Al’s Music Tidbits - Volume 6
“Harmonic Progression” Edition
by Al Shank
Last month, I constructed the tonic (I) and subdominant (IV) triads in the key of G, and I left the dominant (V) chord for you, gentle reader. Did everybody get d, f# and a for the V chord? Let’s review that:
c c# d d# e f f# g g# a a# b c c# d d# e f f# g g# a a# b c
1 – 2 – 34 – 5 – 6 – 71
The 5th degree of the major scale on g is 7 semitones above g, so that’s d. A triad on d has its 3rd 4 semitones above the root, so that’s f#, right? Then a perfect 5th is 7 semitones above d, or a, which is also a minor third (three semitones) above the 3rd of the chord.
Therefore, in the key of g, the I, IV and V chords are made up like this:
I: g b d
IV: c e g
V: d f# a
We should now be able to identify the triads on every degree of any scale, and to find the notes that comprise them. This way, if we know the chord pattern, or “harmonic progression” of a song in roman numerals, we can transpose it to any key. This is very useful for jamming, since those pesky singers tend to want to sing songs in a key that fits their vocal range.
“Harmonic progression” refers to the order in which chords are heard in a musical piece, such as a song. It can be extremely simple or extremely complex. Fortunately, Bluegrass songs and instrumentals are quite simple, harmonically; with a few exceptions, they stay in the same key throughout. Some songs have just one simple pattern all the way through, while others have a verse pattern and a slightly different chorus pattern.
Let’s take the old Flatt & Scruggs standard, “Blue Ridge Cabin Home”, as an example. The chord progression is I IV V I, over and over. It is the same for the verses and the chorus. Each verse and chorus consists of that progression played twice. Here’s a snippet of a “lead sheet” I use for this song:
There’s a well-beaten path on that old mountainside
Where I wandered when I was a boy.
And I wandered alone to that place I call home
In those Blue-Ridge hills far away
(The roman numerals are placed over the syllable where the “on-beat” occurs. Of course, we haven’t even touched on rhythm yet, but if you can hear the song in your head, or listen to a recording, you should hear the chord changes at those spots.)
I believe the original recording was in the key of B, so what were the chords they were playing? Well, we know the I chord in B is going to be B major, right? The IV chord is a perfect 4th above B, or 5 semitones, so if we look back at our chromatic scale (we have to wrap around if we start at b), we find c, c#, d, d#, e, so E major is the IV chord. The V chord is just two semitones above the IV, and that’s going to be F# major. If you’re a bass player and the singer wants to do “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” in B, you’re going to have to know your B scale on the bass. The guitar player, however, is probably not going to play those B and F# chords, which have to be barred. Guitarists have their own way of transposing from one key to another, called a “capo”, which raises the pitch of each string; if you put it on the 2nd fret, all the strings go up two semitones in pitch, etc. Most Bluegrass guitar players would play this song using chords from the key of G and “capo up” four frets to get into B. We already know that the I, IV and V chords in G are G major, C major and D major, so the guitar player will play those chord positions, but will actually be playing B, E and F#. The banjo player is also probably going to play G positions with the capo on the 4th fret. We mandolin players do not stoop to such “crutches”, so we have to learn to play in every key, as do fiddle players.
If your tenor singer isn’t Curly Seckler, or female, he might not want to do this song in B, so cut him some slack and do it in A. What will the chords be in the key of A? That’s left as an exercise for you, gentle reader. No matter which key you pick, it’s just a matter of finding the IV chord five semitones above the I, and the V chord two more semitones above the IV. Another exercise for guitar/banjo players: if you want to play D positions (D, G and A) but play in the key of F major, on which fret do you put your capo?
By the way, “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” has exactly the same progression. With just these three chords, you can do a huge number of Bluegrass/Country/Folk tunes. Here are some examples of chord progressions and some well-known songs using them:
I IV V I
I IV V I - verse
IV I I V
I IV V I - chorus
“I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”
I IV I V
I IV I V I
“Blue Moon of Kentucky” – verse
I IV I IV I IV V I
“Sweetheart of Mine, Can’t You Hear Me Calling”
There are all kinds of ways you can arrange three chords, especially when you start to vary the amount of time spent on each chord, or the “harmonic rhythm”, about which more next week.
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