Striking A Chord
An Introduction to Scales and Chord Progressions
In his book, The Music Lesson, Victor Wooten names and explores ten elements of music. His spiritual guide on the journey is a man named Michael. As they are working to enumerate the elements of music, Michael points out that music schools over-emphasize the importance of notes. He then cracks that it should be called "note theory."
In the spirit of The Music Lesson, I want to see if we can't take a slightly different approach to learn this note theory. The questions I encounter most from developing songwriters are those concerning chord progressions. The logic that propels harmonic motion can be opaque when looking at it for the first time. How do you know which chords work together? Why might you move from one to another? How do you come up with unique chord progressions?
In a typical Music Class, the conversation about harmony would start with the harmonic series, then move on to note names, intervals, and scales, and finally arrive at Triads and progressions. While valuable, the approach I just described needs to be more practical to answer these questions in a way that inspires new writers to immediately implement concepts and engage with the ideas of tonal harmony.
In this post, I want to try a different approach to chord progressions in major keys. My goal is to describe these concepts without any sheet music. We can approach note theory like a language; we will speak the language and live with it for a while. If you want to learn how to read the language, great! Reading has benefits; you'll have access to more teachers by studying the greats. But if you want tools you can implement immediately to hash out your song ideas, you'll be well set up to do so.
There are a few important things to say before we get into the meat and potatoes of this lesson. The first is that we will be learning to recognize patterns. These patterns are relationships between the 12 notes of the western equal temperament tuning system. This system is not absolute, so if you feel these rules are arbitrary, take them with a grain of salt. The game determines the rules, and the game we'll be playing in this series is the western music game.
We'll start our conversation with the major scale, how we derive it, and how we measure the distance between notes within it. Once we've laid that groundwork, we'll be able to see how to create chords from the scale. After we learn the pattern that generates chords, we'll see how it occurs throughout the scale and its results. That will build a foundation to discuss chord progressions.
I'll be using solfège along the way. I strongly encourage you to sing this stuff in addition to playing it on your instrument. Singing these relations will help you internalize them and apply them to your listening and playing. I wrote solfège off for years as something that only singers needed. I'll tell you now that I cost myself years of progress with that attitude. Save yourself time and wasted effort, and sing the syllables. Don't worry if you think your voice is whatever. Solfège isn't about becoming Pavarotti; it's about connecting to these notes. Solfège allows you to speak the language of music.
With that, We begin.
A half-step is the smallest distance between any two notes in western music. If we start with a note, C, and sing a half-step above it, we would be singing C#. In solfège, we could think of this as Ti-Do. We call a note whose name is modified by a "♯" or a "♭" an accidental.
Half Step Diagram
If we combine two half-steps, we get a whole step. Singing a whole step above C would yield the note D (Do-Re). Some people use the terms whole tone and semi-tone to describe these distances. Use whichever terms you like as long as you know these relationships.
Whole Step Diagram
All musical scales are various combinations of whole steps and half steps. Because there are only 12 musical notes, we only have so many configurations before any pattern repeats. A movement through the 12 notes by half step gives us a chromatic scale. The chromatic scale contains all the notes within an octave.
Chromatic Scale Diagram
If we begin at C and advance through the octave by whole step, we'll derive a whole tone scale. This scale has an almost dream-like quality to it.
Whole Tone Scale Diagram
If you listen to these scales, you'll notice that they lack any distinct tonal center. As cool as they may be, neither emphasizes any particular note played in the scale.
So the question arises, "What would it look like to emphasize a particular note?"
If we wanted to emphasize the note C, we could use a pattern like this.
Major Scale Diagram
This combination of whole steps and half steps through the octave will yield a major scale. This scale is a great starting point for foundational knowledge because many composers have used it to write music. Many other scales are variations of the major scale. The major scale in C is best to start with because it contains no accidentals (♯'s or ♭'s).
