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The purpose of art is to stop time.
You’re about to
learn chord progression techniques from some of the world’s greatest
Jagger and Richards
Antonio Carlos Jobim
Lennon and McCartney
Hank Williams, Sr.
. . . and others
The following sections examine the chord progressions of four
groups of brilliant songs, using Chase charts.
• Group 1: Songs without modulation or chromatic chords
• Group 2: Songs without modulation, with chromatic chords
• Group 3: Songs with modulation, without chromatic chords
• Group 4: Songs with modulation and chromatic chords
2 discussed why there’s no such thing as “progress” in music. If you aspire to
artistry in songwriting, as opposed to hackdom or fashion, then you seek to
create classics, songs that
transcend time, performer, and genre:
1. Time Independence. People who first hear the song
decades after it was written take to the song and want to hear
it and play it and sing it repeatedly.
2. Performer Independence. The song works well if someone
other than the original performer does a cover.
3. Genre Independence. A performer working in a genre other
than the genre associated with the original recording can
render the song in a palatable way.
With the exception of a couple of centuries-old public-domain
songs, the four groups of songs coming up for chord progression
analysis were composed over a roughly 50-year period, from the
1920s to the 1970s. Most people would consider these songs to be classics.
reminder: a Chase chart only represents the chord progression of a song—not the tune and not the rhythmic elements.
Here’s the first
group of songs, nearly all of which are on the Gold Standard Song
List. All of the songs in this group stay in the one key
and do not borrow chords from other keys.
of My Tears”
(On the Bayou)”
a Man Loves a Woman”
Train to Georgia”
along the Watchtower”
Got You under My Skin”
the Chase charts that follow. You’ll pick up a lot of useful information about
what makes the chord progressions work in these tunes. You’ll also learn how
easy it is use Chase charts to map the chord progressions of your own
tunes or any other song with a chord progression you’re curious about.
was introduced as an example a little earlier. Have a look at Figure 76 as you
go over the basic “rules” for doing Chase charts.
Chase Chart of “Heartbreak Hotel”
Chase Chart Basics
1. Start with a drawing of the circular harmonic scale with
Nashville Numbers (Roman numerals) on the inside of the
circle and the chords of the particular key around the outside.
Remember: the Nashville Numbers on the inside never
change but the chords around the outside do change. You will find the
circular harmonic scales for all 12 major/minor pairs of keys in Appendix 1. You
can choose any key you like. In “Heartbreak Hotel,” the choice of the key of E
major/C♯ minor is purely arbitrary.
map the chord progression, start with the song’s first chord and draw an arrow
to the chord it changes to other
than a variant of the first chord.
In the example of “Heartbreak Hotel,” the first chord is E major. The next chord
is E7, a variant of E major. For this chord change, you don’t need to
draw an arrow, since E7 is just a variant of E major. All you need to do is
label the chords at Nashville Number I as E and E7 to signify that the chord E
and its variant E7 both appear at this position.
Next, the progression goes to A7. So the first arrow you draw goes from
Nashville Number I to Nashville Number IV on the inside of the circle.
(Nashville Number IV corresponds to the “A7" on the outside of the circle, a
variant of what would normally be the chord “A”.)
the first arrow with the number “1" and draw a little circle at the base of the
arrow labelled “1”. This serves as an easy visual marker that shows where the
chord progression within the circular harmonic scale begins.
the progression goes to the chord B7, so draw an arrow from the A7 position
(Nashville Number IV) to the B7 position (Nashville Number V7). Number that
the progression goes from B7 back to the tonic chord, E. So draw one more arrow
from the B7 position (Nashville Number V7) to the tonic chord, and number that
6. If the same chord change repeats, do not give the arrow
a simple chord progression such as the one for “Heartbreak Hotel,” you’ll only
need to use one circle to map the whole progression. As you’ll see later, if the
chord progression gets complicated, a Chase chart can get cluttered with too
many arrows. When that happens, all you need to do is start another circle and
continue on. Draw as many harmonic scale circles as you need. You may need
several harmonic scale circles to do a Chase chart of one song.
Also, wherever the chord progression takes an obvious turn,
which often happens when verse changes to chorus or bridge, start
a new harmonic scale circle.
Hotel” is an excellent example of a chord progression that orbits clockwise
around the gravitational centre, the tonic chord. The progression moves from
harmonic degree I to IV to V7 to I.
can think of the chord progression for this song as a variation of the classic
12-bar blues pattern. It’s just compressed into 8 bars.
