This appendix is included partly because many readers of the site have shown an interest in how chord progressions work in popular music but also because I've now extended my analyses to include over 150 pieces of 20th century popular music. This appendix links to the relevant chapters of the book section. Please follow the links in the text to gain the most out of this appendix.

I recommend you start with this introduction but if you want to, you can go straight to The Three Chord Trick.

By popular music I mean mainly popular song as listened to throughout the 20th century, initially in the music hall, then on radio, in films, in musicals and on television and as recorded on various formats of record, CD etc. I've not included anything at this stage about jazz, as the way harmony is used in jazz is a big subject in its own right. However, much that can be said about popular music can also be said about jazz, simply because a lot of jazz is based on improvisations of popular songs.

This appendix is inextricably linked in with the rest of the site but a few notes of introduction for readers starting at this point are in order. This site is about how chord progressions work in tonal music. As most popular music is tonal (but see below) most of the theory presented throughout this site is just as relevant to popular music as it is to classical music.

There are many popular music websites and books about popular music so why read this site? The answer is that this site aims to get at the underlying patterns that make chord progressions work ( root progressions, linear progressions, static and dynamic harmony etc.) and shows how harmony can be understood in terms of the structure of musical phrases. Many books and sites on popular music and jazz give lists of standard chord progressions and variations on these. These are very useful but they can never cover all the possible progressions. In order to make a fuller account of chord progressions, these examples would have to be very large in number and complex. This site attempts to explain the underlying principles so that the reader can understand and utilise a large variety of chord progression without having to memorise lists of progressions.

As this site assumes some knowledge of basics (scales, intervals etc.). Readers are referred to the web links and books in the bibliography section for more information on basics and topics not included here.

This site is a summary version of a book currently in preparation called Syntactic Structures in Music. It is important to note that this site (and the eventual book) presents a new theory of chord progressions. I won't get too theoretical in this appendix, but this theory proposes a new balance between rival theories based on voice leading (Schenker etc.) And root progressions (Schoenberg, Riemann etc.) I will include more on this topic in the full thesis currently being prepared.

Because of the similarities highlighted between chord progressions in classical and popular music, I've kept this appendix short and based around a small number of analyses and hope gradually to include examples from the popular music repertoire within the main chapters themselves. I have to keep these examples brief or just to lists of chords in order to comply with copyright requirements. Please refer to the copyright note.

In the first section, I'll cover basic tonality in popular music via an examination of the so called three chord trick. This is a useful introduction to simple chord patterns; the origins of the tonal scale and a useful lead in to chord progression syntax and shows how chord progressions relate to musical phrases.

Whilst most chord progressions in 20th century popular music are based on classical chord progressions, 20th century popular music is nevertheless influenced by the many extensions that have been made to tonality in the 20th century. Anything is possible in 20th century music, but in the following sections, I'll cover a summary of two of the main influences on popular music in the 20th century.

Undeniably one of the most important influences on popular music in the 20th century is that of the Blues. The blues has influenced: jazz; popular songs of the 1930's; Rhythm and Blues; Rock and Roll and much other rock and pop music. So the second section is on the Blues Chord Progression.

Thirdly, I've included a section on the influence of modal scales and harmonies on popular music. Modal scales were used in early folk music and medieval church music but reemerged in popular music with the revival of interest in folk music and, more importantly, this influenced a new way of of harmonising the blues scale in rock music, so I have include a section on this. I refer to this as Blues-modal harmony. This is an important trend in popular music that appears to have emerged in the early 60's when modal chord progressions were first combined with the blues scale to create what in effect is a new and distinct harmonic system.

Hopefully this appendix will be a useful starting point for readers who are interested in how harmony and chord progressions work but who would like to take popular music as their starting point. If you start at this appendix, I suggest you follow the links in the text and then read the rest of the book section of the site.

