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Chord movement

1 Actually, the dominant 7 comes in the harmonic series before the major key's 7, 6 is minor until you get to the 27th interval, and the 4 is more than half way to a tritone. Neither the major (Ionian), nor any other of the western modes correspond. Our western scales evolved to allow inversions. The 4 inverts the 5, and the major 6 of the scale is the major 3 of the 4 (see the Wikipedia article for more information than you really care about). But is not like some medieval theory guy sat around and dreamed this up—it just happened that way. Other cultures, notably East Asian and Middle Eastern, evolved differently, although there are commonalities, and the major sixth (oddly) is one of them.

2 Because I will be using 'leading tone' in two different (although related) ways, I will distinguish by using capitalization for the Leading Tone (as described in the text for this note), and lower case for leading tones in the generic sense.

3 Marketa Irglova & Glen Hansard's "Falling slowly" goes back and forth through the verse section; "Shout," by the Isley Brothers stays there through the whole song.

4 If you slip the 4 up a half step to an augmented 4 (making the chord a major 2) you turn the chord into what is called a 'secondary dominant,' but more on that later.

On this page we will start looking at how you decide what chord comes next. Most of the time, when you are composing, you don't really think about this, but sometimes you get stuck. How do you get yourself unstuck? There are some basic principles to chord movement, and we are now going to look at them, but the most important principle, is to go with what sounds right to you.

Standard chord movement

The first 'rule' is stay in key. This partly rooted in the overtone series. The standard major scale is generally based on the overtones,1 so chords based on notes in the scale sound less surprising. This is also supported by the fact that your tune is probably in scale, so if your chords stay there, you have less chance of running into a conflict.

But the caveat to the 'first rule' is that for hundreds of years, composers have been making use of going outside the key, in various ways, to keep the music interesting. You see somewhat less of this in popular music, largely because the 'three minute song' rule doesn't leave much time, or need, for interest-keeping development. But you still get it, and we will be looking at how to do that effectively later on.

The second thing you want look for is a leading tone. Officially, the Leading Tone2 is the major seventh in the scale and is strongest in the 5 or 7 chords in a major key (it is also present in the 3). Secondary leading tones are present in any chord, though. It's just that they don't all lead back to the tonic. The best ones are on the third of the chord, so major 1 likes to go to major 4 because its third is the 3, a half step from 4. 1→4 is a common mid-song progression, partly because of this relationship.3 But you can make others work, and they don't have to be half steps. 2m, for example, likes to go to 5 because its third is the 4, even though it is a full step.4

When I was first studying music theory, we were told to prefer "upwards in seconds, downward in thirds, and up or down in fourth or fifths." You may have noticed that if you use the third as leading tone, it will always take you up a fourth. If the 1 of the chord is leading tone, it takes you up a second, and if the 5, it takes you down a third. This 'rule' certainly works, but on the other hand, it has become a commonplace. In fact, pop music is quite fond of downward seconds, especially 1 to 7 and 5 to 4. Up in thirds is not uncommon either.

Common progressions

I will again refer you to Wikipedia for more information on chord progressions than you really want.

The most common chord progressions, particularly in pop music, have traditionally been, at least mostly, major. But pop has tended to go minor in recent decades, as I mentioned earlier, although this ultimately does not change the rule. This recent shift could simply come from boredom with the old standard sounds, but it could also be that minor keys fit better with the increasingly popular teen angst.

There are, however, a few progressions that get (re)used frequently enough to deserve note. The first is famous backbone of the blues: 12 bar. In its base form it looks like this:

1 (4 bars)
4 (2 bars) + 1 (2 bars)
5 (2 bars) + 1 (2 bars)
Basic 12-bar form [From Alan Humm & Shawn Foerst, "65 miles a gallon"] 12-Bar Traditional
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Twelve bars in all, subdivided into 4 bar chunks. Jonny B. Goode by Chuck Berry (1958) is a perfect example. Early on the pattern acquired a couple of variations in the fourth 4-bar chunk: 1 bar each of 5→4→1→5. The addition of the 4 gives some interest, and the 5 at the end after the one is, of course, an authentic cadence (see below). In popular parlance, largely because it takes us back to do it a gain, this is called a "turn-around."

