In this section, we turn from thinking about individual chords to thinking about connecting chords to form progressions. How do the chords that make up a song work? Why are particular progressions so common? We find that the basis for understanding chord movement lies in the pattern for a major scale.
Chords from Scales
For any key that we play in, major or minor, there is a corresponding scale and therefore corresponding chords related to that scale. For an example, let's consider all of the triads found in the major scale. (These are called diatonic chords, which means 'related to' or 'within' the key.) To do this, we build a triad off of every note of the scale, always choosing our notes from within the scale:
This 1 chord is of course a major triad.
Building off of the 2nd degree, we get a minor triad.
The 3 chord is also a minor triad.
From the 4, we're back to major.
And major again for the 5.
The 6 chord is a minor triad.
The oddball of the group is the 7, forming a diminished triad.
Just as the major scale has a particular pattern of whole and half steps (WWHWWWH), the diatonic chords shown above follow a particular pattern. Notice that:
- the major triads are 1, 4, and 5
- the minor triads are 2, 3, and 6; and
- the odd one out is the 7, which is a diminished triad.
A good exercise, in addition to practicing scales, is to play all of the diatonic triads in a key, moving up and down the scale. You can play them as chords or arpeggios. This really helps to solidify the look and feel of a partiular key's landscape.
By The Numbers
Referring to chords by their scale degree is typical of the Nashville Number system, favored by many studio musicians. For example the progression 'Dm G7 C' in the key of C can be written as '2m 57 1', or even simpler as '2-5-1'. Using this method, a chord chart can be generalized, making it easy to transpose to any key—as long as you understand the scale structure behind it. An alternate notation for progressions, often seen in classical music theory, uses Roman numerals with uppercase denoting major and lowercase minor, for example: 'ii V7 I'.
Music is movement. It's a story. A song takes the listener on a journey—and the underlying chord progression is a large part of making this happen. A particular key will have sounds that are 'settled' or 'static'—they feel at rest. Then there are sounds that have 'tension' and are 'unstable'—they need to go somewhere, to resolve.
As an exercise, pick any key and play the root note of the key in the left-hand bass while playing each diatonic triad of the key against that bass note. Pay attention to the different feelings of 'rest' or 'tension' within each chord.
After trying the exercise above, I think you'll find that these sound 'feelings' can be grouped into three categories or neighborhoods:
'Home' - The ultimate 'home' chord is of course the 1 chord. But the 6 and 3 also have a stable 'home' feel. Notice that each of these chords shares two notes with the 1 chord.
C Major3 chord, Em1 chord, C6 chord, Am
'Home away from home' - I put the 4 and 2 chords in this neighborhood. They both sound pleasant against the root note, not too jarring, but they aren't completely settled—like being at a friend's house that you're familiar with, but not at home. Again, the two chords in this neighborhood share two notes.
C Major4 chord, F2 chord, Dm
'Away' - The most tension will be heard and felt with the 5 chord and the 7 chord. These are the 'away' chords—they provide the most tension and really beg to be resolved to one of the other neighborhoods. These two chords also share two notes in common.
C Major7 chord, Bdim5 chord, G
Knowing these diatonic chords and how they are related allows for more freedom when playing from chord charts. For instance, it's common to substitute one chord with another from the same neighborhood:
- play a 2 chord instead of the 4
- resolve a phrase to the 6 minor instead of the root
Categorizing the chords into neighborhoods also gives us insight into some common progressions and why they are so prevalent.
Here are three very common chord progressions:
These progressions crop up in lots of songs. For example, you may recognize the second one as 'Heart and Soul,' which many beginning pianists play. Notice that in each progression, the chords start at 'home', move further and further 'away' and then resolve back to 'home'.
Play the three progressions shown above in all 12 keys. For now, you can play the root of each chord in the bass with your left hand while playing the triad with your right. The object is to be able to move freely within any key to any of its diatonic chords. Making a smooth transition from chord to chord (voice-leading) will be explained below.
