Chord progressions describe the way the order of harmonies can influence the overall sound of a piece of music, and most people don’t know that there are different ways of looking at them.
If you’re reading this, you might be aware of traditions founded in functional harmony (if you know anything about Roman numeral analysis, then yes!), but there’s more to harmony than just the functions. In this article, I’ll cover three different ways you can create chord progressions easily, based in 3 different theories or ways of looking at harmony. Once you learn these, you’ll be your own chord progression generator!
I’m starting with a brief explanation of Roman numerals, so if you’re comfortable with that terminology or would rather jump ahead to the Neo-Riemannian Transformation section, feel free!
- Roman and Arabic Numerals in Music
- Basic Chord Functions
- Examples of Functional Harmonic Progressions
- Neo-Riemannian Transformation Theory
- Basic Neo-Riemannian Transformations
- The Tonnetz
- Examples of Neo-Riemannian Chord Progressions
- 1. Circle of Fifths Progressions
- 2. Functional Harmonic Progressions
- 3. Neo-Riemannian Transformations
- Chord Progression Tools
Functional harmony lets you view harmony as hierarchical relationships between chords in a key and other related keys. In functional harmony, chords lead to other chords respective of their placement within a key. Although both the root and the members of the chord are important, the root is the way functional theorists relate chords to each other.
The concept of being in a key is the most important, and we use the placement of the root within the key to relate chords to each other. When you’re only looking at chords within the key itself, called diatonic harmony,
There are 2 primary, but slightly different tools, that composers, songwriters, producers, and theorists use in order to see how chords are related to each other. The first is the Circle of Fifths, and the second is a set of 3 chord functions.
Roman and Arabic Numerals in Music
Before diving into the chords themselves, you need to know a little bit about some of the notation I’ll be using to explain the first two perspectives: Roman numerals with Arabic numerals next to them.
Roman Numeral Notation in Chords
Functional harmony comes from the perspective that every chord in a key has a role, and the way you can notice patterns about these roles is to give chords names that transcend the key you’re actually in and relate to other keys.
The best way to do this is to simply take the scale of the key you’re in—C major scale if the key is C major, F minor scale if the key is F minor—and then build chords on top of each of those scale steps. For the key of A major, you get something that looks like this, the A major scale with a 3rd and a 5th stacked on top of each scale step to give you all the chords that are part of the key of A major:
And the key of F major looks like this:
Because each key is similar because they’re both major chords, the chord progressions that happen in both keys will be similar, but they won’t use the exact same notes. To talk and think about these patterns, then, you can use numbers to name each chord.
Roman numeral notation uses roman numerals to signify that what you’re talking about is a chord built from that scale step. So in A major, a V chord is a chord built from E. It has E as the root. If you wanted to talk just about the scale step, you’d use an Arabic numeral with a caret on top (or next to it if you don’t know how to type it): 5^
With the roman numeral chord, you can go a step further and communicate the chord quality (major/minor) by using capitalization. Capital numerals are major chords, and lowercase chords are minor.
You can already see a pattern in major key harmony just from doing this: the I, IV, and V chords are the major chords in a major key. The ii, iii, and vi chords are minor chords in major keys. And vii° is a diminished chord (lowercase with a degree symbol).
That’s roman numeral notation in a nutshell. To get even more specific with your chord patterns, you can use Arabic numerals next to the Roman numerals to display the inversion of the chord.
Figured Bass and Harmony
Figured bass comes from an older tradition called basso continuo, which were kind of like the lead sheets of the 17th to early 18th centuries.
In this excerpt from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, you can see a melody line, a bass line, and some numbers and accidentals below the staff. The numbers and accidentals are called figures. If they were just numbers, this form of notation would probably be called “numbered bass.”
The figures tell the performer what intervals to play above the bass. 3s and 5s generally are a given, so if there’s a bass note with nothing under it, that means it’s a root-position triad built from that bass note. A note with a 6 under it is a first inversion triad built from that note, as a first inversion triad has the interval of a 3rd and a 6th from the bass. And second inversion triads are shown by a 6 and a 4 under the bass note.
This type of notation can help performers easily see where there are accidentals or parallel motion. A row of 6s would indicate a musical line that moves in parallel 6ths against the bass line.