Basic 12-bar form, with alternate ending [From Alan Humm & Shawn Foerst, "65 miles a gallon"] 12-Bar Traditional
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Another popular variation is to add a 4 to the first 4-bar group like this: 1 (1 bar) 4 (1 bar) 1 (2 bars). Beyond these standard variations, each writer may doctor up the basic progression in countless ways, and still leave it recognizable. Mark Turner has put together a collection of basic 12-bar songs on YouTube, if you want to check it out.

1-6m-4-5 progression If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

There were a couple of progressions that were popular to the point of nausea in the late 1950s & early 1960s. The first is most recognizable and best remembered is (Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, &) Ben E. King's "Stand by me." The same progression is famously recognizable in the verse section of "Unchained Melody" by Alex North and Hy Zaret (1955). It looks like this: 1→6m→4→5 .

1-4-5-4 progression If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Another popular progression simply went 1→4→5→4 . It is unambiguously used in Chip Taylor's (1965) "Wild Thing" popularized by the Troggs. But by far the most famous version (with an only slight variation—5m), is the Kingsmen's of Richard Berry's (1955) "Louie Louie."

1-5-4-5 progression (from a stock Pro-Tools loop) If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Or you may recognize its inversion: 1→5→4→5

Whole songs based on any of these progressions are rare now-a-days, but in case you were thinking that they are all worn out, and nobody uses them any more, give a listen to "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne ("Stand by me" in the verse, and "Wild thing" in the refrain).

Pachelbel's Canon (exerpt) If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

More recently, to the amusement of many a YouTuber, is the frequent reappearance of the first four chords from Johann Pachelbel's (1653-1706) "Canon [and Gigue] for 3 violins and basso continuo." One of the most popular send-ups of this progression is by Rob Paravonian. The progression runs 1→5→6m→3m→4→1→4→ 5 . It's humorous value not withstanding this is probably one of ny least favorite classical pieces. However, it is almost redeemed by this rendition.

1-5-6m-4 If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

A slight variation on the first four chords give us 1→5→6m→4 , which Axis of Awesome, finds great pleasure in mocking for its apparent ubiquity.

1m-7-6 If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

In the '70s especially, it seemed that 90% of the heavy rock songs had the natural minor-key progression 1m→7→6 in the song (in "Stairway to heaven" it comes in about 5.53 in this recording). I think, at least partly, because it was easy to play cool-sounding lead parts over.

5 You will have to remember the Roman numeral approach to notating chords to make sense of this site.

6 "Good" is a matter of taste, of course.

Thinking in Music lists the ten most popular progressions—ones to avoid if you want to be original, or that you will need to use if you want to write a hit song (from the point of view of Axis of Awesome). The truth is, though, that with only seven chords to choose from within a key, you are not likely to discover an entirely new progression, and the choices will be even more limited if you want it to be 'catchy.' Good writers often go outside of this seven chord constraint (I promised we would talk about how), but even then you are under some limitation by virtue of the fact that you are using the notes within the 12-tone equal tempered scale, and still more if you also want it to sound good.

Nuts & Bolts


7 Don't believe me? Give it a try, but remember I am talking about the 7, not either of the diminished sevenths. If you try it with the 7 , you will have an uncomfortable dissonance; if you use the 7 , you will get a 9 chord, which, oddly, is not as strong a 'leading chord' as the dominant 7.

8 Technically, there are more variations. For example, in order to have a 'perfect' authentic cadence, you have to go from 5 to 1, both chords have to be in root position, and the highest note of the 1 has to be the tonic. On the other hand, if you move from 7 to 1, it is an 'imperfect' authentic cadence, and if you end with the third of the root in the bass, it is an 'evaded' cadence. Unlike what I said about the scales, these names were made up by theorists with too much time on their hands, not composers.

In musical terms, a cadence is how you end a phrase. It can refer only to the last two chords in a phrase, or include one or two more that set them up. The strongest cadences involve our old friend the Leading Tone. Since most pieces want to finally resolve on the tonic, the chord right before it (the penultimate, for you ambulatory lexicons) sets it up most effectively if it contains the Leading Tone in chord positions 1 or 3. This means either the 5 chord or the 7. Better yet, the 57 (which coincidentally is what you get if you combine the 5 and the 7 !7). This is called an authentic cadence.8 You can hear both the 7 and the 5 versions of this cadence in The Chiffons' "One fine day." In each of the following examples, the first four chords are simply establishing the key, and the cadence is represented by the last two.

