6.3.1 What Are Chord Progressions Good For?
6.3.2 Dynamic Qualities of Chords
6.3.3 Understanding Harmony: Terms of Endearment
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When you hear a tune, you hear a sequence of
individual pitches. In the context of tonality, all of those pitches—except
scale degree 1—sound restless.
But when you hear a chord,
you don’t hear the individual pitches. Even when you finger-pick chord changes
on the guitar, or play the chords as arpeggios on the keyboard, you still don’t
hear a tune. You hear chords being unrolled and spread out in time. But they
still sound like chords—not a melody.
brain processes harmony differently from the way it processes melody. That’s why
there’s no “music” in harmony without melody.
When you hear a chord progression and a tune simultaneously,
your brain processes the chords as blends of related tones, a kind
of third dimension of music, unfurling and sprawling beneath and
around the tune, a colourful sonic panorama. Musical depth.
Your brain hears melody and harmony as related but separate
entities. The tune is a restless traveller. The chords provide a
dynamic, moving landscape through which the tune travels.
Chord progressions, though not absolutely necessary in the
making of music, serve three main functions:
1. Chord progressions help define tonality and unify a piece of
music. They provide a sonic frame of reference that makes
unrest and dissonance possible.
2. Chord progressions impart drive and propulsion to a piece of
music. In the context of tonality, most chords, like most
intervals in a melody, sound, to a greater or lesser degree,
tense and restless. They seek resolution. Like the tune itself, they’re
also trying to find their way home.
3. Chord progressions furnish music with the qualitative aural
equivalents of color and depth.
A chord has a unified sound and retains its identity even when
inverted. However, the all-important root note of the chord (the
lowest note of the chord in root position, not inverted) simultaneously
wears another hat, namely, as a degree of a melodic scale.
the scale degree of a key coincides with the root of a major or minor
triad—which only happens when scale degree 1 coincides with the triad built on
scale degree 1 (for example, the C major triad in the key of C)—the chord has no
dynamic quality, no motion. It’s merely a stable triad in root position.
the moment the tune moves away from scale degree 1, all accompanying chords,
whatever they may be, take on a dynamic quality, a feeling of unrest—even major
and minor triads. Even the triad built on the tonic note.
Because all notes in a diatonic scale except scale degree 1 are
unbalanced. And when it comes to getting attention, the tune trumps
The tune trumps the chord
(see Chapter 9).
As you will learn in Chapter 9, bearing this fact in mind will help
you enormously in your songwriting. Your brain zeros in on the tune,
which, again, is why a chord-free melody stands on its own, but a
tune-free chord progression does not.
As long as the tune is in a state of imbalance, no accompanying
chord can bring it back into balance.
same time, your brain has to be able to identify a succession of notes and
accompanying harmony as “music” in the first place. For the collective musical
mind of an audience to find a piece of music memorable and emotionally potent...
• The piece must have enough tonal unity to be coherent;
• It must also possess a sufficient variety of tonal disturbance
and tension to be mesmerizing.
Unity and variety. Both are essential. The trick is to have them in
the right balance. That means a melody and its chords must
necessarily be tonally related in some way. What way?
Melody and harmony, while identifiably different,
relate to each other so intimately that similar terms are used to describe and
understand their individual natures.
Just as melody is
organized by scale degrees, intervals, and scales, so harmony is
organized by harmonic degrees, harmonic intervals, and harmonic
scales (Table 37 below).
Basic Terms, Melody vs Harmony
Notes are identified as
scale degrees. Each note
has an assigned Arabic
number, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.,
identifying its scale
Chords are identified as
harmonic degrees. Each
chord has an assigned Roman
numeral, I, II, III, IV, etc.,
identifying the whole chord,
although named for the root
Note-to-note succession—a tune or melody—proceeds by
Chord-to-chord succession—a chord progression—proceeds by harmonic intervals.
A diatonic order of seven
notes, plus the eighth note
which repeats the first at a
higher pitch, is called a
melodic scale (major or
The harmonic order of seven
chords is called the harmonic
scale. (As you’ll soon see, there are 12 harmonic scales.)
Chapters 4 and 5 covered the melodic terms in Table 37 in detail.
Now to tackle the harmonic terms, one at a time.
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