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Harmony in pop/rock music

Harmony in pop/rock music does not always follow the same norms and patterns of classical-era music. Thus, functional-bass notation does not work for all situations. Instead, we will primarily use Roman numerals for our analysis of harmony in pop/rock music, occasionally using functional bass as a supplement to help us make sense of a particular harmonic pattern or relate it to what we’ve studied in classical harmony.

One key difference between rock and classical harmony is that chords in pop/rock music are almost always root-position triads or seventh chords. This affects the “rules” of harmonic syntax, as 6/3 chords in classical progressions are replaced by 5/3 chords in pop/rock progressions. (For instance, the classical progression IV–IV6, or S(4 6) in functional bass, becomes IV–VI, or S4 Tx6 in functional bass. The same bass line does the same work, but by using a 5/3 chord instead of a 6/3 chord, the functional progression changes to something that would break the rules of classical syntax.) This can make harmonic analysis a little tricky in pop/rock music, especially since there is no published theory of rock harmony that is equal to Quinn’s functional theory of classical harmony. However, it makes chord labeling and harmonic dictation simpler. Most of the time, all you need is the scale degree of the bass.

Following is a chart of bass scale degrees and the roots/Roman numerals most typically associated with them. Keep this chart handy when transcribing and dictating rock harmonic progressions. As you can see, most bass notes typically go with a single chord.

bass 5/3 or 7 6/3 or 5
do I
re II
mi/me [III] I
fa IV
sol V
la/le VI [IV]
te VII
ti V

Bass scale degrees and commonly associated harmonies in pop/rock music. Less common chords are enclosed in square brackets.

Harmonic functions in minor

In classical harmony, usually the same chords are used in major and in minor with the same functions. For example, T1 S4 D5 T1 (I IV-or-II V I) is common in both modes, though the quality of chords will change. In rock/pop music, especially that of the last 20 years or so, there are some common differences in the normative harmonic patterns of major and minor modes.

For instance, the most common S–D progression in major is IV–V. While this is also common in minor, there is another common S–D progression that is far more common in minor than major: VI–VII. Thus the typical cadential bass line of fasoldo is replaced by letedo. In other words, Dm–E(m)–Am is replaced by F–G–Am.

Where minor-key songs with IV–V–I bear a stronger resemblance to their parallel major (sharing the same bass syllables and Roman numerals), songs that employ this VI–VII–I progression bear a stronger resemblance to the relative major (sharing the same bass notes and actual chords).

For example, the common S–D–T progression in C major is F–G–C. In A minor, the same functional progression could be F–G–Am.

Songwriters like Matt Redman (“We Shall Not Be Shaken”) and U2 (“One”) take advantage of this relationship in songs where the verse and chorus modules are in different keys. In both cases, the verse is in minor and is based on a chord progression that ends VI–VII, followed by a return to I at the beginning of the next phrase. In both cases, the chorus begins on I in the relative major, turning the VI–VII in the minor key into IV–V in the major key. This two-key approach with VI–VII / IV–V as “pivot” point has become increasingly common in recent years.


There are a number of common stock chord progressions that recur in many pop/rock songs. Typically, these stock progressions, or schemata, will occur in cyclical patterns; that is, the same progression will repeat multiple times in a row. This is particularly common in choruses of verse-chorus songs, but also happens in verses, strophes, and bridges. This is helpful for identifying harmonies by ear, since in addition to listening for bass scale degrees and considering whether the harmonies are chords of the fifth (5/3 or 7) or chords of the sixth (typically 6/3 or 6/5), we can listen for common patterns that we’ve heard in other songs. Following are a number of common schemata for pop/rock harmonic progressions.

“50s doo-wop” progression (a.k.a., “Friday” progression, after Rebecca Black)

||: I – VI – IV – V :||
||: I – VI – II – V :||

This cyclical chord progression was very common in rock ballads from the 1950s and early 1960s, hence the name (example: “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler).

However, it has continued to be used every since (examples: the verse and chorus of “Friday” by Rebecca Black, the chorus of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler).

Because it is typically employed in cycles, it can also be found starting on a different chord in the cycle and then proceeding through the same succession of chords. For example, “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay works through a cyclical repetition of the same succession of chords, but their phrases begin on IV rather than I:

||: IV – V – I – VI :||

"Sensitive female" progression

||: VI – IV – I – V :|| (in major)
||: I – VI – III – VII :|| (in minor)

Like the 50s doo-wop, this is a four-chord cyclical progression. It has been around for some time but became increasingly common beginning in the mid-1990s with female singer/songwriters like Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, and Joan Osborne (hence the name). Though the chord progression can be found in many aggressive songs written for adolescent teen males, its prominence in songs by mid-1990s female singer/songwriters led Marc Hirsh, a writer for the Boston Globe, to coin the name “sensitive female chord progression,” and for good or ill the name has stuck.