Static Diagram of notes of the C Major Scale
Because the scale is an admixture of whole steps and half steps, we need a system to measure the distance from one note to another in the scale. We can use intervals to describe the number of notes spanned. If we cover a distance from C to D, we are talking about an interval of a 2nd. If we play C to E, the span of three note names is a third. The distance between E and G is also a third. Notice if you play C and E at the same time, it sounds different from playing E and G at the same time. These intervals have more specific qualities; eventually, you'll become familiar with those nuances. As we begin now, they are less important than the big picture.
Diagram of Intervals in C Scale
If we play the notes C, E, and G in succession, we move through the scale by thirds. This movement outlines the C Major Chord, the first chord in the C Major Scale.
Triads of the C Major Scale
We can take this pattern and shift it up one note; playing the notes D, F, and A would outline the D minor chord. We can repeat this pattern for every note in the scale. As we ascend, we outline the triads of the C major scale. These triads are chords that comprise three notes from the scale, each separated by the distance of a third. The fancy name for this is tertian harmony. We can play these notes melodically (in sequence) or harmonically (together). Either way, we are playing chords from the key of C.
Static Diagram of Triads of C Scale With Solfege Syllables
Once we've extrapolated this pattern to all the notes in the C major scale, we can label each chord using a Roman numeral. This process is called harmonization, and the pattern we'll derive here applies to all major scales. The convention is to label major chords with capital numerals, minors with lowercase, and the diminished chord will be lowercase with a degree sign.
Roman Numeral Chord Diagram
Now that we've derived and labeled the chords, we're ready to start talking about chord progressions. There is a logic to chord progressions, but the best thing to do at the outset is to identify some of the more common chord progressions you'll encounter in major keys. Let's start with the I-IV-V chord progression. You can hear this classic progression in the chorus of this Magnetic Fields song, Desert Island. It's a gratifying progression because it resolves perfectly from V back to I.
Another progression that pops up a lot is the IV-I progression. This progression is also known as a plagal cadence. This progression has a slightly unresolved repetitive quality; The new order song, Ceremony, takes advantage of this to create a hypnotic effect.
Feel It All Around, by Washed Out, uses a IV-V progression that similarly creates tonal ambiguity. The sampled song, I Want You by Gary Low, moves into the relative minor key during the verses. A similar chord progression appears in Dreams by Fleetwood Mac. Both songs play on the edge of major and minor tonality to create a lofty feeling.
The I-V-vi-IV progression is so prevalent in pop music that the group Axis of Awesome made a career off of writing a mega-medley of all the songs that employ it. A-ha's Take on Me uses this progression in the chorus to achieve a soaring effect after transitioning from the relative minor.
The ii-V-I is the quintessential jazz chord progression. John Coltrane's Central Park West is a great song to listen to if you want to get this progression in your ears. The ii-V-I progression facilitates key changes in a sneaky yet elegant way. It doesn't appear in many pop songs nowadays, but its cousin, the vi-ii-V-I, was the standard for Doo-wop and early Rock & Roll ballads. You can hear that one in songs like Blue Moon.
The final chord progression I decided to include on this list is the Canon chord progression. This stately chord progression gets its name from Johann Pachelbel's work Canon in D Major. You may not know the piece by name, but you've undoubtedly heard it in popular media plenty of times. This progression has been used by all kinds of artists since, but one of my favorite examples is Green Day's Basket Case. Strictly speaking, Pachelbel's progression is I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V. Billie Joe Armstrong was judicious in his implementation of the progression and made it his own by omitting the penultimate IV chord in favor of a direct movement to V. Stroke of Genius? Maybe not. But that's a hell of a way to use what works to get on the charts!
These chord progressions are just a few ways people have chosen to write songs. I have left out plenty of progressions because, ultimately, you should use this knowledge to craft your own. If you're brand new to songwriting, dedicate equal focus to learning to recognize these chord progressions in other songs and playing them to write your own. Learning to hear these will allow you to analyze the form or structures of songs. If you struggle with audiation or the ability to recreate pitches from memory, deep listening and singing the solfège syllables will help you develop your skills. This approach will allow you to learn music like any other language. You'll discover, jam, and incrementally add until you're capable of eloquent expression in your unique voice.