The Chase chart of
this song’s chord progression shows the same three-chord orbit pattern as
“Heartbreak Hotel.” But “Tracks of My Tears” has a subtle change in the chord
progression of the chorus that makes a big difference (Figure 77):
Chase Chart of “Tracks of My Tears” (Words and Music by Smokey Robinson, Warren
Moore, and Marvin Tarplin, 1967)
In the verse, half closes alternate with full closes. A half close or
half cadence is an imperfect cadence, a cadence that ends on the
dominant chord. It leaves the ear in suspense, waiting for resolution.
In the chorus, unlike the verse, half closes continue until the end
of the chorus. This infuses the chorus with a greater urgency to
resolve. It keeps your brain in suspense.
better to use a string of half closes like this in the chorus than in the verse.
It’s an effective technique used masterfully in this song.
Wanna write a
two-chord classic song? You could not pick two better chords than I and V7. Hank
Williams, Sr., shows how it’s done (Figure 78).
FIGURE 78 Chase Chart
of “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (Words and Music by Hank Williams, Sr., 1952)
progressions don’t get any simpler. And yet, over the centuries, that I – V7 – I
progression has taken on all the other chord progressions in harmony and
arm-wrestled them into submission.
“Jambalaya,” fully half the song has unstable dominant seventh harmony, which
keeps the listener on edge, expecting resolution.
this song, Hank’s doing some interesting things melodically, too, which is why
everybody knows the tune. It’s way, way easier to write a boring ol’ country
song with a I – V7 – I chord progression than a great classic country song with
a I – V7 – I. Chapter 9 discusses in detail what goes into making a memorable
You saw how the
chord changes in “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Tracks of My Tears” simply orbit the
tonic chord. Same thing with zillions of songs. Usually the orbit goes
But sometimes the orbit reverses itself (Figure 79):
FIGURE 79 Chase Chart: 12-bar Blues
The final four-bar phrase of a 12-bar blues tune usually contains
a deceptive cadence. That is, the V7 chord (B7 in the above
example) does not resolve directly to the tonic.
progression instead takes a detour through the IV chord (A in this example),
comes to rest briefly on the tonic, then immediately “turns around” on the V7
chord to start the cycle over again. This keeps the tune driving on.
A cadential chord formula of this nature, usually in the last bar or
two of a section, is called a turnaround. Some players call it a
The Chase chart of the verse of this song maps another way of
using a deceptive cadence to keep your brain in suspense and the
progression moving right along (Figure 80).
Chase Chart of “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Words and Music by Calvin Lewis and
Andrew Wright, 1966)
This time, the progression moves from the V chord to the VIm
chord, then to the I (tonic) chord, which takes the form of its unstable
seventh variant (C7).
tonic seventh in turn demands to move on to the IV chord. This keeps the
progression moving, mostly via fifths and seconds, with only a single third
progression (Am – C7).
In this tune, the Chase chart shows that three variant chords occupy
harmonic degree IV: two in the verse and one in the chorus (Figure
81). These three chords are IV7, IVm7, and IV (F7, Fm7, and the
default F, respectively).
After Midnight” is really a three-chord song, with variant chords at Nashville
Number IV to provide harmonic variety. (Lyrically, the song is in the best
tradition of country music, describing what it's like to stagger out of the
saloon at midnight, only to find that your horse got bored and lonesome waiting
around in the street and went home without you.)
Chase Chart of “Walking After Midnight” (Words by Don Hecht, Music by Alan
After Midnight” uses a chord progression technique you’ll find in many
country songs: the progression reverses itself in the chorus.
The verse progresses mostly in the common fifths-down pattern.
But in the second part of the chorus, the pattern reverses to fifths up
through the tonic. This creates a solid harmonic contrast between
verse and chorus, providing more harmonic variety)
secondary dominants impart substantial forward momentum to a tune. They’re
sevenths, and therefore unstable. And they move in fifth-down progressions.
Here’s a classic example (Figure 82):
FIGURE 82 Chase Chart of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” (Words by Sam Lewis and Joe Young,
Music by Ray Henderson, 1925)
chord progression happens to skip the chords F and Bº. What would happen if it
didn’t? What happens when the progression goes from the I chord, C major, to the
IV chord, F major, in the form of a secondary dominant, F7?
An interesting situation arises.
you want to continue with a string of secondary dominants, then the chord F7
would normally be the secondary dominant of B♭, not B. Therefore the progression
would be on its way out of the key.
come? Because the progression IV – VIIº is the only progression in the circular
harmonic scale where there are six
semitones between the root notes of adjacent chords, instead of five
semitones (Table 47).
Semitones Between Chord Roots in the
Key of C /
I – IV
C – F
IV – VIIº
F – Bº
VIIº – III7
Bº – E7
III7 – VIm
E7 – Am
VIm – IIm
Am – Dm
IIm – V7
Dm – G7
V7 – I
G7 – C
if F7 were to progress to B♭7, then B♭7 would be the secondary dominant of E♭.