Some Issues around Analysing Popular Music

In classical music, authenticity resides in the written/ printed score and this can normally be used as a reliable source for study. In popular music, authenticity is in the performance or recording and this is the only reliable source for study. Sheet music and song books can be used as useful starting points but when compared with recordings are usually inaccurate in many ways. The piano part or melody is normally accompanied by guitar chords These can be useful but are often inaccurate for reasons too numerous to go into. So don't be surprised if I show different chords from the sheet music. I've checked all my analyses by transcribing original recordings. If you notice any errors I have made in this process, please write to me and tell me so that I can correct these. See contact address for my e-mail address.

Where song books based on note-by-note transcriptions are available I have used them. These transcriptions are very useful for analysis and study, but nevertheless sometimes contain small errors. Where vocal lines and guitar parts (involving a large amount of note bending and slides) are transcribed these can only be approximated to.

A further point worth noting is that song sheets are often produced in a different key from the recording. For all musical examples, I have shown chord progressions in the original key of the recording used so that the reader can compare these with the recording without transposition.

I have shown all examples as piano reductions or as simple chord progression symbols in order to keep things simple and try to keep within copyright legislation. I have not tried to write out melodies or details of rhythmic chord patterns or riffs for examples from the popular repertoire.

What are the Main Characteristics of 20th Century Popular Music?

For those readers who start from a classical starting point, it is worth summarising what differentiates popular music from classical music. For those readers who do not need to read this section, I suggest you move on to the next section, The Three Chord Trick.

As already indicated, 20th century poplar music mostly uses the same patterns that are used in classical music. The differences are mainly around the texture of the music rather than the scales, harmony or structure. However, it may be useful, for some readers, to summarise some of the main stylistic differences between classical music and 20th century popular music.

a) Length

Whereas classical compositions can vary in length from small scale to large scale compositions, popular music consists mainly of various types of popular song or instrumental arrangements of popular songs. These can be stand alone compositions, or be used as part of a musical or film or be used as the basis of a jazz improvisation. The form is usually something like 16 or 32 bars of verse followed by a similar length of chorus. Some popular songs repeat the same melody without separate verse and chorus. This is the case with most blues compositions where a 12 bar repeated melody is the norm.

b) Use of Modulation

In classical music, modulation (i.e. change of key within a composition) is an important structural component of the music. Different sections often modulate to different keys. However, partly due to the smaller scale of popular music, modulation is far less frequently used than in classical music.

c) Rhythmic Influences

A common element in nearly all 20th century poplar music is some kind of rhythmic background as an accompaniment to a melody. Thus popular music usually operates in two layers - the backing and the melody. This aspect of popular music emerged early in the 20th century. This was aided by the emergence of the drum kit which combines with the bass instrument and other rhythmic instruments (such as the piano and rhythm guitar) to form the rhythmic backing. This backing may involve syncopation in a variety of forms. From then on most popular styles (or genre) have a characteristic backing 'rhythm' 'swing', 'beat' 'groove', 'riff' 'funk', etc. The particular rhythmic background is an essential component of the musical style. The melody, vocal harmonies and other parts sit above this rhythmic background.

d) Syncopation

Syncopation is an essential ingredient of most styles of 20th Century popular music. African rhythms early on in the century influenced ragtime and early jazz and this influence continued through most popular music genres from then on.

The combination of a continuing rhythmic background with a syncopated vocal melody is probably the most significant characteristic that connects most genres of 20th century popular music.

e) Development

An important characteristic of classical music is development. Compositions consist of statements of melodies or motives which are then developed or varied in a variety of ways. The format for this development is usually very free in length and usually involves movement through many keys. This is because classical music is composed onto a written score so performers do not need to know in advance about the structure of the music.

Development is less important in popular music where melodies are normally repeated over more or less fixed structures of chords. However, there are genres of popular music where development is important. This is particularly the case in jazz where performers will improvise different versions of a melody. Although, this is normally over a fixed number of bars over fixed chord progressions. Also, in much rock music the lead guitarists will improvise solos around the backing chord progression of the melody or sometimes around a single chord or modal scale.

Next Section - The 'Three Chord Trick'

Harmony in Popular Music Index

Book Contents


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