Chord Progressions Theory

Scale Tone Chords

Chord Progressions are a series of chords and chord changes which originate from the root or tonic chord.

A Two-Chord Progression

The most basic progression alternates between 2 chords. This usually occurs between the 1st (tonic) and 5th(dominant) degree of a scale. They are repeated over and over, sometimes with the addition of a 7th to add interest, e.g., A - E - A - E7 - A

 

Other basic progressions are usually played between the 1st (tonic) and 4th (sub-dominant) degrees of a scale e.g., A - D - A - D7 - A

A Three-Chord Progression

This is an extremely popular progression used extensively in modern music. It is based on the first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees (the tonic, subdominant, and dominant). The I - IV - V (1 - 4 - 5) progression can be used in a 4 bar phrase in a variety of ways:

12 Bar Blues

The 12 - bar blues progression uses a longer form of the I - IV - V progression utilizing 12 bars, hence its name. There are many variations, but the most common and popular chord progression which is significant in the rock 'n' roll genre is:

I - I - I- I - IV - IV - I - I - V - V- I - I

So if you were playing 12 bar blues in the key of E, it would go like this:

  • E - E - E - E - A - A - E - E - B - B - E - E _______ OR
  • E - E - E - E - A - A - E - E - B - A - E - E

Scale Tone Chords

Every key has it's own set of chords that are constructed from the notes of its major scale... these are referred to as Scale Tone chords.

Each chord is constructed by the combination of notes which are a third apart... in a typical 3-note chord or triad, we have:

I ___(interval of a third)____III____(interval of a third)____V

We will use the C Major Scale as an example: C - D - E - F - G - A - B where each scale degree will be written in Roman Numerals as follows, I - II - III - IV - V - VI - VII.

Using the C Major Scale, we can construct scale tone chords by stacking 2 consecutive third intervals above each note.

Table 1:
C Major Scale C D E F G A B
III (+ 3rd interval) E F G A B C D
V   (+ 3rd interval) G A B C D E F
Constructed Chord C Dm Em F G Am

Even though each chord name is derived from its root note, they are all C scale tone chords because they only contain notes from the C Major Scale - no sharps or flats. This can be done for each major scale, giving us a group of chords that can be derived from any key, by simply stacking 3rd intervals on each root scale note.

Let's look at another example: F Major Scale which consists of 1 flat - B♭

Table 2:
F Major Scale F G A B♭ C D E
III (+ 3rd interval) A B♭ C D E F G
V   (+ 3rd interval) C D E F G A B♭
Constructed Chord F Gm Am B♭ C Dm

They are all F scale tone chords because they only contain notes from the F Major Scale - 1 flat - B♭.

The following table lists all standard chord progressions which are derived from scale tone chords for both major and minor keys. Remember that each major key has a relative minor key which shares exactly the same chords and notes.

Standard 3-note chord progressions for every key using Scale Tone chords....
Table 3:
Major Key I ii iii IV V vi viiº
C C Dm Em F G Am
G G Am Bm C D Em F#º
D D Em F#m G A Bm C#º
A A Bm C#m D E F#m G#º
E E F#m G#m A B C#m D#º
B B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#º
F# F# G#m A#m B C# D#m E#º
C# C# D#m E#m F# G# A#m B#º
 
F F Gm Am B♭ C Dm
B♭ B♭ Cm Dm E♭ F Gm
E♭ E♭ Fm Gm A♭ B♭ Cm
A♭ A♭ B♭m Cm D♭ E♭ Fm
D♭ D♭ E♭m Fm G♭ A♭ B♭m
G♭ G♭ A♭m B♭m C♭ D♭ E♭m
C♭ C♭ D♭m E♭m F♭ G♭ A♭m B♭º
 
Minor Key i iiº III iv v VI VII
Am Am C Dm Em F G
Em Em F#º G Am Bm C D
Bm Bm C#º D Em F#m G A
F#m F#m G#º A Bm C#m D E
C#m C#m D#º E F#m G#m A B
G#m G#m A#º B C#m D#m E F#
D#m D#m E#º F# G#m A#m B C#
A#m A#m B#º C# D#m E#m F# G#
 