Diatonic Chords with Sevenths
By adding sevenths to our diatonic chords, we discover even more about why certain chords work the way they do.
The 1 chord has a major 7th
The 2 chord, a minor 7th
The 3 chord, also a minor 7th
The 4 chord, back to major 7th
The 5 chord, a dominant 7th
The 6 chord, another minor 7th
The 7 chord, a half-diminished 7th
With the diatonic sevenths, we see four different types of chords:
- The 1 and 4 are both major sevenths.
- The 2, 3, and 6 are all minor sevenths.
- The 5 is a dominant seventh chord (more on this below).
- The 7 is a half-diminished.
Similar to playing the diatonic triads in all keys, the diatonic sevenths provide an excellent finger/brain exercise. A common arpeggiated pattern is to play 7-5-7-5-3-1 on each chord moving up and then down the scale. To challenge you further and really get the feel of the key under your fingers, try displacing the two hands so that your right hand plays a tenth (octave plus third) above the left hand.
Connecting Chords with Voice Leading
When faced with a chord chart, all you have is a series of symbols, for example C Dm7 G7#5 Am. It's up to you to find a way to produce these sounds and move smoothly from one to the next, while also considering context, melody, dynamics, instrumentation, etc.—a lot to think about! But once you become familiar with key landscapes and typical movements through the 'neighborhoods', the mechanics will become second-nature, leaving you to focus on interpretation.
If you've taken classical piano lessons, your teacher may have had you play the following chord cadence:
Starting on the 1 chord in root position.
Moving to the 4 chord in second inversion.
And back to the 1 chord.
Then to the 5 chord in first inversion.
Possibly making the 5 a dominant 7.
And finish on the 1 chord.
You may not have realized it, but this exercise is a prime example of voice leading, moving smoothly from one chord to the next. This skill requires thorough knowledge of the scale/key landscapes in order to move between voicings with ease.
To illustrate this further, let's take the 'Heart and Soul' progression from earlier, 1-6-4-5-1. Here's one example of moving smoothly through these chords, using basic triads: (NOTE: When playing through these progression examples, be sure and play the root of each chord in the bass with the left hand.)
Starting with the second inversion of the 1 chord.
One note moves, the fifth of the 1 chord moves to the root of the 6.
Again, only one note moves, the fifth of the 6 chord moves to the root of the 4 chord.
All three notes move up to get to the 5 chord.
And two notes move to get back to 1.
And using our knowledge of the diatonic seventh chords and rootless voicings, here's another variation. Notice that the voicing for the first three chords is identical, only the bass root note changes. Also notice that I take liberties and sometimes add notes that aren't specifically named.
Let's take a closer look at the final two-chord resolution from the previous examples. We can view any note in two ways--in relation to the chord it belongs to, or in relation to the overall key. Here, I'm labeling all of the notes in relation to the key. For example, you can see that the 3rd of the 5 chord is actually the 7th of the key.
The 5 chord, a dominant 7th, resolving to...
...the 1 chord.
This is a classic 5 to 1 (or dominant to tonic) resolution. First of all, notice the notes labeled as 7 and 4 in the 5 chord. These are the guide tones (the 3rd and b7th) of the 5 chord, and they produce a tritone dissonance that wants to resolve. Secondly, notice how this resolution happens in the context of the key. The 7th (the leading tone) of the key resolves up a half-step to the root, while the 4th resolves down a half-step to the third. Recall that these are the only two half-step intervals found in the major scale. These two tension points are what make this 5-1 resolution work, producing a feeling of being 'away' and then coming 'home'. Later, we'll look at some variations of this movement.
