Simple Progressions with Major Chords

This week's lesson is an introduction to progressions. Analyzing, crafting, and playing them. This lesson is concerned more with the "how" than the "why".

Recall, that a chord is a collection of notes in an octave that are (usually) to be played at the same time.(Building a context lesson).
Recall also, that we are representing notes in the chromatic scale with the numbers 1-7 and accidentals (#,b), where the numbers 1-7 without any accidentals represent the notes in the major scale.(Building a context lesson lesson)
To find the letter names of the numbers in the particular key, we can use a transposition chart. (here's one with directions

Now, we will define a progression as the pattern of movement from chord to chord. A progression tells uswhat chords are in a song, how they relate to a tonal center, and (in many cases) what order they appear in.
Let us define a tonal centeras being a note ( and the chord built on it) which other chords in the tonal system want to resove to.
A key is a form of a tonal system based on the greek modes. There are other tonal systems based on other modes, and tonal systems without a scalar/modal basis. (Then there is atonal music). For our purposes, we shall currently just use the concept of a tonal center without requiring it to refer to any particular scale or mode.

We will discuss progressions using the Roman Numeral system. The Roman Numeral System uses roman numerals to represent chords. It is similar to the intervallic notation we already use (1-7,#,b)with the following additions: we use

  1. Upper-case roman numeralsto represent major chords
  2. Upper-case roman numerals with a "+" in the superscript for augmented chords.
  3. Lower-case roman numerals for minor chords, and
  4. Lower-case roman numerals with a "o" in superscript for diminished chords.
  5. Extended chords use rules 1-4 for root chord (base triad) contained within them, and the extension added in superscript.

Here are some examples:
I - a major chord built on the tonal center.
i - a minor chord built on the tonal center.
V7 - a dominant seventh chord built on the 5.
bIII - a major chord built on the note a minor third higher than the tonal center.

note:In the roman numeral system, each interval has a name and function (e.g. 5= dominant, 4 = sub-dominant, etc.) but we will not concern our selves with this now, I just want us to read and write progressions in the roman numeral system.

OK. Let's start looking at some progressions.

I'm playing a simple song. Let's say "Sunshine on my shoulders" by John Denver.( I'm a folkie) Let's say I want to analyze (find out) the chord progression.
The first thing I want to determine is what key it's in. This will tell me what the 1 chord is and help me correctly interpret the other chords. So I find it's in the key of C. ( If I did'nt have it written for me, there's a 80-95% chance that the last chord played is the 1).
Next, I find the chords and the order they're played in. I find:

There are 4 chords: C, F, G, and G7.
Since we are in the key of C, C is the I chord. Looking at a transposition chart we find that in the key of C, F is the 4 and G is the 5. So F = IV, G = V, and G7 = V7. Rewriting the chords in roman numerals the song goes:

It is the basic I-IV-V progression> It is largely a collection of I-IV progressions with an occasional V thrown in to add more tension and greater resolution to I.

Another song with a I-IV-V progression is "Louie-louie" where the progression (specific) is I-IV-V-IV repeated over and over.
"Wild thing" by the troggs uses the same progression as Louie-louie for the chorus. But its verse uses the chord progression bVII-I-bVII-I repeated.
* It is common for different sections of the song to have different progressions.

The progressions: I-IV, I-V, I-IV-V, and I-V-IV are commonly heard in blues, rock, pop, folk, gospel, and other musics. By analyzing the progressions of songs and developing an ear for what a I-IV-V progression sounds like, you will be able to pick it out of songs as you hear them. Developing your ear is key to being able to play music in your head or music you've never heard or seen before.

Another progression sometimes heard in rock is I-bIII-IV (chorus from "50 ways to leave your lover" by Paul Simon)

Blues music is more often than not written using traditional variations of the I-IV-V progression. they are generally refered to by the numbers of bars within the progression (12-bar blues, 8-bar blues, 13-bar blues, etc.)
A typical 12-bar blues is:
(this is not the only way to play a 12-bar blues, but it's the most common one I've seen)

Jazz Progressions are largely based on a circle of 4ths. The most common jazz progression being ii-V. The next being ii-V-I. these can be extended to : vi-ii-V-I, iii-vi-ii-V-I, viio-iii-vi-ii-V-I, IV-viio-iii-iv-ii-V-I. ( in the key of c the last one would be F-Bo-Em-Am-Dm-G-C.)

