Hey dudes and dudettes,
Tuberz here with my second installment in the series of articles centered around the understanding and application of music theory. Last month we covered melodic scale degrees and pitch sets, and how these can influence your music. This week we’ll be looking at chord scale theory, and the application of harmonic progressions. This will hopefully give you budding musicians a toolbox full of chord progressions to use/abuse to your hearts content!
Be thankful that we have computers for this now. Imagining writing out hexadecimal by hand. Ouch.
What are chords?
Chords occur whenever more than one note plays at the same time. Any three (or more) notes will imply a chord, it’s just that some chords will be more suitable or occur more naturally than others. The two main forms of chords are major, and minor chords. The easiest way to think of these chords is that you have three notes stacked directly on top of each other (ie. C major is C E G, G major is G B D, A minor is A C E). Major chords are created by stacking a major third (four notes above) and a perfect fifth (three notes above that) (ie. C E G). Minor chords are created by stacking a minor third (three notes above) and a perfect fifth (four notes above that) (C E♭ G). Yes. You did notice that two of those notes are identical. There is only one note different between a major and a minor chord. Mind blown right?
What’s a harmony?
Harmony is an interesting topic to cover. Harmony exists in many different ways depending on setting, and the understanding of harmony lives in a duality with the concept of tension and release. Harmony exists as a way of giving music motion (or lack thereof) and a feeling of ‘home’ and the journey away from, and back towards ‘home’. This silly metaphor will make more sense later, trust me.
When we talk about harmony we talk about it in the context of a given key or pitch set (ie. The harmony of F major, or E♭ minor, or G Phyrigian). Certain chords have certain ‘roles’ within these keys or pitch sets and can be categorised as such. More on that later. Some music will have very simple harmonic progressions, and others will be extremely elaborate. Examples being ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles, which modulates (changes key (more on that later)) in the second bar of the song, or ‘Uptown Funk’ by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars which literally consists of two chords. Both songs are effective, and use harmony in completely separate ways.
How do I do a harmony?
The simplest way to think of harmony is in a major or minor scale, and I’m pleased to inform you that if you have ever watched Star Wars you will find this FAR easier as we refer to these chords via roman numerals. For example, the C major scale is C D E F G A B C. We let each of these notes naturally stack as thirds (ie. C E G, then D F A, then E G B, then F A C, etc.). We end up with this:
These naturally occurring chords are the underpinning of all western harmony!
Now for the cool part. Every major scale will have the exact same roman numerals. F major? Same. G major? Same. A♭ major? Same. The chords themselves change, but the quality (major or minor) does not. The uppercase roman numerals are major chords (I, IV, V), and the lower case roman numerals are minor chords (ii, iii, vi). The vii° is a weird one. Don’t worry about it yet.
Okay? That’s cool. Now what?
Each chord has a function within harmony, and some are more niche than others (such as the Neapolitan 6th (♭II) which you can google to your heart’s content). These purposes can be boiled down to ‘Tonic’ (the most stable forms of chords) ‘Dominant’ (the most unstable forms of chords), and ‘Sub-dominant’ (the transitionary chords). In the major scale our tonic chords are I, iii, and vi (C, Em, and Am). The dominant chords are V, and vii° (G and Bdim). Finally, the sub-dominant chords are ii, and IV (Dm, and F). Tonic chords like to move to sub-dominant chords, which like to move to dominant chords, which like to move to tonic chords. It’s all a cycle (not to say that there aren’t exceptions to this rule).
The most popular chord progressions used throughout the ages have been the I – IV – V (C, F, G), and the ii – V – I (Dm, G, C). Both of these progressions follow the ‘tonic -> sub-dominant -> dominant’ formula and sound very stable because of it. You may know of the fabled and infamous ‘Four Chord Song’ progression that dominates a large amount of pop music. This chord progression is I – V – vi – IV (C, G, Am, F). By understanding these chord progressions we can actively use them in our own music.
Cool. So that’s all I need to know?
Uh. Unfortunately no. You see, even though we have tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chord qualities they actually divide even further. They divide into Tonic (I), Supertonic (ii), Mediant (iii), Sub-dominant (IV), Dominant (V), Sub-mediant (vi), and Leading tone (vii°). Each of these chords has a very unique quality to it in the way that it functions and provides movement (or lack thereof) for your music. For example, The I – IV – V (C, F, G) progression has a C note in both the C major, and F major chords, and a G in both the C major and G major chords. This is different from the ii – V – I (Dm, G, C) where the C major and D minor share no similar notes, but the D minor and G major share the D. The relationship between the chords is very different because of this, and the points of tension are in different places.
Is it the same for minor keys?
No sorry. Slightly different, and in fact there are three different minor qualities to choose from which all offer different chords. We’ll go over that next time, but this time we’ll look at the natural minor scale (C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭, C).
Just as we said with the major scales, the minor scale roman numerals never change. Super helpful.
So you can see that the chord qualities are a bit different. We have flattened chords (so as to refer to them relative to their major counterparts (ie. A♭ major, as opposed to A minor)). We’ll go more in depth into minor keys next time, but I’ll leave you with a quick analysis of the chord progression from ‘Reformat the Planet’ by Bit Shifter to keep with the theme of last month.
Very simple. Very clever. Very catchy. Very Gameboy.
By shifting between the IV, and vi chord so readily, we get an established sense of ‘movement’ in the music. It’s driving outwards, as it hits the IV (C) it feels like it’s moving back home, and then it returns to vi (Em) which is a tonic chord and feels more settled. This ebbs and flows until we arrive back at V (D) which functions as our dominant and lets us move back home to I (G).
Once again, thanks for sticking around folks. It’s always super cool to impart my theory knowledge unto you. If you have any particular questions related to theory please leave a message about it! I’ll tackle anything! (Of course some stuff is more complex than other stuff, so it may take more time to get to it (yes I’m talking to all of you who requested negative harmony hahaha)). Next month we’ll tackle advanced harmonic progressions using seventh chords. This will give a unique flair to your music.
I also need to send a massive shout out to Jack Daniel Young for his excellent guide on scales in hexadecimal. Definitely give it a read if you get the chance!
Alright, this is me signing off. Have a great day! Happy analyzing!