• Demystified: The Science Of Chord Progressions In Popular Music

    in Beginners,Chords & Progressions,Piano,Theory,Timing and Rhythm

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    In this lesson, you’ll be learning how chord progressions are formed in popular music.

    Let’s quickly get started by defining chord progressions.

    “What Is A Chord Progression?”

    A succession of chords creates a chord progression.

    A chord progression consists of the movement of scale tone chords from one degree to the other. For example, the movement in the key of C major:

    …from chord 1 (which is the C major triad):

    …to chord 6 (which is the A minor triad):

    …produces a chord progression.

    Due to the fact that the concept of chord progressions is based on movement, a chord progression must consist of two or more chords. Playing a chord, irrespective of the number of times you repeat it, cannot create a chord progression.

    Notation Of Chord Progressions – The Number System

    Chord progressions can be notated or indicated using numbers. The use of numbers to indicate or notate chord progressions is known as the Nashville number system.

    In the Nashville number system, every scale tone chord is represented using a number, starting from the chord of the first tone as 1.

    So, the chord progression we covered earlier in the key of C major:

    …from chord 1:

    …to chord 6:

    …can be notated as a 1-6 chord progression.

    “So, How Can I Create Popular Music Chord Progressions?”

    To create a popular music chord progression, here are the two things you need:

    Counts (Harmonic Rhythm)

    Chords (Harmony)

    We already covered the chords (scale degree triads earlier), therefore, we’ll go ahead and talk about the counts, then get back to chords again.

    Counts are also known as beats or pulses and are used to in groups to organize the flow of music. For example, when we nod our heads to the flow of a song, we’re nodding to the counts (beats/pulses) most likely.

    The duration of a chord in a chord progression is determined by the number of counts that elapses from when the chord is played till when the chord progression progresses to the next chord.

    The duration of a chord in a chord progression can be 1 count, 2 counts, 3 counts, 4 counts, etc., and add up to thee harmonic rhythm of a chord progression.

    So, the two vital components in a chord progression are its harmony and harmonic rhythm.

    So, chord progression isn’t just a succession of chords (harmony), every chord in the chord progression must have its duration (harmonic rhythm).

    So using the scale degree chords we covered earlier:

    • Chord 1
    • Chord 6

    We can create a chord progression by adding harmonic rhythm to the chords above. Here you are:

    Chord 1 (2 counts):

    Chord 6 (2 counts):

    Playing each of the chords (harmony) for 2 counts (harmonic rhythm) gives us a chord progression that we can sing into; something that sounds like the first phrase of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen.

    I’ve heard there was a [Chord 1 (2 counts)]:

    secret chord, that [Chord 6 (2 counts)]:

    David played and it [Chord 1 (2 counts)]:

    pleased the Lord [Chord 6 (2 counts)]:

    You see! That’s basically how chord progressions can be created using chords and counts — nothing more or less. That’s why it’s possible to create a popular music progression in 5 minutes or less.

    Final Words

    I have no doubt that you can create a chord progression in less than 5 minutes according to your understanding of counts and chords.

    Have a great time practicing what you just learned in other keys.

    All the best!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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