Simple 5-1 cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI
57-1 cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Ninty-five percent of popular songs used to end this way, and 4 of the remaining 5% faded out. The same is true for traditional and classical pieces (except for the fade-out part). While that is still mostly true in Country music, non-traditional endings are becoming so common as to be the new 'normal.' Still, there are a couple of other options in traditional music popular enough to deserve names. Further, not all cadences, after all, occur at the end of a piece—many simply tie up a phrase within the piece.

The most popular secondary cadence is the half cadence. This is where you end on the 5 rather than the 1. This is almost always a mid-piece phrase ending. The first phrase in "Ode to Joy" that we saw in the section on melody uses this sort of cadence.

Beethoven's 9th: Ode to Joy, first phrase Numeric notation styles
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For what it's worth, the next phrase is authentic (G(5)C(1)). I am not going to bore you with the theory-makers' multiple sub-varieties of half cadences.

Plagal Cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

The third type of cadence you will sometimes hear at the end of a piece. It is officially known as a plagal cadence, although folks often call it the "amen cadence," because that is where you most commonly hear it: at the end of a church hymn. It consists of the 4 chord resolving to the 1. Of course, if it is simply a phrase ending, rather than a conclusion, it doesn't sound at all strange, as the third phrase in "Oh My Darling, Clementine" illustrates.

"Oh my darling, Clementine" [3rd phrase] by Percy Montrose or Barker Bradford (1884) Numeric notation styles
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Plagal half cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Not surprisingly, you can also have a plagal half cadence, which you will hear quite frequently in popular tunes. As with the relation of the half to the authentic cadences, the plagal half simply reverses the order: 1→4. This would be unusual for a conclusion, but is quite common with phrases within a piece.

Deceptive cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

The deceptive cadence, sometimes called an 'interrupted' cadence, resolves to the 6 rather than the 1. Assuming this is in a major key, that 6 would be 6m, although as we will see, these cadences work in minor keys as well, with some caveats. This gets its name from the fact that a normal authentic cadence is set up, leading the listener to expect a return to the tonic, but then the composer slides to the 6 unexpectedly. It not a particularly satisfying way to end a song, so the composer almost always follows it with a new cadence that takes us to the expected resolution. It is used surprisingly infrequently in pop. The best example I could find in the closing lines of The Beatles' "Octopus's Garden."

9 Actually, it goes to the deceptive cadence twice before resolving on the tonic.

10 Not everyone agrees on the limits of what is and is not a deceptive/interrupted cadence. The 5→1 replaced by 5→6, both in root position (no inversions), is recognized by all, but other possible alternative resolutions (e.g. 5→♭6(), or inversions) are considered deceptive by some and not others. Some claim that 5→4 qualifies (in which the Leading Tone resolves to the 5 of the 4 chord), although others call that a 'retroversion.' Whether it is 'deceptive' or not may depend on the context. It certainly has to be a phrase terminator, but if the chords leading up to it do not lead the hearer to expect a authentic cadence, then no one is being 'deceived,' and nothing is being 'interrupted.'

11 Confused yet? This paragraph reminds me of a Piet Hein poem ("If you know what I mean") that ends, "I'll gladly explain what it means 'till you don't understand it." If you want to study these chord and note leadings (perhaps at the piano) to figure it out, fine, but the main point is that cadences are about unstable notes in chords resolving to stable ones.
Beatles' "Octapus' Garden," deceptive and authentic cadences Numeric notation styles
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The song is in the key of E, and as we come up on the end we expect to resolve there. But instead the song goes to a C♯m (the 6m), then it does it again this time ending on the more gratifying E.9 More recently you can hear this sort of cadence in the refrain in Jump's "Mexico."10

The strongest cadences are driven by Leading Tone resolution. The authentic, obviously resolves the L.T. to the 1 in the tonic; if you are working with a dominant seven chord, this resolution is strengthened when 4 (7 of the 5 chord) resolves downward to the 3 of the tonic. The deceptive also resolves the L.T. to the 1, but that 1 is located in the 3 of the 6 chord. For the same reason, you will sometimes hear a phrase cadence of 5 to 4 ('retroversion,' mentioned in the last note) in which the L.T. resolves to the 1 located in the 5 of the 4 chord. This cadence does not have an official name that I know of, although it could be called a retroverted cadence without ambiguity, I suppose. 11

Retroverted cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Cadences are organized by their last two chords, but the total cadence can include others designed to set it up. The 2 chord is often used to set up the a 5, for example. There are lots of variations.

