Music Theory – 0019

Last time was all dry and theoretical and true. We have expectations when listening to Western Music and you combine these expectations with the nature of our musical scale you get a logic that is profound and pervasive from Bach through The Beatles to this very day. This time, let’s get real.

Most songs are written in three chords and those chords are I, IV, and V.

In the key of C Major those three chords are:

C Major, F Major, and G Major, although not necessarily one right after another or in that order.

There is a variation that adds a fourth and it was very common in the 1950’s:

I – vi – IV – V

in that very specific order. Those chords, all natural to the C Major scale are:

C Major – A Minor – F Major – G Major

Note that the A Minor chord is the most common substitution chord for the C Major chord as they both have the notes C and E in common; indeed, going from A Minor to F Major is the same kind of easy neutral movement because these two chords have the notes A and C in common. Further, C Major happens to be the dominant chord of F, so whenever you start a song with I, the most obvious chord to go to next is IV, as is the case with songs in the basic blues format. Here with this “50’s chord progression”, the A Minor chord is passed through as we travel from the C Major chord to the F Major chord. Let’s look at those four chords:


Lets suppose this is the chord progression for a song and I got coerced unprepared to sit in with a band. They call out a song name to me I never heard of before and I look back puzzled so the guitar player rattles off to me, “One – Six – Four – Five, in C.” I would then nod back with grim determination and try to set myself for the song to begin. Why grimly? Because I now know the chords, I know the order of the chords, but I don’t know exactly when they will change and I don’t know the feel of the song so I have no idea what to do and I’ll have to figure it out in front of a live crowd as the song progresses. That’s real life: been there, done that. Many times.

So we have this chord progression. Four chords, all natural to the key of C. Write some music based on this progression. Easy, right? It is the second most common chord progression in songs. Let’s first look at one of the most common of all songs, Heart and Soul:

HeartAnd Soul

There’s three times through the same four-chord progression. This same progression with a different feel is used in the song Stand By Me as performed by Ben E. King, among many many other songs by various artists.

Assignment time. Write a passage of music with the above chord progression in the key of C Major. (I’ve never shown you a different key! All 12 major keys work and sound the same (only higher or lower), but they involve key signatures and black keys on the piano.) You can use the model I’ve used so far or make your own. You don’t have to have one chord per measure but it is nice and orderly that way. You can also use any time signature you like. I’ll likely spend the next two or three articles demonstrating what to do with this, but by this time if you’ve been following along from the beginning and are still with me it should be doable without a whole lot of fuss. The hard part would be to make it sound good, but going through the motions just to get it done should be a relative piece of cake.

This one is important because this chord progression is so common — it is known to be useful for writing a great variety of songs in many different styles. Once I’ve demonstrated one way to handle this we’ll move on to the single most common chord progression: 12-bar blues.

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