The Three Essential Chord Progressions

In Major

As we broaden the possibilities for chordal motion beyond chords built on the tonic, dominant and subdominant to include chords built on all seven steps of the scale, a greater level of complexity arises. To organize this complexity, it is useful to group the possible chord progressions into three types: root movements by fifth, root movements by third, and root movements by step.

Essential Chord movement No. 1: Root movements by fifth.

Root movements by fifth can be drawn in a circle as:


ii ______I

vi __________IV

iii _____viiº

Descending by fifths/Ascending by fourths (Forward Progression)

When moving around the circle to the right, these form the strong progression of root movements down a fifth (or upwards by fourths). Beginning with the V chord and going around the circle, we have then this fundamental progression, which we shall call Essential Chord Progression no. 1:

V – I – IV – viiº – iii – vi – ii – V – I

In this progression, root movement is consistently downwards by fifth. Notice that, to keep within the diatonic system (that is, to stay within the key), the movement from IV to vii is a diminished fifth. This can sometimes occur, especially in Baroque music when going along a sequential pattern. Just as often, a progression around the cycle will be partial, skipping over the tritone movement. Notice that from vii around to I is all movement by perfect fifth.

The whole cycle, with all chords in root position, would sound as follows:

Ascending by fifths/descending by fourths (Reciprocal Progression or Retrogression)

When moving around the circle to the left, we have a reciprocal movement, more of a retrogression:

V – ii – vi – iii – (viiº) – IV – I

(The viiº here is in parenthesis because composers rarely if ever move from iii to viiº or from viiº to IV, because the bass movement is that of a tritone in either direction. This will make increasing sense to you the more you become familiar with the sound of smooth chordal motion.)

Notice that this movement would be the same as moving downward by fourths.

Unlike the progression around the circle to the right, which can often appear in a complete cycle in a musical phrase, the movement to the left is used sparingly, as it tends to have less of a directed quality. Chord movements up a fifth (down a fourth) sound modal, as opposed to the strong tonal movement of chord motions down a fifth. When chord do progress in this manner, such as for example ii — vi — iii, they will most often be followed be a strong tonal progession, such as IV — V — I.

To summarize: when writing progressions, keep in mind that moving down by fifths (up by fourths) expresses forward motion, assertion, confidence, certainty, while movements down by fourths (up by fifths) has a tendency towards expressing backwards motion, humility, passivity, gentleness, uncertainty. The first is considered more of a tonal movement, while the second is characteristic of a modal movement. Both are of course useful in tonal composition, as long as one is aware that in the music of the common practice period, a strong preference for the progressive in tonal motion was evident.

Essential Chord Movement No. 2: Root movements by third.

Chords may also move by root movements of a third. Taken as a sequence, the essential circular motion is:


iii _____ vi

V _________IV

viiº ____ ii

This creates a chord progression that continually shares two common tones and results in an alteration between major and minor.

Unlike root movements around by fifths, it is rare for this progression to go all the way around the circle. This progression primarily draws attention to the motion up or down a third, and the subsequent change in mode from major to minor or vice versa. Typically, the movement of a third in either direction will occur only once, or at most twice, before other root movments by fifth or by step intervene.

Collectively, any chord motion down or up a third is to be considered Essential Chord Progression No. 2. This breaks down as follows:

Progressions down a third from a major to a minor triad are the most common, and show a clockwise motion around the circle

I – vi
IV - ii
(V – iii)

We can see this as a clear expression of the movement from a major chord to its relative. Thus the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords move to the the tonic-relative (TR), subdominant-relative (SR) and dominant-relative DR), respectively.

Of the three progressions, I to vi is by far the most common, the most satisfying and the most familiar to the ear. It has a strong sense of creating drama or setting the stage for a continuation of a musical phrase.

IV to ii is less dramatic, primarily because IV and ii have largely the same function, which is to precede the dominant chord in a tonal progression.

V to iii is rare and used mainly within the middle of a musical phrase, when the function of V to resolve to I is not yet needed. This will make sense the more you become familiar with diatonic progressions.

Similarly, progressions down a third from a minor to a major triad are useful, though less common:

vi - IV
iii – I

Root movement up a major third is less common, and usually project a sense of rest or of prolongation. Often they are employed when a particular melodic shape has been emphacized. The folk song "Puff, the Magic Dragon" is a famous example of the I to iii progression (the iii comes on the word Dragon).

I – iii
IV – vi
iii – V
ii – IV
vi - I

Just as I to vi is the most common of the forward movements by third, I to iii is the most common of the reciprocal movements. Other upward movements by third will occur in certain musical circumstances in the midst of a longer and more elaborate harmonic progression.

This motion is useful when occuring within an otherwise strongly tonal progression. It often provides a sense of rest or pause in the overall harmonic motion.

Essential Chord Movement No. 3: Root movements by step.

Root movements by step rarely occurs in sequences of more than two chords concurrently. The full circle could be written:


vii _____ ii

vi ___________ iii

V _____ IV


with the clockwise motion up by step being the most common, (carrying a sense of upward progression), while the counterclockwise motion down a step carries a sense of retrogression. (Again, this is partially why the poignant quality of the blues is expressed in its harmonic progression: having arrived at the V chord, the retrogression to the IV chord before returning to I carries an emotional weight perfectly fitting to the feeling of the blues).

Essential Chord Movement No. 3, then, involves any two chords in succession by step wise movement. The most common are:

I – ii
V – vi

The most common retrogressions are:

V-IV (when the cadential function is V is subverted)


It is extremely useful to think of chord progressions in relationship to their root movements. The principles stated above can be summarized as follows:

Progressions down a perfect fifth are very strong, and can often occur right around the complete cycle, from V to I, then all the way around to a final V-I cadence.

Progressions down a perfect fourth (up a fifth) are far less common and rarely occur in a complete circle. The quality of the cadence that forms the word “Amen” at the end of a traditional church hymn is such a progression, and carries with it a note of introspection and humility. Also, this is the typical concluding cadence in the blues.

Progressions down a third are common between a major triad and its relative minor “cousin.”

Root movements up a third are not as strong, having a retrogressive feeling, but that static quality can often serve to set up a strong progression, for example I – iii – vi – ii – V – I (up a third, then down by fifths).

Stepwise root movements in an upwards direction are typically strong, such as the motion IV – V or I – ii. Stepwise root movements in a downward direction have a feeling of regression, but can help to prolong a musical passage, or convey an intentional sense of resignation or introspection, such as the V – IV motion in the classic blues progression.

NEXT: 3N 3 Essential Chord Progressions in Minor


Topics for this chapter

Assignments for this chapter

Musical Terms