Minor keys

As alluded to above, minor keys work basically the same way; you just have to be aware of the chords that naturally occur in the scale. Of course, there are three different minor scales. If the composer goes with the natural minor, she will loose the strong leading tone, but that may be what she wants. Melodic and harmonic minor work fine. The 6 is major on the deceptive cadence, but functions much the same way as it does with major keys. The only issue is with cadences that use the 4, if the composer is using the melodic minor. This gives her two options—major 4 and minor 4. More frequently, folks go with the minor, but you will recall that George Harrison uses a major 4 throughout "My Sweet Lord."

Harmonic Minor authentic cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI
Harmonic Minor deceptive cadence If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Going out of key

Secondary dominants

The most basic way to step out of key temporarily is to use what are called secondary dominants. You remember that the dominant is the 5 chord of the key (and the dominant seventh is the 57). You can strengthen the movement to any chord by playing what would be the dominant if you were in the target chord's key. So, for example, if you are setting up a perfect cadence (meaning you need to move to the 5 chord), you already know that the 2 chord is a good stepping-stone, but if you play it as a major chord, the movement toward the dominant becomes even stronger. It sounds a little brighter, but more importantly, it now functions as the dominant chord of this key's dominant chord. Let's give it a try. Listen as I play two phrases. The first is all in key (using the minor 2), the second inserts a secondary dominant as the third chord (changing the 2 to major). Notice the difference.

C F/a Dm G7 C
C F/a D() G7 C
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13 Some theorists consider the presence of the dominant seven essential for it to be considered a secondary dominant. I disagree, but I wouldn't make a federal case out of it.

The two phrases differ by only one note (f♮ to f♯), but the movement is so much stronger. You can can make it even more striking by playing a D7 instead of just a D.13

C F/a D7 G7 C
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If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

It is the presence of the leading tone in the dominant that makes the resolution to its tonic work. This is just as true of secondary dominant as of primary ones. You remember that the diminished chords have the same leading tone in their 1 (rather than their 3), so it should not be too surprising that you can make secondaries out of diminished chords as well. In fact in the next section (Modulation) we will see that they can be most flexible in this regard. In this example, only the 27 has been changed into a 47 (i.e. 7 of 5 rather than a 5 of 5).

Another commonly used secondary dominant is 1→4. If you are in a major key, the 1 is already major, so this is just an in-key chord change. In order to make it a secondary dominant, you have to force that 1 out of key by adding the dominant seventh (the in-key seventh is a major seventh). This is what that sounds like:

C C7 F
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Of course, if you are in a minor key, you don't have this problem, although the dominant 7 always gives more "oomph" to the secondary dominant (if that is what you want).

These are the most frequently used secondary dominants, but it can be used to get to any in-key chord. This progression (also in C) moves to a B7 (adding two accidentals: d♯ & f♯) which is the dominant of E and Em. The latter is in-key for C.

C B7 Em
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You can do this moving to any of the in-key chords, and likewise for minor keys, but as with the C7→F example, when the first chord is already major, an out-of-key dominant seventh would have to be added to qualify as a secondary dominant. The only chord that has an in-key dominant seventh is the 5 (hence the name), which, obviously enough, cannot be secondary.

Always another way

14 Although parallel minor is the most common, other modes are possible, obviously. We will discuss modes more at length on the next page (modulation).

15 In any given scale (other than Locrian), there are five possible secondary dominants. The 5 cannot be one, because it is not secondary. The ♯4 (in major keys=♯6 in minor) cannot be because the 7 (=3) is not stable enough for a 5→1 resolution. In the Locrian mode, technically you have six because the excluded diminished is the tonic, so there is no actual dominant. As for modals, for any given diatonic scale (in any of the modes), six of the 24 possible major/minor chords are not available within the seven parallel modes (which includes the current one), and five of the 12 possible diminisheds are similarly not available. It is worth noting that I did not include the altered minors (harmonic and melodic), which you could make a case for including. It would give you a two new standard chords—a major and a minor, and add four enharmonically equivalent (so maybe only one) augmented chord(s).