Dm Dm F Gm Am B♭ C
Gm Gm B♭ Cm Dm E♭ F
Cm Cm E♭ Fm Gm A♭ B♭
Fm Fm A♭ B♭m Cm D♭ E♭
B♭m B♭m D♭ E♭m Fm G♭ A♭
E♭m E♭m G♭ A♭m B♭m C♭ D♭
A♭m A♭m B♭º C♭ D♭m E♭m F♭ G♭
The grey shaded areas indicate enharmonic  which is a note or key signature which is equivalent to another note or key signature, but  spelled differently, eg.,   B Major = C♭ Major / F# = G♭  / C# = D♭  &  G#m = A♭m  /  D#m =  E♭m  /  A#m = B♭m

Download Chord Progressions

tipStandard 3-note chord progressions:


When referring to a standard Major Chord Progression remember:

  • Major - Minor - Minor - Major - Major - Minor - Diminished

When referring to a standard Minor Chord Progression remember:

  • Minor - Diminished - Major - Minor - Minor - Major - Major
For even more chords... the more the merrier!

Scale Tone Chord Extensions...

What happens if we add another third to our existing triad or 3 note chord from the C Major Scale:

I ___(interval of a third)____III____(interval of a third)____V____(interval of a third)____VII

Table 4:
C Major Scale C D E F G A B
III (+ 3rd interval) E F G A B C D
V   (+ 3rd interval) G A B C D E F
VII (+ 3rd interval) B C D E F G A
Constructed Chord Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bø7
ø7 is the symbol for a half diminished 7th... The chord formula is 1 - ♭3 - ♭5 - ♭7

We can now add more chords to our progressions. 7th Scale tone chords for all keys:

Table 5:
Scale Degree I ii iii IV V vi viiº
Chords maj7 m7 m7 maj7 dom 7 m7 ø7


Add more chords to your standard chord progressions...

You can keep adding thirds in the same fashion, and build 9th (octave above sus2), 11th (octave above sus4), and 13th (octave above a 6th) chord. If we continue to use the C Major Scale as an example, we derive the following:

Table 6:
C Major Scale C D E F G A B
(+ 3rd interval) - III E F G A B C D
(+ 3rd interval) - V G A B C D E F
Constructed Chord C Dm Em F G Am
(+ 3rd interval) - VII B C D E F G A
Constructed Chord Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bø7
(+ 3rd interval) - IX D E F G A B C
Constructed Chord Cmaj9 Dm9 Em9 Fmaj9 G9 Am9 Bø9
(+ 3rd interval) - XI F G A B C D E
Constructed Chord Cmaj11 Dm11 Em11 - G11 Am11 Bø11
(+ 3rd interval) - XIII A B C D E F G
Constructed Chord Cmaj13 Dm13 Em13 - G13 Am13 Bø13

Notice that all the notes of each constructed chord contain NO sharps or flats which is in keeping with the C Major Scale, commonly called 'C Scale Tone Chords'


Please Note:
  • the 9th note of a chord is the same as the 2nd note of a chord except it is one octave higher, therefore we can add sus2 chords to our progressions... Csus2, Fsus2, and Gsus2 with all notes in these chords containing no sharps or flats
  • the 11th note of a chord is the same as the 4th note of a chord except it is one octave higher, therefore we can add sus4 chords to our progressions... Csus4, and Gsus4 - no sharps or flats.
  • the 13th note of a chord is the same as the 6th note of a chord except it is one octave higher, therefore we can add 6 chords to our progressions... C6, and G6 - no sharps or flats.

In Summary: Scale Tone Chords for C Major


Table 7:
Standard Chord Progression C - Dm - Em - F - G - Am - Bdim
Extra C chords Csus2 / Csus4 / C6 / Cmaj7 / Cmaj9 / Cmaj11 / C maj13
Extra Dm chords Dm6 / Dm7 / Dm9 / Dm11 / Dm13
Extra Em chords Em7 / Em9 / Em11 / Em13
Extra F chords Fsus2 / F6 / Fmaj7 / Fmaj9
Extra G chords Gsus2 / Gsus4 / G6 / G7 / G7sus4 / G9 / G11 / G13
Extra Am chords Am7 / Am9 / Am11 / Am13
Extra B dim chord Bm7b5(ø7 or half-diminished 7th) / Bm9♭5♭7 (ø9) / Bm11♭5♭7♭9 (ø11) / Bø13...

