area to our basic phrase called the "Predominant" area (abbr. "PD"). The PD area typically contains the Perfect IV chord, which is built off the fourth scale degree of the major scale. As the name suggests, the PD chord "precedes" the Dominant chord, so our progression will now look like this:
    I - IV - V7 - I
    In the Key of C Major:
    Cmaj - Fmaj - Gmaj7 - Cmaj
    Basic Phrase Substitutes: In some cases, a composer may not want to use certain chords at the different areas, and it is possible to substitute a different chord instead of using a IV, or V7. In the predominant area, instead of writing IV in our progression, we could put in a ii, or ii7, making our progression:
    I - ii (or ii7) - V7 - I
    In the dominant area, instead of writing V7, it is common to write viio, or viio7, making our progression
    I - IV - viio7 - I
    Exercise: Write out some sample progressions using these substitutes, and play them on your guitar, piano, etc.

    5. Specific Area Expansions

    Tonic Expansion: First, we will talk about methods of expanding of only the Tonic Area, note: these expansions for the Tonic area apply only to the first tonic area, not the tonic closure; you will almost always close on the I chord. Here is a listing of different ways you can expand the Tonic Area by adding more chords into the Tonic Area:
    I - viio7 - I I - V7 - I I - IV - I I - vi I - iii* (Note: you can only sub. a iii chord if you are moving to IV) I - IV - V - I I - ii - V - I
    Using any of these expansions, this is how our phrase now looks: (any above expansions) - IV - V7 - I Predominant Expansion:
    ii6 - IV6 IV - ii7
    Then insert these chords into the predominant area, similar to how it was done in the tonic area. Dominant Expansion:
    V7 - viio7* V7 - viio*
    *note: when you use a vii chord, you should move to the Tonic chord Tonic Closure: For this area, it is not really "expandable," rather it only has 1 substitute, the minor vi chord. This introduces a new type of cadence, the "Deceptive" Cadence, which is pretty much (any chord) - vi . It is called a deceptive cadence because it "deceives" the listener into thinking that the phrase has ended. Now, using the above expansions, I will write a series of progressions utilizing my expansions:
    (deceptive cadence) I - IV - V - I - IV7 - ii7 - V7 - vi tonic----------- Predom.---- Dom- Ton. (Half-Cadence) I - viio7 - I - ii7 - V7 ton.----------- PD-- Dom.-- (Authentic Cadence) I - iii - IV - ii7 - V7 - I ton------ Predom.-- Dom.- Ton.
    Although this is just the beginning, with just this basic knowledge of chords and progressions, you can make a ton of music with what you have just learned. I hope that you take away a great deal of musical knowledge from this lesson, and that you will be able to apply what you have learned to your music. -Publius
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