Chord Progressions

Chord progressions are the succession or sequence of chords in a section of music. One of the features of many sequences of chords in tonal music is to move away from and then back to tonic with tonic being the focal point. As such, many compositions begin with tonic and end on tonic and most chord progressions eventually seek tonic as a final goal. Movement away from tonic tends to create tension and movement towards tonic tends to resolve tension. Much of our enjoyment of music comes from the interplay between tension and relaxation or the resolving of tension.

It is possible for any one chord to progress to any one of the other chords in a key; however, certain chord progressions are used more frequently than others. The chords most often used in any sequence are tonic and dominant. In fact, many songs use only tonic and dominant harmony. The folk song "Skip to My Lou" uses only tonic and dominant harmony as shown below. Numerous folk songs use this same chord progression. Click on the speaker icon to listen. Pay close attention to the points where the chords change. Click on each roman numeral symbol to listen to individual lines. Listen to the relationship between the tonic and dominant harmonies.

Skip to My Lou

The example below from a Rondo by Mozart uses only tonic and dominant chords. Listen to the example and notice the change from tonic to dominant and back to tonic. Click on the first, third, fifth, and seventh measures to listen to pairs of measures. Compare the last two measures of each line and compare the different use of tonic and dominant chords. The first line ends on dominant and the second line ends on tonic.

from Rondo by Mozart

Chord progressions are described in terms of root movement (the succession of roman numerals). The strongest progressions are those in which the roots move by descending fifths. The next strongest are ascending seconds and the next by descending thirds. Root movement down by fifth (up by fourth) make up the majority of chord progressions. Those progressions that create the impression of static or weak movement are often called retrogressions.

The two charts below give a general representation of some common chord progressions. Experiment with chord progressions by clicking on the roman numeral buttons. For instance, click I, then any other chord, then I again. Tonic can progress to any other chord and any chord can move to tonic. Any triad can progress directly to V (dominant). The most common progressions move from left to right. The IV and ii chords are often called predominant functioning chords because they often precede the dominant chord (V). The chord progressions I-IV-V-I and I-ii-V-I are very common. The viio chord is sometimes called a dominant functioning chord because it leads to tonic and can be substituted for the dominant chord.

Chords in Major Keys

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Chords Common Fifths Thirds Seconds

Chords in Minor Keys

piano organ guitar strings brass

Chords Common Fifths Thirds Seconds