harmonic progression

harmonic progression

harmonic progression: see progression.
A chord progression (also chord sequence and harmonic progression or sequence) is a series of chords played in order. Chord progressions are central to most modern European-influenced music and the principal study of harmony. Compare to a simultaneity succession. A chord change is a movement from one chord to another and may be thought of as either the most basic chord progression or as a portion of longer chord progressions which involve more than two chords (see shift of level).

Generally, successive chords in a chord progression share some notes, which provides harmonic and linear (voice leading) continuity to a passage. In the common-practice period, chord progressions are usually associated with a scale and the notes of each chord are usually taken from that scale (or its modally-mixed universe).

Common progressions

The circle progression, named for the circle of fifths, is "undoubtedly the most common and the strongest of all harmonic progressions" and consists of "adjacent roots in ascending fourth or descending fifth relationship," with movement by ascending fourth being equivalent to movement by descending fifth due to inversion

Shorter common progressions may be derived from selecting certain specific chords from the series completing a circle from the tonic through all seven diatonic chords: I-IV-viio-iii-vi-ii-V-I (in major) such as I- V-I = I-V-I I-IV- V-I = I-IV-V-I

The most common chord progressions, in the common practice period and in popular music, are based on the first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees (tonic, subdominant and dominant); see three chord song, eight bar blues, and twelve bar blues. The chord based on the second scale degree is used in the most common chord progression in Jazz harmony, ii-V-I turnaround.

According to Tom Sutcliffe:

Sutcliffe’s thesis is that major chord combinations, such as I-III-IV-V-VII, cannot be explained in pure modal terms; in this combination, they do not exist in the usual modes and must be explained as a new harmonic system combining elements from the blues and elements from modality.

In contemporary popular music

from Ottman (1997). Elementary Harmony.


  • I - IV - I - V.
  • I - IV - V.
  • I - IV - V - IV.
  • I - V - vi - IV.
  • I - V - IV - V.
  • I - vi - ii - V.
  • I - vi - IV - V.


  • I - III - IV.
  • I - III-IV-VI.
  • I - III-IV-VI-VII.
  • I - III - VII - IV.
  • I - III-VII-VI.
  • I - IV - III - VII.
  • i - VI - III - VII.
  • I - VI - IV.
  • I - VI - IV - III - VII.
  • I - VI-VII.
  • I - VII-IV.
  • I-VII-IV-V.
  • I - VII - IV - VI.
  • I - VII - VI - VII.


  • i - iv - VI - V
  • I - IV - V - VII


  • I - II - IV.

Rewrite rules

Steedman (1984) has proposed a set of recursive "rewrite rules" which generate all well-formed transformations of jazz, basic I-IV-I-V-I twelve bar blues chord sequences, and, slightly modified, non-twelve-bar blues I-IV-V sequences ("rhythm changes").

The original progression may be notated as follows (typical 12-bar blues):

1  2  3  4   5   6  7  8   9  10 11 12
 I/ I/ I/ I// IV/IV/ I/ I// V/ IV/ I/ I
Where the numbers on the top line indicate each bar, one slash indicating a bar line and two indicating a phrase marking, and the Roman numerals indicating the chord function. Important transformations include

  • replacement or substitution of a chord by its dominant or subdominant:

1 2  3 4   5  6   7    8    9  10 11 12

...7    8    9...

  • and chord alterations such as minor chords, diminished sevenths, etc.

Sequences by fourth, rather than fifth, include Jimi Hendrix's version of "Hey Joe" and Deep Purple's "Hush":

1        2        3 4  5          6       7 8   9         10      11 12
♭VI, ♭III/♭VII, IV/I/I//♭VI, ♭III/♭VII, IV/I/I//♭VI, ♭III/♭VII, IV/I/I//
These often result in Aeolian harmony and lack perfect cadences (V-I). Middleton (1990, p.198) suggests that both modal and fourth-oriented structures, rather than being "distortions or surface transformations of Schenker's favoured V-I kernel, are more likely branches of a deeper principle, that of tonic/not-tonic differentiation."

For the ♭ notation, see Borrowed chord.

See also


  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). "Studying Popular Music". Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Steedman M.J., "A Generative Grammar for Jazz Chord Sequences", Music Perception 2 (1) (1984) 52-77.

Further reading

  • Nettles, Barrie & Graf, Richard (1997). The Chord Scale Theory and Jazz Harmony. Advance Music, ISBN 389221056X.
  • Sutcliffe, Tom Syntactic Structures in Music. Retrieved on 2008-07-22.. Discusses how chord progressions work in relation to musical phrases.

External links

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