Chord Progression: Music Theory, Rules & Formulas

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  • 0:01 Definition of Chord…
  • 0:29 Music Theory and Chords
  • 2:07 Musical Framework and…
  • 3:15 Common Chord Progressions
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Chord progressions are the harmonic backbone of musical structure. This lesson will explore what they are and how they are made. Also, a few common progressions will be examined.

Definition of Chord Progression

A chord progression is the movement of one chord to the next. Have you ever played a video game, like Super Mario? You may have noticed that many of the levels have the same overall construct to them; it's only the way it looks that is different (maybe it's a water level, maybe there's desert). In music, the chord progression is like the level construct. It's the skeleton that the rest of the music is built on and, like many games, the overall skeleton is largely the same, even if it sounds different.

Music Theory and Chords

One of the more important musical concepts is dissonance and consonance. In tonal harmony, notes and chords move from dissonance to consonance for resolution. Each note in a musical scale can be considered either dissonant or consonant, for the purposes of movement.

What is consonance and dissonance? In terms of classic theory, consonance is a note that is harmonically appropriate, while a dissonance is a note that isn't harmonically appropriate. Nowadays these aesthetics don't necessarily apply (dissonances don't sound nearly as displeasing as they once did), but the theory still governs chord movement. But why are we talking about this when dealing with chords? Because the same theory applies.

Remember that chords, like notes, want to move from dissonance to consonance. Why move to dissonance in the first place? No pain, no gain, right? Without dissonance, there is no excitement. More dissonance more excitement then, right? Within reason, yes. If music doesn't resolve to consonance eventually, then it won't ever feel grounded. Basically, if you have too much dissonance then you'll never know what consonance is (you'll never find home!). Chord progressions are also typically repetitive. Of the six chords listed, the most important are the 1, 4, and 5 chords.

This is due to their strong relationship with the tonic note. Basically, 1 is the tonic. 5 is the most natural dissonance from 1 because it is the first harmonic partial above the original tonic that isn't the tonic itself (we're getting into acoustic theory with that one). 4 is cool because it can do a few different things: it can be a leading chord into the 5; it can be a leading chord back to 1; and it can be a stand in for 1 when moving from 5.

Musical Framework and Chord Progression

Like video game levels, songs frequently share the same chord progressions. A great example of this can be seen with Axis of Awesome's song '4 Chords.' Despite different genres, instruments, and eras, the songs parodied by Axis of Awesome all have the same chord progression. Why, you might ask, do so many songs use similar chord progressions? There are a few guidelines that help to make music aesthetically pleasing. They are making sure chords are diatonic and making sure chords move from dissonance back to consonance.

Returning to the video game metaphor, diatonic chords are like having a consistent floor. Diatonic chords are made of notes that only occur naturally within the key. Making sure the chords are diatonic helps to strengthen harmonic relationships. Continuing this theme, making sure that chords don't spend too long in dissonance (like repeating dissonant chords before returning to a consonant chord), establishes tonic relationship. Basically, if you spend too long lost in dissonance, you'll never find consonance (home). In popular music genres, it's not uncommon to have a 3 or 4 chord progression repeated a number of times for each verse and perhaps a slightly different, repeated progression for the chorus.

Common Chord Progressions

These guidelines make it so that popular music have a few incredibly common chord progressions. While most of the common progressions are four chords, they are all based on the most important: 1-4-5. This progression can be heard in everything from Beethoven symphonies to blues and popular music; specifically, early Beetles' songs and the songs 'Louie Louie,' 'Wild Thing,' and 'The Sweater Song,' among others.

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