When paired with Roman numerals, you only need to know the key center to know what specific chord and inversion you’re dealing with. The most helpful part of Roman numeral with figured bass notation for you, as you create chord progressions, is that it transcends individual keys. Once you make a chord progression that you like in a major key, it’ll sound just about the same for any other major key.
Now that you’ve got some notation under your belt, you can dig right into harmonic theory!
1. Circle of Fifths (Sequences)
The Circle of Fifths is a tool that’s used in two ways: relationships between keys and relationships between chord roots.
In the Circle of Fifths, each letter of the musical alphabet is separated by the interval of a perfect fifth around a circle. You can easily visualize the relationships of closely-related keys (CRKs): keys that only have a difference of one sharp or flat in their key signatures.
Major keys sit around the outside of the circle, and their related minor keys sit within the inside. C major, on the top of the circle, has no sharps or flats. The key whose tonal center is a perfect 5th away from C major is G major, which has one sharp: F♯. Then, the key center a perfect 5th up from G major is D major, which has two sharps: F♯ and C♯.
Continuing clockwise around the Circle of Fifths will give you one more sharp each time. Going counter-clockwise around the Circle of Fifths gives you one more flat with each key. Students usually use this form of the Circle of Fifths first.
The other use for the Circle of Fifths is to help you create chord progressions that work well with sequences. A musical sequence occurs when a melodic idea repeats over different harmonies.
Using the Circle of Fifths for chord progressions in this way was a common practice in the Baroque and Classical periods (think J.S. Bach, Mozart and their contemporaries), so it’s funny to me to see music producers encouraging using the Circle of Fifths for pop music today. I guess we might be experiencing a Baroque revival!
Creating Diatonic Circle of Fifths Chord Progressions
In diatonic sequences, you determine chord qualities based upon the notes given in the key. You can learn more about chords and Circle of Fifths progressions in the How to Build Chords and Introduction to Functional Harmony courses!
2. Functional Harmony Chord Progressions
How did Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven write so much music without running out of material or burning out?
Instead of focusing on creating everything from scratch and leaving themselves the space to do anything in the world, they stuck patterns that later came to define the classical style. These include phrasing (sentences and periods if you’ve taken any music theory) as well as the harmonic vocabulary they used.
Being contracted musicians like they were, they were each expected to output a ton of music every week, and if you’ve ever had to create a lot of material for weeks on end, you’ll know that it’s easier to keep creating if you have a structure or template to follow.
Chord progressions in the form of the “basic phrase” is one of those structures. The particular type of harmonic progression they used—what’s commonly known as the “basic phrase model” today—influenced all the music since their time and is still a huge part of the Western tonal tradition today.
Because the “basic phrase model” is so basic, it allows for infinite different chords to fill each spot in the model. There’s plenty of room for exploration and your own unique harmonic sound without sacrificing unnecessary (and frustrating!) amounts of time.
That’s why studying Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven’s work can be beneficial to composers and producers today: you can borrow their patterns to produce music quickly and put your own spin on it, just like they did.
Music theory and analysis classes start by building that foundation of the basic phrase model in your mind and then spend most of the time seeing how these composers put their own spin on that foundation. It’s actually pretty rare for any composers to perfectly follow any form or structure we talk about in theory.
These structures and forms are just a conglomeration of what composers collectively have in common, so once you understand that shared language, the importance is in making it your own. Seeing how other composers did this can help you find your own way, so get in some analysis practice after you finish this article!
The basic phrase model divides all chords into 3 different categories—tonic, dominant, and pre-dominant chords—and then creates a fill-in-the-blank type of progression that goes tonic, pre-dominant, dominant, tonic.
Basic Chord Functions
The tonic chord is the most important in a key. It defines the key and is what we name the key from. In Roman numerals it refers to the I or I chord.
The role of the tonic triad is to create a sense of home base. When you listen to a piece of tonal music, the harmonies all convey a different sense of motion or rest, and that motion is toward the tonic triad. The tonic conveys the highest sensation of rest, which basically means that you’d feel comfortable if a song or phrase ended on the tonic but less comfortable if it ended with a different chord. It just wouldn’t sound complete without the tonic.
Dominant Chords (D)
Dominant chords are the chords that lead most strongly and directly toward tonic chords. That means that songs lack a sense of completion or rest if they don’t get a tonic chord right after a dominant chord.
