Building Blocks: Writing A Progression


hey, welcome to 12tone building blocks, our
monthly series about the fundamentals of music theory! last time we talked about chord functions,
which are the different jobs that chords in a key might perform. there’s tonic chords, which feel at rest,
dominant chords, which point you back to tonic, and subdominant chords that act as a bridge
between the two. so if we were going to write a chord progression
with them, probably the most obvious thing to do would be to start with tonic, like this
I chord (bang) then go to subdominant, like the IV (bang) then dominant, like the V (bang)
and then just go back to the beginning. (bang) this is a pretty common chord progression.
in fact, many of the most popular harmonies out there are just embellishments of this
three-chord pattern. and of those embellishments, probably the
most common trick is just adding in a second tonic chord, so instead of going I-IV-V-I,
we might slip in a VImi to smooth out the transition. (bang) this gives us one of the biggest chord
progressions of the 20th century and possibly of all time. it has many names, like the 50s progression
or the ice cream chords, but I like to call it the Doo-Wop changes. it’s an incredibly smooth sound, in which
every chord is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, and it just feels… good. of course, you can also swap in other chords
with the same functions. for instance, instead of the subdominant IV,
we could use a IImi (bang) or instead of the tonic VI chord, we could use a IIImi. (bang) you can even swap in a VIIo instead
of the V chord if you want (bang) although the movement from 4 to 7 is a bit intense. point is, there’s plenty of different things
you can do with this model, and most of them will sound pretty good. but we’re musicians, and we don’t always follow
the rules. chord functions are guidelines, and they’re
much more flexible than something like the doo-wop changes would imply, which brings
us to the infamous four-chord song. if you haven’t seen Axis of Awesome’s breakdown
of all the songs this has been in, I highly recommend you check it out. anyway, it goes like this (bang) and you may
have noticed that we’re using all the same chords we did back in the doo-wop changes,
just in a slightly different order. we start on the I chord again, which grounds
us in tonic function, but then we jump the gun and skip straight to a dominant function
chord. that’s fine, though: we’re allowed to do that. subdominant chords aren’t really necessary,
they just add some extra strength, so we haven’t broken anything yet. next we go to the VImi, and again, this isn’t
that bad. the V wanted to go back to I, so it’s a slight
diversion, but the VI is still tonic function, and the leading tone does get to resolve,
so it works well enough. and then we go from VImi to the IV chord,
which we did in the doo-wop changes too, so obviously that’s fine. but then something strange happens: the progression
repeats, which means we go from the IV chord, a subdominant sound, straight back to the
I chord, which is tonic, without any sort of dominant in between. from what we know about chord functions, though,
that really shouldn’t happen. subdominant chords don’t point you home, so
there’s no sense of resolution to be had. and honestly, that’s kind of the point: a
really strong resolution can imply finality, and you don’t always want that. using a subdominant sound instead dulls that
resolution, letting the song continue on without as much of a break. really, as with most things in art, there
aren’t any actual rules here. functional harmony is such a useful tool mostly
because it’s so open-ended: if you know how chords are supposed to behave, then you know
how to manipulate those behaviors to get whatever effects you want. you can stick them together the way they’re
supposed to go, but you don’t have to. if you don’t, though, it’s worth asking yourself
why. anyway, thanks for watching! Building Blocks was made possible thanks to
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