So B♭7 would function as a pivot chord, taking the progression into the new key
(key of E♭).
F7 can also proceed pretty smoothly to Bº7, which is harmonically close to B♭7:
Bº7 = B, D, F, A♭
B♭7= B♭, D, F, A♭
being highly unstable, Bº7 seeks to move on to the next chord, which is E7. So
the progression remains in the prevailing key.
With so many
fifth-up chord changes, why does this song, immortalized by Jimi Hendrix, sound
palatable (Figure 83)?
Chase Chart of “Hey Joe” (Words and Music by Billy Roberts, 1965)
1. Movement to any chord from any other chord of the same
type sounds palatable—especially if such movement forms a regular pattern of
some kind (see the 10 chord progression guidelines near the end of this
chapter). In this case:
• All of the chords are the same type (major triads), and
• The progression moves in the same fifth-up steps.
2. Using only consonant chords (major triads) helps offset the
sonic weirdness of so many consecutive fifths up.
3. The first fifth-up progression is from the tonic chord, which
makes it perfectly palatable, as discussed earlier in this
progression owes its lack of forcefulness to the two consecutive third
progressions at its heart, clearly mapped in this Chase chart. In this example,
the third progressions are C – Am, and Am – F (Figure 84).
Chase Chart of “Return to Sender” (Words and Music by Otis Blackwell and
Winfield Scott, 1962); “Blue Moon” (Words by Lorenz Hart, Music by Richard
Rodgers, 1934); “Heart and Soul” (Words by Frank Loesser, Music by Hoagy
Carmichael, 1938); and a Zillion Other Songs Using This Progression
first version of this progression uses consecutive thirds ... C – Am, followed by
Am – F ... which makes the progression sound a bit too predictable and dull.
In the second version, making Dm the third chord in the
progression (instead of F) creates three consecutive downward fifths
of default chords.
way ... C – Am – Dm or C – Am – F ... this progression plays it safe.
the other hand, while not vigorous, this progression has much to offer in some
songwriting situations. It rolls right along with a stability and inevitability
that’s well suited to lightweight lyrics. Many 1950s ballads and pop tunes have
The Chase chart of
“Midnight Train to Georgia” shows how this unusual progression avoids all fifths
up, even fifths up to and from the tonic (Figure 85).
the verse and chorus are mapped on a single harmonic scale chart. It’s getting a
tad cluttered. If you are doing a chart and find it’s getting too filled up with
arrows, break it up into two or three (or more) separate harmonic scale circles,
each showing the chord “map” for a different section of the song. In this
example, the Chase chart could well have been broken into two parts, one for the
verse, the other for the chorus.
Chase Chart of “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Words and Music by Jim Weatherly,
Although the progression has several fifths down, they do not
form chains of three or more (as in the previous example). This
preserves their strength while preventing predictability.
song also features a dynamic, repeating upward second progression (Em7 – F – G),
which propels the harmony forward with considerable vigour.
There are even a few third progressions, up and down.
Diversity makes this a powerful chord progression. A good
mixture of fifths, thirds, and seconds keeps the harmony interesting
while never straying from solid tonality.
First, the words and chords:
This time, the Chase chart is broken into two parts. The first one
maps the verse, the second maps the chorus (Figure 86).
Chase Chart of “Danny Boy” (Words by Fred Weatherly, 1913; Music by Rory Dali
O’Cahan, ca. 1600)
Chase chart of “Danny Boy” reveals a good mixture of fifths and thirds, with a
brief second progression in the last phrase.
The notable thing about this progression is the smoothness
(thanks to the third progressions) with which it integrates chords
from the relative minor. The minor chord influence suitably matches
the melancholy mood of the lyric.
song goes back to Shakespearean times. The blind Irish harper Rory Dali O’Cahan
wrote the tune that became known as “Londonderry Aire.” Fred Weatherly, an
English lawyer and lyricist, arranged his already-written lyric, “Danny Boy,” to
fit the tune. The match became one of the world’s greatest songs.
A CLASSIC OF THE
and the minor mode combine to make the harmony for “Moondance” distinctive and
evocative. The Chase chart reveals that the variant chord VIIm7 (Bm7) replaces
the default chord VIIº (Bº) in the verse.
The progression shuttles between this variant chord and the
tonic, itself a variant in the form of a minor seventh (Am7). These
two somewhat dissonant minor seventh chords set the mood (Figure
Chase Chart of “Moondance” (Words and Music by Van Morrison, 1970)
Then what happens? In the bridge/chorus, the harmony switches
over to the other side of the tonic (the fifths down side), leaving the
VIIm7 chord out of the picture.