Laws and Order
The 5-to-1 movement can be used to order all 12 keys. Here's how it works. If we start with any note and think of it as being the 5 of a key, we can then determine the 1 chord of that key—the 1 that the 57 resolves to. For example, let's start with C:
- If we treat C as the 5 of a key then the 1 must be F (because F is a perfect fifth down from C)
- Therefore, we get our first 5-to-1, C7 resolving to F
- If we then think of F as a 5, we determine its 1, Bb, and get another resolution, F7 to Bb
Continuing in this line of reasoning, we will eventually construct a sequence of all 12 keys, leading us right back to our starting note of C. You can see and hear this pattern on the piano by starting with the highest C on the keyboard and playing descending perfect fifths. You will play through the entire sequence, ending up on the lowest C of the keyboard.
This 'cycle of fifths' or 'circle of fifths' is commonly represented like so:
I'm using the traditional rendering of the cycle here, although I find it to be counterintuitive. Notice that you must travel counterclockwise around the circle to achieve the sequence of 5-to-1 resolutions.
The important concept is that this chaining together of 5-1 resolutions is very common in music. Think of the notes as representing the roots of chords which can be of any type. For example the sequence of F-Bb-Eb could represent a 2-5-1 progression in Eb: Fm7 Bb7 EbMaj7. Or E-A-D-G-C could represent a 3-6-2-5-1 in C: Em7 A7 Dm G7 C. Considering the sequence moving counterclockwise:
- any pair is a 5-1
- any group of three is a 2-5-1
- any group of 4 is a 6-2-5-1
- any group of 5 is a 3-6-2-5-1
This particular ordering of the keys also reveals other interesting patterns:
- Keys opposite each other on the circle are a tritone apart, e.g. C and Gb.
- Starting with G on the right side and moving clockwise gives the order of sharp keys (G has one sharp, D has two sharps, etc.).
- Starting with F on the left side and moving counterclockwise gives the order of flat keys (F has one flat, Bb has two flats, etc.).
Beyond the Chart
Most of the skill in playing chord charts actually comes from playing what's not on the page. To return to the cooking analogy, there are lots of 'secret' ingredients and hidden skills behind a delicious meal—but often, you won't find them in the recipe. In music, these things may seem secret or magical, but they really come from much practice and much listening. In this final section, I present some common 'ingredients' that will hopefully help you turn a page of symbols into beautiful music.
The 2-5-1 Progression
The 2-5-1 progression is commonly used in playing jazz but can add interest to your playing in any style. A huge benefit to practicing these 2-5-1 patterns is that it prepares you for the mental shift of playing rootless voicings.
We saw above how the 2-5-1 progression is easily seen in the cycle of fifths. And from the diatonic seventh chords we know that:
- the 2 chord is a minor 7th,
- the 5 is a dominant 7th, and
- the 1 is a major seventh.
Putting these three chords together, we get a sequence that is very common in music. Here is a common-practice set of rootless voicings with smooth voice leading:
The 2 chord has the 3rd as the lowest note.
Only one note moves: the 7th of the 2 resolves to the 3rd of the 5.
The 3rd of the 5 chord stays put (becoming the 7th of 1) and all the others move down.
For some keys, the above voicing may sound muddy—but there is a common alternate inversion. Notice that the same resolutions happen, just in different places:
Now the 2 chord has the 7th as the lowest note.
Again, a 7-to-3 resolution.
The 3rd of 5 becomes the 7th of 1, and the other notes resolve down.
You'll be surprised how often these 2-5-1 patterns (or just a 5-1) occur in songs. Mastering these voicings will dramatically improve your chord chart playing. Here are some tips for practicing these patterns:
- The rootless voicings should be practiced with both the left and right hands. Practice the right hand first (with the left playing the root notes), then practice the left hand.
- Use this page for practicing the various 2-5-1 patterns in all 12 keys. You can choose from three common orderings: descending by whole-steps, descending chromatically, or travelling around the cycle of fifths.
Of course, there is also a minor version of the 2-5-1 progression. In minor keys, the 2 chord is a half-diminished, the 5 is usually an altered dominant, and the 1 is a minor 7th.