Let's start playing and applying some progressions.

Starting with the last progression. We'll twist it a little to make it all major chords. So try playing through: F-Bb-E-A-D-G-C. It's a little odd sounding, but if you play it and the one it was adapted from you can begin to hear the difference between a progression of only one chord type, and a progression of mixed types.

You may have noticed that the B diminished was changed to a Bb major chord instead of a B major chord. this is a common chord substitution to replace a diminished chord with a major chord whose root note is a half-step lower than the root note of the diminished chord. This works well because they differ by only one note. (B dim = (B,D,F), Bb = (Bb,D,F)).
The reverse of this is often seen in bossa-nova music. Consider the short passage of a progression with chromatically rising bass notes:
The basic progression is F-G-Am (IV-V-vi) and the bass note raises chromatically. It's common in bossa-nova to substitute a diminished chord a half-step above the major chord. So we could write a progression typical of bossa-nova that would be F#o-G#o-Am (#ivo-#vo-vi).

Another substitution we made in the circle of fourths above was to change a minor chord to a major chord with the same root note. This works well too since again both chords share two notes in common. (Em = (E,G,B), E = (E,G#,B)).
Again the opposite of this is more commonly heard in Jazz, gospel, and pop.
In gospel and pop we commonly hear IV-iv-I, try F-Fm-C.
IN jazz it's common to turn a one into a two in a string of ii-V-I progressions.
ex. Dm-G-C-Cm-F-Bb.

We can see several of these features (circle of 4ths, diminished substitution, major to minor resolution) in the bossa-nova song "wave" (vou te contar) by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The chords are Dm7-G7 (ii7-V7) for the vamp (key of C).
The chords for the verse (key of D) are: Dmaj7-A#o7-Am7-D7-Gmaj7-Gm7-F#7-B7-Bm7-E7-Bb-A to vamp.
So consider D = I, the A#o7 is a substitution for A7 (V7) which then becomes the ii7 (Am7), where Am7-D7-Gmaj7 is a ii-V-I progression. The Gmaj7-Gm7 is that typical jazz thing where the I becomes a minor chord. Gm7 to F#7 can be seen by looking at the notes in the chords (Gm7 = (G,Bb,D,F); F#7 = (F#,A#,C#,E)). Note that the notes A# and Bb are the same, and that all other notes between the two chords only move a half-step. F#7-B7 (circle of 4ths), B7-Bm7 (jazz thing), Bm7-E7-A would be ii-V-I. Bb-A is a half-step movement in each note of the chords.
The bridge is much more straight forward being Gm7-C9-Fmaj7-Fm7-Bb9-Eb07-A7 then back to verse (no vamp). The part Gm7-Ebmaj7 being the same example as for the jazz thing above. Ebmaj7-E07 having raised the bass note one half-step and E07-A7-Dmaj7 being a form of ii-V-I.

"Wave" is a somewhat extreme example of how small progressions can be put together to form larger more complex progressions. It also shows that given enough info we can analyze the whole by studying various parts of the whole. By the way, many of the songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis are as complicated as the one above. Don't worry, there's only 12 notes to learn.

Here's something you can practice...
Many times the I-IV progression is treated as a suspension. This is often heard in gospel and rock. Recall that a partial chord is a chord that doesn't use all six strings, and that the words "E-shape" refer to a moveable form of a chord (or scale) with reference to which string the root note is on. (This was covered in May 10's lesson).

  1. This example is in F. Practice going back and forth between the I (E-shape)F and the IV (A-shape)Bb. F = XX3211, Bb = XX3331. The fingering is correctly given by the numbers above.
  2. Example in A. I-IV (A-shape to D-shape) A = XX222X, D = XX423X. Fingering is correctly given by barring the A-chord with the first finger, and lifting and lowering the 2nd and 3rd fingers on the 2nd and 4th strings respectively.
  3. I-V (D-shape to E-shape) key of D. D = XXX232, G = XXX433.

