There is a common theme amongst people who enjoy playing musical instruments or singing— at a certain point in their musical development, they come across “chord progressions” as if it’s some kind of roadblock or, “oh boy, I have no clue what chord to play now” type of attitude.
In my experience as a music teacher, I have discussed with many students that these perceived roadblocks are only present because a couple of foundational pieces to the puzzle are missing. Once we put those pieces together, the road is clear.
Let’s start with the first piece of the puzzle.
A song has to start and end somewhere and it has to sound “right”.
That is your chord progression at work and if you have ever played through a song, you have already played a chord progression.
Every song has a tonal center or a key that all of the other chords revolve around. That tonal center could be the key of C Major (CM) for example.
CM is a great key to use as an example because it is simply all of the white keys on the piano. Each one of these seven notes (in an octave) is the diatonic scale and each of these notes has a number which is expressed in Roman numerals in the Western musical tradition.
C Major Diatonic Scale Degrees
The note C is the root or the 1st degree of the scale while the rest of the notes move away from it in degrees, whereby we can now say that the note E is a third (III) away from C, and B is the seventh and so on.
Likewise, if we started the above table with a D, we would be in the key of D major and the D would be the first degree while F# would be the third. This is because the scale degrees remain static even though we changed the key.
What does this have to do with chords or chord progressions?
Well, we can apply these scale degrees to chords and once we do that we will play a chord progression or two.
Chords in the Diatonic Scale
If we were to harmonize each note of the C major diatonic scale, we would get the following chords. Each chord now has the same scale degree as its’ corresponding note.
Chords in CM (Diatonic Scale)
CM = C Major Dm= D minor (lowercase m)
Let’s get to some chord progressions.
Understanding Chord Progressions
We refer to Chord progressions based on the scale degrees we discussed above. For example, a common chord progression is I-IV-V-I.
If our song was in the key of CM, that would be the tonal center or the 1st degree of our chord progression. The fourth degree would be F. (See table below.)
The I-IV-V-I Chord Progression
So, our I-IV-V-I chord progression is C, F, G and back to finish on the C.
Grab your guitar or sit down at the piano and let’s play this progression and get a feel for the sound.
If we ended that progression on G, it just wouldn’t sound right. There is a real feeling that you need to go somewhere else (slight musical tension) and ending on the C gives us that feeling of “yes, we’re home”. It just sounds and feels right.
We could say that the first degree is home and as we continue playing we go a little further from home to the fourth, and then a bit further out to the fifth, where the feeling to return home is even stronger. So, we end on the C and rest comfortably at home. That is what the chord progression does. It takes us on a journey and thankfully gets us back home.
Let’s say the key of CM was perhaps too high for the soloist to sing comfortably in, we could then lower the key to AM. That would give us the exact same chord progression but just in a different key as shown below.
The I-IV-V-I Chord Progression in AM
Your soloist is happy and you might get to learn a new chord and expand your knowledge of music theory.
Another Chord Progression
Here is another common chord progression.
I-IV-V-IV: It is understood that the chord progression will eventually resolve to the 1st degree.
The I-IV-V-IV Chord Progression
In this one we are just repeating the fourth degree after already playing the fifth before the resolution to home (CM). It adds another level of interest.
Variations on Chord Progressions
There are many different ways and techniques to create tension and resolution within a song or part of a song. For example, play a dominant 7th for the fifth degree. The dominant 7th is merely a major chord with a flatted 7th added, and in the example of CM, the V of our chord progression, we could play a G7 to create even more musical tension before resolving back to the C.
There are many other ways to move around the 1st degree in any key using different compositional techniques.
I hope that you have learned a little bit about chord progressions and put a few more pieces into the puzzle to help you with your playing or writing.
Enjoy your daily journeys and take those roadblocks in stride.
About the Author
This is a guest post by Marc-Andre Seguin, the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher at JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.