16 I am calling secondaries and modals 'foreign.' 'Alien,' in this context, is simply my own term to distinguish certain chords that cannot be analyzed as locals, secondary dominants or.modals. This is sort of like insurance-speak where 'foreign' refers to another state and 'alien' to another country.

17 "My Sharona" is in G (1 sharp). The B♭ is a major chord built on the minor third. We could interpret it as a mode shift into the parallel Aolean (minor) or Dorian, but we are seriously stretching credulity here.

18 The part of a song or other music piece, that sticks most effectively in the mind of the listener. In songs, this is usually in the refrain, although not always.

19 By '1-4-5' I mean a song that only uses those chords, not necessarily one where they occur in that order.

By the way, you don't have to be going somewhere for one of these chords to be considered a secondary dominant. An unresolved secondary is called "non-functional," but it is still a secondary dominant, and it may still be the chord you want.

Secondaries in general are merely tools to get where you want with a little added pizzazz. But sometimes you just want to go somewhere because it sounds nice, or because you want to wake up your complacent listener. We saw earlier in Creep how you can use modal shift to do just that.14 The ever popular ♭7 in rock is best understood as a modal shift most of the time. In fact, many of these foreign chords can be analyzed as either secondary dominants of some variety15 or as short-term (often one chord) modal shifts (see next page on modulation). Other foreign chords (F♯, for example if you are coming from the key of C), are simply alien.16 But if you like the way a foreign (or alien) chord sounds in your piece, you don't need to come up with some theoretical explanation (let the web theorists do that for you)—just do it. I'm pretty sure The Knack didn't work out the theoretical basis of the out-of-key B♭ in "My Sharona" before recording it.17

Many rock bands (Metallica comes to mind) made whole careers out of avoiding in-key chords.

Most of the time, if you are just going to jump to something, you will want to match the chord with the melody. If you are playing in C major, for example, and your melody goes to an a, your out-of-key chord still wants to have that a in it somewhere. The in-key chords with a in them are going to be Am, F, and Dm. The out-of-key chords will be A (major), F♯m, and D (major). If none of these are quite what you are looking for, you may be hearing your note as one of the extended chord notes. Maybe you wanted a B7 where the a falls on the seven. You can still sing the a and just play an ordinary B—the listener will hear the B7 with the seven coming from your voice. Possibilities abound. Don't limit yourself.

First thoughts on song-writing

If you are writing music, there are two primary approaches. One is to come up with a melody first, usually just out of your head, and then work out the chords at an instrument, on paper, or for more advanced composers, again out of your head. You may play with different chord combinations, as mentioned in the previous page, to control the ultimate 'feel' of the tune. The other approach is to start with a chord progression, and then add a melody. As before, this might be out of your head. Many writers, particularly in pop music, just play the chords and sing an improvised melody to go with it. Of course, you can also construct a melody once you understand how chords work with melodies, and know some of the melodic tricks that we discussed in the section on melody.

You might be thinking, "OK, so which is best?" The first answer is whichever works for you. As a generality, I find that when melodies are composed first they are slightly more interesting than when constructed or improvised around a chord progression. Of course, it seems an obvious point that the reverse is true—creating a progression first will often, almost always, result in more interesting chords, but this not a rule or anything.

Personally, I have taken both approaches, but I find that the pieces I feel best about were constructed by using both methods in parallel. For a pop song, for example, the "hook,"18 assuming that it is sung, is a good place to have started with a melody. The verse part (or any non-hook portion), on the other hand, often works well when it is derived from a chords-first approach. Sometimes, in the process of adding chords to a melody, you will 'discover' a chord movement that you really like. It is usually possible, but not always necessary, to modify the melody slightly at that point to accommodate. Obviously, it can work the same way if you are going in the other direction.

Also, don't be tied to your first idea. You may get a nice tune with 1-4-5,19 but could well find it is an ever better tune with mixed chords. You don't need to change the tune to get there, as we saw with "Don't worry, be happy" earlier. The same principle holds if you like the chord progression. I had one song that I sang a harmony part for and figured out that I liked the harmony better, so that became the new tune.

Movin' on up (to the next page)

Next we will look at longer journeys into foreign keys/chords: Modulation.

© 2015 Alan Humm