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  • Christian J. Triola

What is a Chord Progression? A Music Theory Lesson on Functional Harmony for Guitar Players

Chord progressions. You’ve heard the term, but what are they exactly? And how do songwriters and composers use them to develop their ideas?

In this video, I explain what constitutes a chord progression, as well as the basics of functional harmony. I show how these two ideas are closely intertwined. I even take a look at sample chord progressions and how you can use this knowledge to write and learn songs faster.

Understanding chord progressions and functional harmony can be intimidating at first, so hopefully after this video it will all start to make some sense.

What you’ll learn:

  • The definition of a chord progression

  • What functional harmony is and how it works

  • How tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chords work together to create a chord progression

  • The basics of secondary dominants

  • The basics of barrowed harmony

A chord progression is simply how a series of chords are used in a song to move it forward harmonically, or give it a sense of change or motion. It is the harmonic motion of a song.

Chord progressions work within the realm of functional harmony, meaning that each chord of a key has a harmonic function within that key.

So here’s the basic breakdown:

There are three main chord functions within a key

  1. Tonic Functions (Meaning home sounds, or points of resolution, or starting points)

  2. Sub-dominant functions (meaning chords of forward motion)

  3. Dominant functions (chords of tension)

So any song that uses functional harmony uses these basic principles to move a song forward, to create moments of tension, and to create moments of rest. A common analogy used to clarify this idea is this: you start at home, you walk to your destination, you reach your destination (the point of tension), and then you return home.

Let’s use the key of C as an example.

In the key of C, each scale note can be harmonized. The starting note, or tonal center “C” becomes the chord C major. The second note “D” becomes D minor, and so on. (See full list below).

C Dm Em F G7 Am and B-diminished

C, Em, and Am are all Tonic chords

F and Dm are sub-dominant chords

G7 and Bdim are Dominant chords

Therefore, basic functional harmony examples would be: C F G7, or C Dm G7, or Am F G7, or Am Dm G7, etc.

*note: when playing guitar, most of the time the G7 chord is used instead of B dim since they are made up of basically the same notes. The B diminished chord contains all the notes of a G7 chord with the exception of the “G”.

So basic chord progressions consist of combinations of these tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chords.

However, you can add just about any chord to a song to move away from or enhance these basic progressions. Two common approaches to this are by using secondary dominants and borrowed harmonies.

First we have secondary dominants. These are chords that act as a dominant 7th chord moving to a chord already in the primary key. For example, the chord Dm is in the key of C. So if we have a chord progression that is basically in the key of C, but suddenly uses a D major chord, we have moved outside the original key. Since that chord as Dm functions as a subdominant chord, it will usually move toward the dominant. In this case G7. D major (or D7) can then be used to resolve to G7 (or G). So we are taking the dominant chord of G major (D or D7) and placing it in the key of C to create a temporary key change, but one that still has the same basic function as the diatonic chord progression.

So that’s a lot to take in. So think of it this way. In the key of C, Dm can become D resolving to G; Em can become E resolving to Am, and Am can become A resolving to Dm, creating new options for chord progressions.

Second, we have borrowed harmonies. These are chords borrowed from the primary key’s parallel minor. (Parallel minor simply means the tonal center remains the same, but we change modes from major to minor. Or in other words, we change from C major to C minor).

For example, the key of Cm uses the following chords: Cm, Ddim, Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb

So we can borrow any of these harmonies to enhance our chord progression. One example could be this: C Eb Bb7 Eb Em G7 F C

So when playing or writing your own chord progression, every chord can have a possible function within that progression.

So you’re first step to understanding functional harmony is to practice basic chord progressions in every key.

So here are two common examples:

C F G (I-IV-V)

C Am F G7 (I-vi-IV-V7)

A great place to practice these progressions and many more is Guitar Chord Master, Levels 1 and 2. Each book uses functional harmony to help you learn chords while you become familiar with common chord progressions.

I know that’s a lot of theory to take in, but once you understand it, it can help you figure out songs faster, write your own songs, and come up with fresh ideas for your chord progressions.

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