The second one is most often heard in rock (Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar", Foreigner's "Hot Blooded", Boston's "Don't Look Back", etc.)
You can use the progressions as a way to practice changing chords and learning unfamiliar chords and keys.

Ok. Here is where knowing barre chords really starts to pay off. Consider an arbitrary portion of the neck. Suppose we are playing a song, and we want to use chords such that the 1 chord's root is on the sixth string and the other chords are close by so as to minimize hand movement. We can then use what I (personally) call "chromatic positions" to find the root notes of the chords on the strings in relation to a specific note on a specific string. To clear up the clutter I will remove the enharmonic notes (e.g. #2=b3). So for the sixth string root we have: (This is not TAB, It's a fretboard map)


And if the root note of the 1 was locted on the 5th string we would have:


By over-lapping these two patterns, they cover the fretboard. Looking back at the barre chords we learned in the lesson on major chords, all 5 shapes had their roots on the 6th,5th,or 4th string. By lining up the root note of the moveable shape (barre chord, scale, arpeggio,etc.) with it's associated number in the progression, we can then play the progressiion in any key, and needn't worry about not knowing an open form of a particular chord. All we really need to know is what key we're in (which note is the 1), what string and fret that 1 is on, and how the other numbers relate in one of the positions above.

Let's apply this. Suppose I wanted to play a I-IV-V progression in the key of G. Without looking up what those chords are (they're G, C, D), we can play the "E-shape" barre major chord on the 3rd fret of the 6th string (the note G), and then play the "A-shape" major chord root note on the same fret as the I chord we just played, and last play the "A-shape" major chord two frets higher than the IV chord we just played.
Suppose we want to play it in the key of Ab. We use the exact same procedure only the 1 (Ab) is located on the 4th fret of the 6th string. Then the 4 is the same fret of the 5th string, and the 5 is two frets higher than the 4. (And we didn't need to know that in the key of Ab, I-IV-V is Ab-Db-Eb).
This is useful, because often when playing jazz or pop, the key will change but the progression won't. By using moveable chords a relative position system (such as the chromatic positions outlined above), we can play the same progression in multiple keys without much more consideration than knowing on what fret the new 1 is located.

Let's try another progression (using the chromatic position based on the 5th string) I-V-IV. Let's choose key of E. E (the 1) is located on the 7th fret of the 5th string. Put the root of the "A-shape" major barre chord there. That's your I chord. We find the 5 is on the same fret of the 6th string, place the root note of the "E-shape" major barre chord there, that's your V. And last the 4 is located on the 6th string two frets lower, so keep the same "E-shape" and move it two frets lower, that's your IV chord.

Practice playing these progressions with these two shapes, and say aloud to yourself what chord you're playing as you switch chords. Singing along with the chords also helps. When you've gotten these down, try the others given. You could also use other barre shapes - "C-shape, D-shape, G-shape". But try starting with the "E-shape" and "A-shape" since they're the most common.

One of the best ways to maintain what you learn in any lesson is to personalize it by writing it into a song. It's not as hard as you might think. Try playing one of the progressions in the positions> Write down the key you'll play in, pick a tasty rhythm (write it down), strum the progression (write down the progression or the chords), and start singing over it la, la, la... get a melody in your head. (Tape record it if possible), and don't worry too much about lyrics unless something comes to you. You now have a song. Don't like part of it? You can always change it, now or later. That's the basics of songwriting. There are plenty of places to go from there, it's up to your imagination.
If you have time, go relisten to your favorite songs, and figure out what the form is (verse-chorus, etc.), what key is it in? (where's the 1?) what time it's in (4/4, etc.), what chords it uses, and what is it about the song you like? the rhythm, a solo? You can start applying what you like in other people's music to your own. Any questions?

Chris Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Last updated January 1, 2003.
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