This lesson is an introduction to chord progressions.

Recall from the lesson on (open) major chords, that we have so far learned the chords E,D,C,A, and G (E=022100, D=XX0232, C=X32010, A=X02220, G=320003).

We call the movement from one chord to the next a progression (or cadence). Many common progressions have been analyzed (taken apart to see why they work). Todays lesson is an intro to analyzing progressions and using progressions to synthesize new music.

We start by learning how to analyze chord progressions.

We recall, that in the western system we are using (equal-tempered tuning) that there are 12 distinct notes (tones) within an octave. We use 7 letters (A,B,C,D,E,F,G) and accidentals (#,b,etc.)to name these 12 notes. [Individual notes between commas]:
A,A#/Bb,B,C,C#/Db,D,D#/Eb,E,F,F#/Gb,G,G#/Ab, then back to A.

We call the distance between two notes (tones) an interval. We call the smallest interval in our system (12-tone system) a half-step (1/2). There is one half-step between each successive tone (from A to A#/Bb, etc.).

Two half-steps together (ex. A to B) is equal to a whole step (W).

Twelve half-steps together (ex. A to A) is called an octave.

In the western system we use, everything is analyzed against the major scale. (For the moment, we will not look deeply at all this, but rather how to use this information as opposed to how things got this way).

The major scale is a 7 note scale (which means 5 of the distinct notes aren't used), with a definite step pattern of WW1/2WWW1/2. What this means is that there is a wholestep (W) between the 1rst and 2nd tones, a wholestep (W) between the 2nd and 3rd tones, a half-step (1/2) between the 3rd and 4th tones, a wholestep (W) between the 4th and 5th tones, etc.

So for example, consider the C major scale, it consists of the notes (tones): C-D-E-F-G-A-B-(C). We can confirm these are the right notes by comparing each successive note C to D, etc. with the step pattern WW1/2WWW1/2.

When finding the names of the notes for a particular major scale, we use each letter name once, and use accidentals when necessary to create the proper intervals (from note to note).

In our example (C major) we would call C the root note (or tonic) and we might assign the number 1 to it.

All following notes (within the octave) of the major scale are given names and numbers. C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7. For those seeking more information, see lessons on major scale, keys, intervals, harmonizing the major scale[triads]. These can be found in the lesson archive at ) But for now we have most of the information we need to analyze chord progressions.

We sometimes use Roman numerals to refer to chords in relation to one another. We use uppercase Roman numerals to denote major chords. So if we are in the key of C, or have C as a tonal center (the note we are analyzing other notes to), then a C major chord would be written as I and D major would be written as II (because D is the 2nd note in the C major scale, and major chords use uppercase roman numerals). An Eb major chord would be bIII (since E is the 3rd note, and Eb is a 1/2 step lower. Uppercase since it is a major chord), etc.

So it will help us to know which notes are in a particular key. For brevity's sake <too late> we'll consider only the keys of the major chords we've learned (E,D,C,A,G).

The table below has relative notes/intervals in columns, keys in rows: (I leave it to the student to verify/prove this info, if they feel it necessary)

Key: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7
C:   C  D  E  F  G  A  B
G:   G  A  B  C  D  E  F#
D:   D  E  F# G  A  B  C#
A:   A  B  C# D  E  F# G#
E:   E  F# G# A  B  C# D#

We now compare the 5 major chords we've learned (E,D,C,A,G) with the above 5 major scales.

Analyzed against the key of C, we consider each of the chords and represent them with roman numerals. We have: C major (I), D major (II), E major (III), G major (V), A major (VI).

So we could say that C-G is a I-V progression.

And we could say that C-E-G is a I-III-V progression.

Analyzed against the key of D (or D tonal center), the same chords show different functionalities (relationships) to each other. Here we have: D major (I), E major (II), G major (IV), A major (V), C major (bVII).

Here C-D is bVII-I, and the progression D-G-A is I-IV-V.

Analyzed against E (key or tonal center, etc.), the chords show become: E major (I), G major (bIII), A major (IV), C major (bVI), D major (bVII).

Here the chords E-G-A would be I-bIII-IV, and the chords C-D-E would be bVI-bVII-I.

Analyzed against G, these chords are: G major (I), A major (II), C major (IV), D major (V), E major (VI).

Here G-A-D is a I-II-V progression, and G-C-D is a I-IV-V progression.

In relation to the note A, these chords are: A major (I), C major (bIII), D major (IV), E major (V), G major (bVII).

So in the context of A: A-C-D would be I-bIII-IV, and A-D-E would be seen as I-IV-V.

(You can check these against the major scales (keys) written out above).


Now, given any two or more chords we can create a progression. there are endless possibilities (not all of them sound good however).

Most songs can be broken down (analyzed) by their form into parts such as intro-verse-bridge-chorus-rideout, etc. (A-A-B-A, etc.) Usually these parts can be analyzed for chords and progressions. And most of these progressions can be understood as variations on simple standard progressions.

So out of endless possibilities for expression, we find that most of what's gone on before (in chord progressions) can be seen as coming from a few sources:

1.) Chords and progressions from the major scale (in any and maybe multiple keys): I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viio
(lower case = minor chords, lower case w/ superscript o = diminished chord)

2.) Chords and progressions derived from other scales.
ex. minor scale chords = i-iio-bIII-iv-v-bVI-bVII

3.) Progressions created by parallel motion:
ex. all major chords: I-II-bIII-IV

4.) Chords created by voice leading
(following note to note through chords making smooth transitions).