This progression is interesting in two particular ways. First, like the 50s doo-wop, it can begin its rotation in places other than the first chord. For example, U2′s “With or Without You” cycles through this progression with phrases starting on tonic:

||: I – V – VI – IV :||

The second interesting feature of this progression is its mode ambiguity. The same chords—depending on the passages before and after a series of repetitions of the progression, and depending on which chords in the cycle begin and end it—can project a feel of major or of minor. In other words,

Am – F – C – G

can sound like VI–IV–I–V in C major, or like I–VI–III–VII in A minor. In fact, some songwriters take advantage of this duality in songs that modulate back and forth between relative major and minor keys, as well as in songs with some parallel ambiguity in the text (hence its usefulness for those mid-1990s songwriters). An example is “What About Love” by Heart, which has an obvious D-minor intro, a D-minor/F-major verse using the sensitive female progression, and a chorus obviously in F major.

"Puff" progression

I – III – IV . . . (to begin a phrase)

The “puff” progression is named after “Puff, the Magic dragon” by Peter, Paul, and Mary, a song that begins with this progression. It does not participate in 3- or 4-chord cycles like the above progressions. However, it is typically bound to the opening of phrases, and typically harmonizes the bass mi/me as III, rather than a first-inversion I. “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals is an example of this progression beginning phrases in minor (domefa . . .).

Blues progression

A 12-bar blues progression is composed of three (typically) four-bar phrases (z1, z2, and z3 or T, S, D). The first phrase (z1 or T) is entirely tonic harmony (I). The second phrase (z2 or S) contains two bars of subdominant (IV) and two bars of tonic (I). The final phrase (z3 or D) begins with one bar of dominant (V) followed by one bar of subdominant (IV) and two bars of tonic (I). The third phrase may or may not end with a turnaround.

I / / / | IV / I / | V IV I /

A 16-bar blues progression is composed of four (typically) four-bar phrases, usually two iterations of T/z1, followed by S/z2 and D/z3. The final phrase may or may not end with a turnaround.

I / / / | I / / / | IV / I / | V IV I /

Of the two, 12-bar blues is more common. And though both can be found in modules of all types of functions, blues progressions are most typically found in strophes (both in strophic and in AABA song forms).

Frequently, songwriters will make alterations to the standard harmonic pattern or extend/compress phrases by a bar or two. However, if you hear most of the features above, consider it an altered blues progression and use the standard 12- or 16-bar pattern as a reference for listening to what specific details have been altered.

A straight 12-bar blues progression can be found in “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley.

“Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley presents a 12-bar blues pattern with an alteration of the final phrase (II–V–I rather than V–IV–I) in the strophes (the song is in AABA form).

“Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys presents a 16-bar blues strophe with the two first phrases each beginning on two bars of V before two bars of I (V / I / instead of I / / / ).

Pachelbel progression

||: I – V – VI – III – IV – I – IV – V :||

The Pachelbel progression comes from ‘Canon’ in D Major by ‘Pachelbel’ (the scare quotes indicate that the piece is neither a canon nor likely composed by Pachelbel). It’s prevalence in popular music has recently been made famous by the Pachelbel Rant (see below).

The full progression is given above, but there are a few common alterations. First, the cadential progression may be changed (substituting two bars of V or a cadential 6/4–5/3 for the final IV–V progression). Also, instead of moving in root-position triads, some composers and songwriters will invert every other chord:

||: I – V6 – VI – III6 – IV – I6 – IV – V :||

Lastly, some composers or songwriters will only use the first four or five chords and follow with a completely new second half. As long as the first four chords—in root position or with the standard inversions—are present, we can consider it an instance of the Pachelbel progression.

See the above video for song examples (though be careful: halfway through the song, he changes to a rotation of the sensitive female progression).

Lament progression

||: I – VII – VI – V :||

This progression need not be included in a cycle, but occasionally it does. It is named the “lament” progression because in early classical music, this chord progression (almost always in minor) was used as the ground bass (a repeated bass pattern that formed be foundation for a set of variations, not unlike the cyclical progressions of pop/rock songs) for songs of lament. Examples include “Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell, from the opera Dido and Aeneas, and J.S. Bach’s “Crucifixus,” from his Mass in B Minor.

The opening of the verse in Muse’s “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist” is a prominent example from recent pop/rock music (there it is followed by a circle-of-fifths progression; see below).

Circle-of-fifths progression (in minor)

||: I – IV – VII – III :||

Much more will be said about circle-of-fifths progressions in the context of classical music. In pop/rock music, we will focus on the above four-chord progression. This is considered a “descending” circle-of-fifths progression because each chord’s root moves down by fifth to the next root. In pop/rock, this progression often happens in minor beginning on I, moving to the relative major. Like the “sensitive female” progression, there is some key ambiguity in this progression, as the starting chord is easily considered tonic, but the motion from VII to III can easily be heard as V–I in the relative major key. And indeed, it can be used to move from the relative minor to the relative major.

Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” (mildly explicit lyrics) begins with this four-chord progression repeated twice for the verse.

The verse of Muse’s “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist” (video above) begins with a lament progression, followed by a four-chord circle-of-fifths progression. This progression immediately repeats, returning to the initial minor key. However, the second time through, this lament–circle-of-fifths pattern leads to a chorus in the relative major (taking the III chord as the new tonic).

For a complete circle-of-fifths progression, see Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”:

||: I – IV – VII – III – VI – II – V / :||