The same applies to all other standard chord progressions:

Table 8:
I ii iii IV V vi viiº
sus2 m6 m7 sus2 sus2 m7 m7♭5(ø7 or half-diminished 7th)
sus4 m7 m11 6 sus4 m9 m9♭5♭7(ø9 or half-diminished 9th)
6 m11 m13 maj7 6 m11 m11♭5♭7♭9(ø11 or half-diminished 11th)
maj7 m13   maj9 7 m13 m11♭5♭7♭9♭11(ø13 or half-diminished 13th)
maj9 7sus4
maj13 9,11,13

Remember, you need to know the notes of each scale before you can determine the chord progressions when using the above table. Simply determine the notes of the scale along with its chord type... maj, min, dim etc. This will in turn replace each Roman Numeral - upper-case for major chords and lower-case for minor chords, with lower-case and a symbol º for diminished. All usable chord extensions can be found in each column of that particular chord... consider the following:

Let's say we want a standard chord progression for the Key of D:

  1. Calculate the notes of the D Major Scale... D - E - F# - G - A - B - C#
  2. Substitute the notes of the scale & chord type for the Roman Numeral progression... D - Em - F#m - G - A - Bm - C#dim
  3. Use extended chords found in each column for that chord, e.g., as well as D, you could play any of the following; Dsus2, Dsus4, D6, Dmaj7, Dmaj9, Dmaj13 (first column). Do the same for each column - They are all D scale tone chords and only contain notes from the D Major Scale - 2 sharps - F# & C#. This gives you heaps of chords to choose from... enjoy.
Remember that each major scale has a relative minor scale that shares exactly the same notes, e.g., the relative minor of C Major is A Minor. The natural minor scale is the sixth mode of the major scale - if you look at the 6th degree of a C major Scale you will reach A... see table 3 where all major scales are listed followed by their relative minor scales in the same order.

Notice that Am and C major have no sharps or flats and have exactly the same chord progression except that the first scale degree for the minor scale is A and the first constructed chord is Am. The constructed chords in the table are all triads (3-note chords). If you find yourself using a minor key, the chord progression will be exactly the same as its relative major key starting on the 6th degree of the scale.

P.S. If you are using a Bm Scale, you can use the same chord progressions as a D Major Scale (starting on the 6th degree of the scale)... the chords are exactly the same.

Useful Links

Key Chords: This is an excellent free interactive tool by drumbot.com that helps you with chord progressions in both major and minor keys. It is a great application for song writing and experimenting with chords you may have never considered. All chords are usable...you just have to experiment. key chords Features include:
  • All major and minor key selections
  • Variety of extra chords usable in any given key
  • Drag & Drop chords into a viewing pane
  • Choose your time in BPM
  • Choose your strums/beat
  • Choose your strum pattern & speed of the strum
  • Listen to the result
  • You can even Roll the Dice and listen to a random progression which you may like

You have to try this tool. It will be a definite winner with song writers. While you're there, you may want to look at some other very useful free tools for guitarists and musicians alike... 10/10.

Music Theory - Chords In Keys: This is a very handy Android app for all types of musicians wanting to improve their understanding of all the major, minor and diminished chords found in all 12 major keys. It is a fun and interactive app which will help cement the fundamental aspects of key chords. It takes you through the basic theory required to build scales through the use of intervals along with a list of all the major keys.

Example: the app will display a major key along with a scale degree in the form of a Roman numeral as discussed above - your job is to work out what the chord is in that major key. This is definately worth a look at.

The author of the app is Stuart Bahn - Guitarist and Guitar Educator Member of the Music Masters Association and National Association of Music Educators.

Learn to listen.

A good ear will be able to choose the chords that sound 'right' in a piece. Even a 'not so good ear' can often tell if a chord is not right... consider the following:

A little story I like to tell:

When I was performing live, my manager would often come to my gigs. She considered herself to be tone-deaf, but if I ever hit a wrong note or chord, she would always turn around and glare at me... she knew. She wasn't a musician and couldn't sing or pitch in the right key, but she knew when a note or chord wasn't right because it didn't sound right. So, if you are a musician, you will most likely know if a note or chord doesn't sound right.

I hope you have enjoyed this session. Next time you are writing a song and you want to know what chords are available for you to play in a particular key, use 'the chart' or the 'key chords tool'... or you may want to look at the help books below:

Back to Music Chords Theory

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