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Lesson 49: Common Chord Progressions

II-V(-I)

The II-V(-I) progression is the most common one in jazz. In C major, the progression is:
Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7
and in C minor, the progression is:
Dm7b5 - G7alt - Cm

I-VI-II-V/ III-VI-II-V

The I-VI-II-V progression is another very common one in jazz. In C major, the progression is:
Cmaj7 - A7 - Dm7 - G7

A very close relative is the III-VI-II-V progression. In C major, the progression is:
Em7 - A7 - Dm7 - G7

The Circle of Fifths

The root progression of a perfect fifth downwards ( a perfect fourth upwards) is very strong. It is very common for this to occur several times in a row, thus the roots of the chords will back-cycle through the circle of fifths ( see picture).

Example 1 ( in C):
The chords can be all diatonic to the the key of C major:
Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7 - Fmaj7
The cycle can be completed by using the root progression of a tritone once:
Bm7b5 - E7 - Am
or simply continued, yielding new tonal centers:
Bbmaj7 - Ebmaj7 - Abmaj7
and then we need the tritone again to get back to C:
Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7

Example 2 ( in C):
It is also very common for dominant seventh chords to back-cycle through the circle of fifths:
E7 - A7 - D7 - G7

Diatonic Step-Wise Movement

Diatonic step-wise movement is also very common. In C major, take this type of progression:
Cmaj7 - Dm7 - Em7 - Dm7

Chromatic Movement

Chromatic movement is also very common. In C major, take this type of progression:
Fmaj7 - Fm7 - Em7 - Ebdim - Dm7 - G7 - C or
F#m7b5 - Fm7 - Em7 - Ebdim - Dm7 - G7 - C

Side-Slipping

In a harmonically static situation, the technique of side-slipping can be used. Side-slipping is always a half step up from the original tonal center:

Dm7   |      |      |      | ( original)
Dm7   |      |      |Ebm7  | ( with side-slipping)

Functional Harmony

In ( traditional diatonic western) functional harmony, there are three basic sound groups:

  • tonic
  • subdominant
  • dominant
In C major, the chords are:
  • tonic: Cmaj7 ( Imaj7)
  • subdominant: Fmaj7 ( IVmaj7)
  • dominant: G7 ( V7)
and each one has its relative minor chord:
  • relative to the tonic: Am7 ( VIm7)
  • relative to the subdominant: Dm7 ( IIm7)
  • relative to the dominant: Em7 ( IIIm7)
If we group the chords according to their sound, we get:
  • tonic sound: Cmaj7, Em7 and Am7 ( Imaj7, IIIm7 and VIm7)
  • subdominant sound: Fmaj7 and Dm7 ( IVmaj7 and IIm7)
  • dominant sound: G7 ( V7)

Modal Interchange

It is very common to borrow chords from other scales/ modes than the primary one. For example, if the original key is C major, you can borrow a chord from any mode that contains the note c:

  • Ebmaj7 from C minor
  • Abmaj7 from C minor
  • Bbmaj7 from C Mixolydian
  • a special group of chords are the subdominant minor chords, see lesson 102
Likewise, you can also borrow chords into a minor key. This is called modal interchange and it is very nice - it introduces new sounds without giving a feeling of leaving the primary key. Read more about modal interchange in lesson 105.

The Relative Strength of Root Progressions

Very strong root progressions are:

  • down a perfect 5th ( = up a perfect 4th)
  • down a half step
rather strong root progressions are:
  • up a whole step
  • up a perfect 5th ( = down a perfect 4th)
weaker root progressions are:
  • down a whole step
  • up a half step
all other root progressions ( 3rd, 6th and tritone) are very weak.

2005 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.