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Chord Progression

Chords in a key can be categorized into three areas:

• Tonic
• Subdominant
• Dominant

Tonic chords move to either Subdominant or Dominant Chords

Subdominant chords move to Dominant
Dominant chords move to Tonic

Chord progressions that move backwards, Subdominant to Tonic or Dominant to Subdominant

are called retrogression.

In the key of C Major, the chords are:

I C Major (C E G)
ii D minor (D F A)
iii E minor (E G B)
IV F Major (F A C)
V G Major (G B D)
vi A minor (A C E)
viiº B diminished (B D F)

Tonic Subdominant Dominant

C Major F Major G Major
E minor D minor B diminished
A minor

Chords can move up and down in each column. This is less of a chord progression and
considered more of a change in color. Play C major to E minor to A minor. This creates a sense
of color change and not so much forward momentum.

Typical chord progressions:

I IV V (C F G) The I IV and V chords in a key are called the primary chords. With those three
chords alone you can harmonize any melody note in the key.
ii V I
I vi ii V I
viiº iii vi ii V I IV (This called a circle progression. The roots of each chord move around the circle
of 4ths. B-E-A-D-G-C-F

Chords with roots that are a third apart (C to E, C to A, A to F, F to D, E to G, G to B) will share

two notes in common. This creates very smooth chord changes.
Chords with roots a fourth or fifth apart (C to F, D to G, B to E, E to A, A to D) will share one note
in common.
Chords with roots a second apart ( C to D, D to E, E to F, F to G, G to A, A to B, B to C) will have
no tones in common. This is considered less smooth as all the notes are new when the chords

Secondary Dominant Chords:

In each key there is one true Dominant relationship. That is the V-I (G to C).
Secondary Dominant relationships can be created by changing the quality of chords in the key
to create a temporary Dominant to Tonic (V to I) progression. We are basically creating a
temporary new Tonic on chords in the key. We borrow the V chord from the new temporary
Tonic chord.

D7 to G (V of the V chord) this sounds as if we are moving to the key of G. G is really the V chord
in the key of C, but the D7 chord make G sound like the new Tonic (I) chord. This is used in
almost every country song.
E7 to Am
A7 to Dm
B7 to Em
C7 to F

The Band’s “Ophelia” uses quite a bit of Secondary Dominants

(I)C – (V/vi)E7- (V/ii)A7- (V/V) D7 – (IV)F – (V)G each chord be one measure
(I)C –(V/ii)A7- (V/V) D7 –(V)G as the tag of the progression. Each chord is two beats.

Borrowed chords:

We can create fresh sounding progressions by borrowing chords from the parallel minor key
(parallel keys share the same root note but have different scale construction).
C Major = C D E F G A B
C Major’s parallel minor scale is C minor = C D Eb F G Ab Bb

The chords in the key of C minor are:

i C minor (C Eb G)
iiº D diminished (D F Ab)
bIII Eb Major (Eb G Bb)
iv F minor (F Ab C)
v G minor (G Bb D)
bVI Ab Major (Ab C Eb)
bVII Bb Major (Bb D F)

Check out the Beatles “In My Life”. The song is in the key of A Major, but when the words “in
my life” are sung, the chord is D minor. The minor iv chord. In the key of (I)C major this would
be (iv)F minor.
Many Southern Rock progressions use the bVII chord. In “Can’t You See” the key is D Major and
the chords move from (I) D Major – (bVII) C Major – (IV) G Major. Yes, D C and G major are the
V, IV, and I chords in the key of G respectively, but because D sounds like the Tonic chord (the
song want to end on D) D is actually the tonic.

Chord Functions:

Diatonic (Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant)

Secondary Dominant
Modal Interchange (Borrowed Chords)
Passing Diminished Chord

I = Diatonic Tonic function use Major scale

im = Modal interchange use Aeolian or Dorian, sometimes Phrygian but not common
idim = Passing Diminished chord use whole step half step diminished (moves to I)
I7 = Secondary Dominant use Mixolydian

bIImaj7 = Modal interchange borrowed from Tonic Phrygian, use Lydian

bII7 = bV substitute for the V, use Lydian Dominant
biiº7 = Passing diminished, functions as VI7b9, use whole half diminished also use the 7th mode
of Harmonic minor (moves to ii)

iim7 or 6 = Diatonic ii chord is a Subdominant function, use Dorian

iim7b5 = Borrowed from “I” Aeolian, use Locrian
II7 = Secondary Dominant leads to V7
iiº7 = Passing Diminished use whole half diminished (leads back to I)
IImaj7 = Part of modulation

bIIImaj7 = Borrowed from “i” Aeolian, use Lydian

bIII7 = bV Sub of V7/ii leads to the ii chord, use Lydian Dominant
biiim7 = not functioning to move in the key, used as part of chromatic ii-V
biiim7b5 = used for modulation as part of a ii-V
biiiº7 = Passing Diminished or subs for VII7, use 7th mode of Harmonic Minor leads to iii, if it
leads back to “I” 1st inversion biiiº7-ii use whole half diminished

iii = Diatonic as a Tonic chord, use Phrygian

iiim7b5 = Borrowed chord from “i” Phrygian, part of minor ii-V leading to ii, use Locrian
III7 = Secondary Dominant, V/vi leads to vi, use Mixolydian b2b6 (5th mode of Harmonic Minor),
or Super Locrian
iiiº7 = Passing Diminished leading to ii, use second mode of Harmonic Minor

IV = Diatonic Subdominant function, use Lydian

IV7 = Secondary Dominant, V/bVII7, use Mixolydian
ivº7 = Passing Diminished, just like viiº7 and iiº7
iv = Borrowed Chord, use Melodic Minor or Dorian
bV7 = Sub bV of IV, it leads to IV, use Lydian Dominant
bvm7 = not common and would be part of a ii-V for modulation
bvm7b5 = Borrowed chord, I-bvm7b5-IV-iv, use Locrian

V7 = Diatonic as the Dominant function, Mixolydian

vm7 = Borrowed chord from “i” Minor, use Dorian like it’s the ii chord
vº7 = Passing diminished, functions as VI7b9, use whole half diminished also use the 7th mode
same as biiº7
vm7b5 = more of a modulation, minor ii-V moving to the IV chord, use Locrian

bVI7 = Sub bV of V, leads to V, use Lydian Dominant

bVImaj7 = Borrowed chord, I-bVImaj7 use Lydian
bviº7 = Passing diminished, leads to vi, sub for III7, use whole half diminished
bviim7b5 = not common and would be part of a ii-V for modulation

vi = Diatonic, Tonic function, use Aeolian

VI7 = Secondary Dominant, V/ii leads to ii, use Mixolydian b2b6 (Fifth mode of Harmonic
Minor), or Super Locrian
vim7b5 = not common and would be part of a ii-V for modulation
viiº7 = Passing Diminished chord, like iº7, biiiº7 or #ivº7 diminished, use whole half diminished

bVII7 = Sub bV of III, leads to vi sometimes leads back to I as a vamp, use Lydian Dominant
bvii7b5 = not common and would be part of a ii-V for modulation to bvi
bviiº7 = Passing Diminished chord, like biiº7, iiiº7 or vº7 diminished, use whole half diminished
substitute for VI7

viim7b5 = Diatonic, Dominant function, use Locrian

viiº7 = Passing Diminished, use whole half diminished
VII7 = Secondary Dominant V/III, use Mixolydian b2b6 (Fifth mode of Harmonic Minor), or
Super Locrian
viim = Borrowed chord from Lydian, I-vii7 sounds like IV-iii, use Phrygian