V and V7 are the strongest and most commonly used type of dominant chords, but vii° is also a commonly used dominant chord. In minor, the chord built from scale step 7 is major and doesn’t act as a dominant chord. Instead, it can be grouped in with the rest as a pre-dominant.
Pre-Dominant Chords (PD)
The rest of the chords in a key fall under the category of Pre-Dominant chords. These would be ii, iii, IV, and vi (and their minor-key equivalents). The most commonly used ones to come directly in front of the dominant function, however, is ii and IV.
Test your knowledge! Can you sort each chord into the correct function?
Putting the Functions Together
These functions come together to create chord progressions that follow the pattern T – PD – D – T, so you can easily just create 4-chord progressions by filling in the blanks!
Examples of Functional Harmonic Progressions
If you assigned one chord to each function in a progression, you’d get something like I – IV6/4 – V7 – I, which is a stable and common chord progression. You can write entire songs with that progression on repeat, and it would sound great!
If you want to expand or make any of these functions last longer, you can use what are called prolongational harmonies. To use this technique, you use intervening or subordinate chords as passing, neighbor, substitute, or pedal chords. The role of these subordinate chords is that they don’t change the sense of function, and they lead back to the original chord they “belong to.”
An example of this is in the Dominant function, you might use V – IV6 – V6 to expand the sense of the dominant with a passing chord that passes from V to an inversion of V.
If this is too much, just play around with 4-chord progressions, then move to just adding chords to the Pre-Dominant function, then try some prolongational harmonies!
You’ll learn all about these ideas as well as how to incorporate chords from other keys into these functions (and so many other cool chromatic harmony concepts!) in the Introduction to Functional Harmony Course.
3. Neo-Riemannian Transformation Theory (Non-Functional Harmony)
19th century Western music changed the way harmony is used in music. Composers like Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and more used the foundations of functional harmony you’ve learned about so far in this article, but they used more chromatic harmonies (ones from outside the given key).
Their music isn’t completely tonal, even though it often seems to have a tonal center. Your perception of what the key actually is may waver or change more than with earlier composers.
In the Merry Month of May by Robert Schumann is a common example. Listen to this excerpt and try to figure out what key it’s in. Sing Do or 1 and then check what note you’re actually singing (unless you have perfect pitch, in which case you already know!).
It’s a weird piece, right?
And that sense of not knowing where the tonal center is or wavering between potential tonal centers characterizes a lot of the music of the period. You could use functional harmony tools like Roman numerals, but you’d have to decide what key you’re actually in first. Or, you could do multiple analyses for each potential key, but that seems either excessive or like the tool may not be the best option for the musical material.
This is where Neo-Riemannian Transformation theory comes in.
Neo-Riemannian Transformation Theory
Richard Cohn explains in his 1998 article, “Neo-Riemannian theory arose in response to analytical problems posed by chromatic music that is triadic but not altogether tonally unified.”
Neo-Riemannian Transformation theory comes from David Lewin’s 1982 essay and subsequent book, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformation. In his work, Lewin considers Riemannian triads through the lens of mathematical transformation. Riemannian triads refer to Hugo Riemann’s concept that triads can be related by inversion: a C major triad is related to a C minor triad by one half step: E and E♭.
Lewin takes this much further in his rigorously developed theory that I won’t get into here (upcoming article though, for you curious music theory nerds!). This article is an approachable introduction to the theory, if you’re interested!
But for the sake of building chord progressions, here are brief explanations for the 3 basic types of transformations. Basically, if you easily want to build chord progressions, just start with a chord then use a bunch of these transformations in a row, which will give you a progression that sounds cool!
If you’d like to properly dig in, here’s an approachable introduction to the theory.
Basic Neo-Riemannian Transformations
These transformations all start with some kind of triad, then move a single note by a half or a whole step. If you don’t want to dive into the transformations themselves, you can simply use a practice called parsimonious voice leading in which you move from chord to chord using as little movement as possible.
Use common tones when possible, and when you do change chords, do so by changing one note at a time.
The parallel transformation only affects the 3rd of the chord. Minor triads become major triads by raising the 3rd by a half step and vice versa. C minor becomes C major by raising the 3rd (E ♭) up a half step to E. Together with the C and G from the C minor triad, you get C major. C major becomes C minor by lowering the 3rd (E) by a half step to E ♭. Together with the C and G from the C major triad, it becomes C minor.