It's important to remember as you contemplate creating progressions, that just because certain progressions are known ( or rules have been established) it's not necessary to follow suit. We can place any two or more chords together that we want to.

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.
- Willy Wonka

It's good not to let our creativity be stiffled as we learn theory. It is better to be the master of the tools at our disposal than to let them become your master (by the way, how much time do you spend in front of your computer, and who's using who?)

There is a zen koan that says..
It is not the bars,
but the space between the bars
that cages the tiger.

Learning theory will not diminish your creativity (it may increase it), but letting yourself believe that there is only one way to approach something, or that you can't do what you haven't been previously shown will hamper creativity.

On the pro side...

Most theory has been created due to people liking particular sounds and wanting to be able to reproduce what they liked (and find reasons and patterns behind why it sounded good to them). Also you have to know the rules before you can be sure you're breaking them.

Which chords go together?

- Any ones you want to. let your ears be the final judge as to what sounds good (to you). When you find something you like, write it down, or record it.


Switching between chords

One of the most obvious differences in playing style between beginners and more experienced players is being able to switch chords without having to stop. To the solution to the problem is to practice. But we want to be more specific than that. There are specific practices we can incorporate to deal with this issue. ( I assume at the moment that you're able to play each individual chord you're switching between clean, and that you can keep an even beat. If not, you should probably work on these skills before trying to move too much further).

1.) Using the 5 major chords we've discussed (E,D,C,A,G). Pick the two and switch back and forth without stopping. Begin by strumming each chord 8 times at an even pace slow enough so that you don't have to stop to switch chords (even if that means that you're embarrased at how slow you have to play). Play at that speed and practice there until that becomes comfortable with a good clean sound and no mistakes, then very slightly increase speed, etc.

2.) When you can comfortably change between the two chords at a reasonable pace, switch to only 4 strums per chord and then switch. Slow down to a comfortable speed if necessary. Always check your sound to make sure each chord is clean.

3.) Repeat #2, but 2 strums per chord, then eventually 1 strum per chord.

4.) Repeat 1-3 with two different chords.

5.) Repeat 1-3 but with three chords (ex. A-D-E, repeat)

** Adding a daily practice of switching chords will reduce the amount of time needed to get past this hurdle, and reduce frustration with this aspect of performance. I suggest at least 5 minutes a day of consciouss chord switching, paying close attention to details of clean tone and an even beat.

Spotting/Analyzing Progressions

It seems important to us later on to be able to spot progressions at a glance (particulary when soloing/improvising and composing). It takes a certain amount of familiarity with different progressions (and keys, harmonizations, etc.), so its good to start as early as possible and keep your eyes open as you go along. You'll want to become familiar with keys, and which notes are in them (and which notes aren't). It helps to build a vocabulary of chord progressions and to be able to transpose (translate) that into any key desired.

6.) Begin building a vocabulary of progressions.

You should probably start small, learning not only names of chords, but also how to play by position and what the progressions sound like. We'll start by learning (if you haven't already)some of the most common progressions in the above keys.

So let's start with the one-four (I-IV) progression (that is the first and fourth steps of the major scale)


Key:   Chords ( specific chords for I-IV in the key)
C:     C-F     (F=XX3211)
G:     G-C
D:     D-G
A:     A-D
E:     E-A

Eventually you will want to learn all 12 keys.
(If such a thing interests you now, but you're not familiar with keys, i've posted a transposition chart that you can use as a crutch until you no longer need such a thing. I've also previously posted lessons on keys, intervals, and some basic chord construction. Links are at the bottom of the page).

So take time to practice the above progressions. It will help train your ear if you'll sing along with the progressions. This will help you to recognize them by ear later.

Another small common progression is the I-V (one-five) progression. In the five keys above, the chords (I-V) would be:

Key:   Chords ( specific chords for I-V in the key)
C:     C-G
G:     G-D
D:     D-A
A:     A-E
E:     E-B     (B=X2444X)

Again, sing along with what you play.

Mixing chords from these two smaller progressions together, we can create some larger progressions. Here are two common ones. I-IV-V and I-V-IV.

Key:   I-IV-V 
C:     C-F-G     (F=XX3211)
G:     G-C-D
D:     D-G-A
A:     A-D-E
E:     E-A-B     (B=X2444X)  

Key:   I-V-IV
C:     C-G-F     (F=XX3211)
G:     G-D-C
D:     D-A-G
A:     A-E-D
E:     E-B-A     (B=X2444X)

Many times, any progression created with only these 3 chords will be refered to as a one-four-five (I-IV-V) progression. It could be I-IV-V-IV, a 12-bar blues, etc. Don't be thrown if someone uses that term in a less than absolute way. Having said that, the I-IV-V progression (and variations thereof) is probably the most common progression(s) in western music. You sometimes see this refered to as "3 chord theory", and it's a good starting place to begin understanding progressions.

7.) Appreciating good progressions.

Have a song that you like? Or at least part of a song where you like the chords. Analyze the progression , and try writing something new with it (vary the rhythm and melody).

You might start with something already written down for you (but being able to transcribe any song for yourself is a goal worth pursuing).

a.) figure out what key it is in.

b.) determine (in roman numerals) what the chords are in that key.

c.) see if you can understand the song in smaller groups of recognizeable progressions (write them down).

d.) change something (at least the melody) the rhythm, speed, key, etc. and then try to create something new with it. Sing along with it and see what pops up.

It's helpful in acquiring knowledge and skills to apply it right away and try to make it more familiar/ personal so that you remember it.

Next lesson is on simple strumming.

Christopher 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 December 13, 2001.
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