Hello there kid-os! Time for another column by your old buddy Chris,(no drill sergeant persona this time). This month I’m going to be talking a little bit about harmonic progression. We’ll be looking at the basics starting with a brief overview of scales and keys and all that juicy stuff. So put down your axes, print out this page, and plop down in front of the family piano (or keyboard, or organ, or whatever). It’s go time.
Scales and Keys and All That Juicy Stuff
Let’s bring you up to speed on the basic basics. Look at your piano keyboard. Notice the black keys are in groups of two’s and three’s. Find a group of two. The white key to the left of the first black key in any group of two is a C. Good. Now, notice that if you start with C and count up 12 keys, you’ll be at C again. There are really only 12 unique notes in Western musical notation. Easy right?
Right. Now, most every piece of music you hear will be in a “key”. This means that the composer decided that one of the 12 notes would be more important than the rest. (Note that not all music is in a certain key, like Schoenberg and Primus. hehe. We’ll talk about this in another column.) For the purposes of this column, we’re going to be in the key of C Major. If you start with a C and play (up the keyboard) all the white keys until you get to the next C, you will hear what C Major sounds like. It should sound very familiar to you.
Now, let’s talk about ways to identify the notes in the C Major scale (and other major scales).
C is the first note in the scale also called Scale Degree One, and also called Tonic. Next we have D, scale degree 2, Supertonic. E, scale degree 3, Mediant. F, scale degree 4, Subdominant. G, scale degree 5, Dominant. A, scale degree 6, Submediant. B, scale degree 7, Leading Tone. And then we’re back to the C that’s one octave above our original tonic. Your first step in becoming a theory wiz, is to memorize the names of the notes in the major scale. (Note: These names apply to any major scale. Not just C Major.) Here they are again:
C – Scale Degree 1 – Tonic
D – Scale Degree 2 – Supertonic
E – Scale Degree 3 – Mediant
F – Scale Degree 4 – Subdominant
G – Scale Degree 5 – Dominant
A – Scale Degree 6 – Submediant
B – Scale Degree 7 – Leading Tone
Please realize that I’m trying to make this whole thing as simple as possible, and in doing so, am leaving some stuff out. Look to the forum if you have questions.
The Chords of C Major
Time to put notes together and make chords. A “Chord” is 3 or more unique notes played at once. Two notes played at once are called a Harmonic Interval. When we make a chord with 3 notes, we call it a Triad. Using your fingers, press the following keys of the piano keyboard simultaneously: C – E – G.
This is the most important chord in the key of C Major. It is the C Major chord also known as I (Roman Numeral 1). There is a triad for each of the scale degrees in the C major scale and each one is identified with a roman numeral. Here’s the list of basic chords (triads) for the Key of C Major, with their roman numerals in parentheses. Notice how the roman numerals for minor triads are lower case. Look to the next paragraph for more info on the 4 basic types of chords (Major, minor…etc):
/ C – E – G / C Major Chord (I)
/ D – F – A / D minor Chord (ii)
/ E – G – B / E minor Chord (iii)
/ F – A – C / F Major Chord (IV)
/ G – B – D / G Major Chord (V)
/ A – C – E / A minor Chord (vi)
/ B – D – F / B diminished Chord (viiº)
There are 4 types of triads we need to talk about here even though only three are found on the Major scale itself. Here are examples of each:
/ C – E – G /
This is our beloved Major triad. By itself, it sounds happy.
/ A – C – E /
This is one of the minor triads in the key of C Major. By itself, it sounds sad.
/ B – D – F /
This is the diminished chord found in C Major. By itself, it sounds evil. We use a degree symbol (º) to identify this.
/ C – E – G# /
This is an augmented triad. It does not occur naturally on the C Major scale but needs to be recognized at this point nonetheless. The (#) indicates a “sharp”. This just means that you find the G key and go up to the next black key. If it were Gb (G flat – a flat sign looks like a lower case B), we would go down to the next lower black key. Sharps and flats mean you go up or down to the very next key regardless of what color it is. The augmented triad by itself sounds mysterious. We won’t talk about this chord much. Just be aware that it exists.
So now we know about the C Major scale, and the basic triads that can be derived from the C Major scale. The chords, and C Major scale that talking about sort melt together to form the musical idea of “The Key of C Major”. We’re now ready to begin talking about common chord progressions in the key of C major. From now on I’ll be referring to the chords of C major by their roman numerals.
Play the following chords:
I – V – I
/C-E-G/ then /G-B-D/ then /C-E-G/
There you have it! That simple chord progression is the basis for most western (as in the western part of the world, not the United States) music. Don’t let its simplicity fool you. There’s some powerful medicine happening here.
Let’s try another one:
I – IV – V – I
Wow! (Look to the list of C Major chords above if you’ve forgotten which roman numeral goes with which triad). This little progression is the basis for most of the “radio hits” there ever were. No foolin’.
I – vi – IV – V – I
Remember the 50’s? I don’t, but I bet you recognize this progression from tons of 50’s music.
Notice something about these three examples? That’s right, they all end with V – I. This is called a cadence and it is the most common way to end a phrase, or song. Most of the songs you’ve heard end with the V – I cadence. Here’s a list of cadences:
- V – I (referred to as an authentic cadence). We just talked about it. Most common.
- IV – I (called a plagal cadence). Think church music.
- V (half cadence). This is called a half cadence were you just end on V. It leaves you hangin’ on purpose.
- V – vi (deceptive). This is called the deceptive cadence. It’s used when the composer wants you to think the phrase is ending, but it actually keeps going.
The Chart of Usual Root Movement
Ok. I think we’re ready for the grand poobah of this month’s column, The Chart of Usual Root Movement. This is basically a chart for the Major Keys that maps out all of the common chord progressions and can also be used to create progressions in any Major key.
Just follow the arrows. Roman numeral 1 (I) can go to any triad. Notice how IV and ii are grouped together (as are viiº and V). When the arrows point to these bracketed triads, you can choose either or. For example, you can start with [iii] and follow the long, arching arrow and go to either [ii] or [IV] then from their you can go to either to [viiº], [V], or [I]. Notice that you can’t go from [ii] to [IV], but you can go from [IV to [ii]. Is this confusing? I hope not.
Like learning to play guitar, learning music theory takes practice. Your homework for next month is to memorize the names of the Major scale notes (tonic…etc) and the chords (I. ii, viiº…etc) and write some chord progressions using The Chart.
You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them. If I’m in C Major, what is the name of D? What scale degree is it? What chord goes along with that scale degree and how do you spell it? Is it major or minor or diminished? Next time, we will look at “intervals” and how to recognize them by ear, inversions, and the basics of working in a minor key. After that, we’ll get into some really cool stuff like borrowed chords, Neapolitan chords, Augmented 6th chords, circle of fifths, and modulation. And we will learn how fun and easy it can be to break the rules of music theory on guitar.