The relative transformation relies upon a chord’s placement in a key. C minor becomes its relative major, E♭ major.
Minor triads become major ones by moving the root down by a whole step: C minor becomes E♭ major by moving the C down to B♭. The remaining chord members are E♭ and G, which together with the B♭ form an E♭ major triad.
Major triads become minor ones by raising the 5th of the triad up by a whole step. E♭ major becomes C minor by raising the 5th (B♭) up a whole step to become C. The remaining chord members are E♭ and G, so together with that new C, they become a C minor triad.
Leading-Tone Exchange (L)
Minor triads become major ones by raising the 5th of the minor triad up by a half step: C minor becomes A♭ major by raising the 5th (G) up a half step to A♭. Together with the remaining C and E♭ from the original C minor triad, you get an A♭ major triad.
Major triads become minor ones by moving the root down a half step: A♭ major becomes C minor by lowering the root (A♭) down a half step to G. Together with the remaining C and E♭ from the A♭ major triad, the new G forms a C minor triad.
You can see the parsimonious voice leading aspect of each of these transformations on sheet music, like I’ve showed you, but if you’ve had any training in functional harmony with knowledge of how inversions affect the “stability” of a chord, then it might be difficult to divorce yourself from that concept.
Neo-Riemannian Transformations focus more on relationships between pitch classes (all As, all Bs, all Cs instead of a specific pitch like A4 or C5), so it’s not as important what inversion of the chord you’re using as long as you’re connecting the chords together smoothly.
A visualization tool to help with this is called the Tonnetz.
This geometric visualization of relationships between notes and chords originally hails from the 18th century, but it was revived by Lewin and his colleagues in the Neo-Riemannian field.
This Tonnetz, embedded below, courtesy of the University of Strasbourg, includes each pitch class arranged, so that a triangle consisting of 3 notes illustrates a triad. When you flip the triangle over the y-axis, you’ll get the parallel transformation. Look for the notes C, E, and G. When you move your cursor to the left side of the line connecting C and G, you’ll get a C, D♯, G triad. (Remember that D♯ is enharmonically the same note as E♭) They are parallel transformations of each other.
To find the relative transformation, flip the triad over the diagonal line running from the bottom left to the upper right. If you start with C major, flip over the line that connects C and E. You’ll get an A minor triad.
Finally, to get the leading tone exchange transformation, flip your triads over the diagonal line running from the bottom right to upper left. Starting with C major, flip over the diagonal to get an E minor triad (C turns into B, and E and G stay the same).
Examples of Neo-Riemannian Chord Progressions
One of the easiest ways to form chord progressions using this theoretical tool is to chain together two transformations: just go back and forth between them. On the tonnetz, you’ll end up following a line or channel going up and down, diagonally from bottom left to top right, or bottom right to top left (and vice versa).
Review: 3 Ways to Write Chord Progressions
In this article, you learned about 3 common and helpful tools for creating and analyzing chord progressions. These are:
1. Circle of Fifths Progressions
These create a shifting sense of forward motion and stability to ever-changing tonal centers. It’s a common progression used in a ton of music (Pachelbel’s Canon, Memories by Maroon 5, etc.), and you can use the Circle of Fifths as a visual tool to easily come up with chord progressions.
2. Functional Harmonic Progressions
Functional harmony categorizes all chords in a key into tonic, pre-dominant, and dominant characterizations based on their tendencies toward rest, connectivity, or forward motion. A helpful tool you can use for this is a fill-in-the-blank template where you just pick a chord that satisfies each category in order.
3. Neo-Riemannian Transformations
Neo-Riemannian Transformation theory relates chords together primarily based on chord members instead of roots like in functional harmony. This allows for more chromaticism. An easy way to make chord progressions with this is to chain together 2 transformations and visualize this process as chords moving in “lanes” or lines on the Tonnetz.
Chord Progression Tools
These tools will stay embedded in this post, but if you don’t want to have to scroll to them each time, they’re also available in their own slots in the Music Theory and Analysis Resource Library.
You learned a lot in this article, so if you’re excited to dig deeper into any of these topics, these courses are for you!
If you have any questions, comments, or want to share music you created (please do, I love hearing your music!), email me at [email protected].
Happy musicking! :D
Hi, I’m Amy!
I’m a PhD studying Music Theory & Cognition at Northwestern University in Chicago.
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