The bridge/chorus provides excellent harmonic contrast to the
verse. The song remains solidly in the minor mode. The
progressions in the bridge/chorus are fifths down and seconds up.
The following discussion refers to the original Dylan recording on the
album John Wesley Harding, not the more famous (and equally
magnificent) Hendrix cover.
song spends half its time in minor and half in major harmony. But it doesn’t
really modulate because it does not establish a tonal centre outside of the key
of A minor.
Chase chart of this three-chord song reveals no fifth or third progressions at
all—only second progressions. The chords simply move back and forth between A
minor (the tonic chord) and F major, via the transient G major chord (Figure 88
The G major chord
plays a vital role because, although it serves in a transient capacity only, its
presence turns what would otherwise be a relatively weak third progression (Am –
F) into a pair of strong second progressions (Am – G and G – F).
Chase Chart of “All Along the Watchtower” (Words and Music by Bob Dylan, 1968)
As for harmonic contrast, because the G major chord is transient,
as noted, the song spends about half of its time in the minor mode,
the other half in major.
no fifths in sight, the song does not use any form of conventional cadence. It
goes on and on restlessly, shifting back and forth, back and forth, major to
minor to major to minor, until the song ends on the minor chord, the key’s tonic
Now for the other
extreme. How in blazes does Cole Porter stuff this exquisitely-wrought
three-minute masterpiece with 20—count ’em,
20— chords without modulating, and without borrowing chromatic chords?
an inventory of the chords he uses in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Starting
with the major tonic chord and moving clockwise around the harmonic scale, here
are all the chords (Table 48):
Inventory of Chords: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
Default and Variant
Even though the song has a lot of minor chords, it does not
modulate because, by definition, modulation means establishing a
new tonal centre. This song does not do that.
The progressions takes quite a few twists and turns, so four
harmonic scales are enlisted to map the whole thing (Figure 89
The first harmonic scale in the Chase chart shows that the song
begins conventionally enough with a repeating sequence of fifths
down. A couple of interesting points:
• Porter starts the vocal on the IIm chord instead of the tonic.
• He uses minor seventh variant chords in place of minor
default chords for added push.
This four-chord progression repeats fours times, firmly
Then, as the Chase chart maps, in the second and third
harmonic scales, Porter brings in the other three degrees of the
harmonic scale, and simultaneously introduces a lot of variant
chords at every harmonic degree except III7 (E7). The effect is a rich
harmonic experience without the slightest sense of loss of tonality.
Finally, the song returns to the same cycle of chords it began
with (more or less).
Chase Chart of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Words and Music by Cole Porter,
Got You Under My Skin” makes use of the chords of all
seven degrees of the harmonic scale—a comparative rarity. Here’s another one
that does the same thing.
ONE OF THE
As this Chase chart
shows, within the first verse, “Yesterday” goes through all seven harmonic
degrees. McCartney uses notable variant chords at two harmonic degrees:
• G major in place of G minor at harmonic degree II;
in place of Eº at harmonic degree VII.
minor seventh serves well as a variant of the diminished chord at harmonic
degree VII because the minor seventh contains two out of three of the notes of
the diminished chord (Eº = E, G, B♭; Em7 = E, G, B, D). This is the same variant
chord Cole Porter uses in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
notable that the very first chord change is I – VIIm7, an unusual move. As
discussed in “10 Chord Progression Guidelines” at the
end of this chapter, movement to any chord from the tonic chord sounds
palatable, although it usually happens after tonality is firmly established. Not
the case here. (Figure 90 below)
Chase Chart of “Yesterday” (Words and Music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney,
verse ends with a plagal cadence (IV – I), which is somewhat unusual.
chords used in this song are just ordinary majors, minors, and sevenths. But
chord progression diversity—an interesting mixture of fifths, thirds, and
seconds (and a couple of well-chosen variant chords)—makes this tune
Here’s the chord
progression arrangement used in the Chase chart of “The Star Spangled Banner”
(melody composed by John Stafford Smith in his late teens):
As discussed in the
introduction to modulation in Chapter 5, “The Star Spangled Banner” uses a
tonicization or two, but doesn’t really modulate (Figure 91).
FIGURE 91 Chase Chart of “The Star Spangled Banner” (Words by Francis Scott Key, 1814;
Music by John Stafford Smith, ca. 1768)
the above Chase chart shows, the strength of the chord progression—derived from
an exceptionally well-constructed melody—resides in its robust seconds and
Third progressions appear only briefly.
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