Sometimes the 9th is played as the top note, instead of the root.
An altered dominant has a #9 and #5.
Can also be a minMaj7 chord
And there is an alternate inversion as well—I'll leave that for you to figure out.
In this section, I give numerous examples of some very common movements in music. This is where your knowledge of everything we've covered comes together: scale structure, chord types, and the mysterious properties of progressions. These examples will give you plenty of ideas for going 'beyond the chart'.
Moving from 1 to 4
Frequently the first phrase of a song will end on the 1 and then the second phrase will begin on the 4. Here are several ways to approach the 4 chord:
Example 1 - The 'walk-up':
Example 2 - Approach from a half-step below (like Example 1, but leaving out the 2m chord):
Example 3 - Another half-step approach, but now with a dominant 7th chord:
Example 4 - Using an augmented chord for the 3 is also common. Notice that the augmented chord (because of its symmetrical nature) can be notated various ways:
Could also be notated as C aug
Example 5 - Approach the 4 with its 5 chord. I know, this sounds confusing. In classical terms, this is called a 'secondary dominant'—meaning we are temporarily treating a chord as a tonic and then using its dominant (its fifth) to approach it. This approach can be used on virtually any chord. Mastering the 2-5-1 progressions shown above will enable you to quickly find these 'secondary dominants' for any chord:
Example 6 - As an alternative, make the 'secondary dominant' a 7 sus:
Example 7 - Extend the secondary dominant idea by inserting an entire 2-5-1 progression (temporarily treating the 4 chord as 1):
Approaching a Minor Chord
Chord progressions often have a movement from 1 to 6m or from 5 to 6m. There are several possibilities for adding connecting chords. (All of the examples here start with the 1 chord, but they could easily start on the 5 as well.)
Example 1 - A 'walk-down':
Example 2 - Using the dominant of the minor chord:
Example 3 - Add tension by using a b9 on the dominant:
Example 4 - Recall from the discussion of diminshed 7th chords that a dominant 7b9 can also be viewed as a diminished 7th chord. This movement from 5 to 6m is common, having the bass move in half-steps:
Example 5 - Add more tension by using an altered dominant:
Example 6 - Using a minor 2-5-1 pattern:
Resolving to 1
Earlier we dissected the 5-to-1 resolution. Although it is probably the most common way to get 'home', there are lots of other possibilities with differing levels of tension and release.
Example 1 - Sometimes the 5 is not used at all, but rather the 4. This is called a plagal cadence (from the Greek for 'oblique') or an amen cadence (from its use on the final 'amen' of a hymn). It's a smoother resolution than 5 to 1 because there is no leading-tone-to-tonic resolution:
Example 2 - The sound of a plagal cadence is similar to using a suspended 4th on the tonic chord:
Example 3 - Using a slash chord of 4/5 provides another smoother transition than 5 to 1. This works well when transitioning to a new key:
Example 4 - A plagal cadence, but minor. This is often heard in blues and gospel:
Example 5 - For a 5 to 1 resolution, the 5 can be altered in various ways—basically adding more half-step resolutions to the tonic. Here we add the b9 which resolves to the 5th of the key:
Example 6 - Using an altered dominant adds more tension-release points. This is most often used when resolving to a 1 minor, but can be used in major keys:
Example 7 - Using a tritone substitution for the 5 chord. Notice that this is identical to the previous example except for the bass movement. This is also commonly used when resolving to a minor 1:
Example 8 - Using the tritone but making it a major seventh chord:
There is no magic shortcut to playing chord charts. Absorbing and integrating the concepts in this tutorial will take much diligent practice, but the rewards are great. I'll leave you with a couple of quotes to ponder:
"The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours."
- Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
"It is a widespread fallacy that careful and thorough preparation precludes freedom, spontaneity, and personal interaction. In fact the very person best prepared for any situation is the one who experiences the greatest freedom and spontaneity in it."
- Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines