Chord progressions, especially in western music, are formulaic.
Unlike melody, rhythm and other aspects of our music the chord progressions that undergird most of the tracks we listen to are mostly the same and do not often stray from convention.
But have you ever wondered why that is?
Have you ever wanted to actually know where these progressions come from and how to build them out yourself?
If we know the right music theory concepts, we can generate chord progressions based on simple major and minor scales without having to guess at what combinations of chords might sound good. This makes us better musicians and better songwriters by giving us a formal way to provide our music with the proper foundation.
All we need to do is learn a little music theory.
1. Start with a Seven-Note Scale
First we should establish that every chord has a root note, which corresponds to some note in a musical scale.
That means the root note of a chord can be given a position within a seven-note diatonic guitar scale, which is the type of scale that degrees are most typically applied to. Let’s take the C major scale, for example:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
This assumes that you want to build a progression in the key of C. If not, switch it out with something like the E major scale instead or whatever key you’d like to play in.
You can do the same thing with pentatonic scale guitar runs or diagrams, if you happen to have those handy and prefer them. However, there’s some trickery involved there because most pentatonic scales are only five notes and in this case, we need seven.
So for our example, we’ll stick with the key of C.
Our chord progression will be extracted from this sequence of notes.
2. Learn the Scale Degrees
Every seven-note scale has scale degrees, which are descriptors given to each note in the scale, advancing from left to right. For example, if we take the C major scale above, here are the degrees that we give to each note.
From left to right:
Tonic – Supertonic – Mediant – Subdominant – Dominant – Submediant – Leading Tone
So that means that C would be your tonic root, D would be subtonic, E would be mediant and so on in that same pattern.
But how do we know which ones to choose?
When we add roman numerals to each degree, we can easily use the progression circle diagram as a formula for creating chord combinations.
3. Use the Circle Diagram
First, we apply our roman numerals corresponding to each scale degree, left to right, as follows:
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii°
Now, take a look at the following diagram:
You can see where I (our root note) can go to any of the other scale degrees. Once we do, we can draw up a step by step approach for each progression we create.
So let’s start with I going to iii.
1) From I move to iii
2) iii becomes vi
3) vi becomes either ii or IV (choose one – I chose IV)
4) IV becomes either V or vii° (I chose V)
This gives us the following chord progression: I – iii – vi – IV – V – I
We can then plug that back into our scale degrees with the following result: Tonic – Mediant – Submediant – Subdominant – Dominant – Tonic
And if we plug that back into our C major scale, we get the root notes for each chord in our brand new progression:
C – E – F – G – C
If you play this out on the guitar you can hear that it does progress and resolve nicely, giving you a starting point for songwriting or creating some kind of melody.
You could take it in any number of directions:
1) Add minor chords.
2) Turn it into a power chord progression.
3) Transpose it to another key (either change the chords or use a capo).
Once you have it on paper and you learn how to use the diagram, you can come up with as many progressions in as many different keys as you want. You simply need to begin with a basic, diatonic scale in a key of your choice and go from there.
One More Example
Let’s try one more example, this time in the key of F.
Take the F major scale:
F – G – A – B♭ – C – D
We won’t rehash the degrees and numerals, but just refer back to them if need be.
Begin with the root I.
Since we can follow that up with any degree, we’ll go with IV.
From there, we can choose between V or vii°. Let’s go with V.
This gives us the following progression: I – IV – V or F – B♭ – C.
Pretty easy, right? It certainly removes a lot of guesswork involved with chord progressions. And, more importantly, you know these progressions will be based in a theoretical best practice.
And how do you know that?
Because scale degrees represent the tonal direction of notes within each scale, meaning that it’s sensitive to the types of tension that each scale degree creates.
The diagram we showed you takes all this into account. Thus, it’s the formula by which we come up with chord progressions that sound good and are the most musically adaptable.
It’s not that you always need to use this system, but learning it and getting to the point where it makes sense to you is important from a music theory perspective.
You’ll have a framework for knowing why certain chord progressions sound good and why others sound like a jumbled, unpleasant mess. Additionally, a connection in your mind between scales and chords will be established.
This is important because the two concepts are not autonomous of one another. Music theory topics are almost always highly coupled and interwoven with one another.
Learn how they’re linked and the fretboard will start to make a lot more sense to you.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron
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