Analysis of Common Chord Progressions in Popular Music | Hub Guitar

Analysis of Common Chord Progressions in Popular Music

In this lesson we’re going to do a little bit of chord analysis. we’ll use for our subjects 10 popular, well-known songs, focusing on contemporary music.

We’re going to focus this lesson on the harmonyThe combination of pitches, usually three or more, which results in a chord. (or chord progressions) used in each song. However, there is more to writing songs than writing chord progressions. As you will see, most popular songs have fairly simple chord progressions, but they do range from extremely simple (no chords, or two chords only) to the extremely complex (dozens of chords borrowed from various keys).

It’s important to recognize that a song does not have to be harmonically rich to be a good song, and we’re not trying to point out which songs are good or bad on the basis of their chords alone. A song with almost no harmonic complexity will often focus its complexity on other musical aspects, such as rhythm, melody, lyric, arrangement, or production.

How to use this lesson

You do not need to read every single analysis. You should especially focus on reading the analysis for songs you are familiar with, especially any you may be interested in. You should absolutely listen to each song on YouTube or Spotify while reading its analysis.

Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines

(2013)

IIVV
FFCC

This song has no real chords, but the chord progression suggests a I to V motion.

Gotye, Somebody That I Used to Know

(2011)

Imin♭VIIImin♭VII
AminGAminG

This song uses some clever arrangement, instrumentation, and melodic ideas. In light of this, the repetitive harmony works well. The vocals sounded very modern, at least in 2011. Although this music is not complex from a harmonic standpoint, the “gap of complexity” is filled through other means.

Jason Mraz, I’m Yours

(2008)

IVVIminIV
GDEminC

This song rests its laurels on feel-good guitar and vocals, as well as solid production techniques. Mraz is an able vocalist and guitar player, but in this song he lets the arrangement do the work. If you listen to the studio recording of this song, listen to the number of parts: guitar 1, guitar 2, vocals 1, vocals 2, drums, bass, and keys. Listen for their points of entry and exit. Another song whose timbral features, production and arrangement let it transcend harmonic and melodic simplicity.

Eminem, Lose Yourself

(2003)

I♭VIII♭VII
DminCDminC

This song also doesn’t have chords, per say. But the implied harmony in the verse is Imin to ♭VII, which acts as a sort of cadenceA resolution, or feeling of finality, created by moving from a strongly tense and unstable chord, to a stable one. Usually supported by the notes in the melody as well. The most common cadence is V–I. back to the minor tonic. The chorus adds a brief ♭VI.

Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

(1991)

IIVmin♭VII♭VI
E5A5G5C5

A song that either satirizes teen angst, or perfectly represents it. Although Kurt Cobain knew nothing of formal music theory, the basic chord progression fits fine in the key of E minor. The first two chords, E5 to A5 work well because the motion going up a fourth is strong. The second two chords are a repeat of that idea, one whole step lower. The chords are played as power chordA basic, hollow chord structure consisting of a single root note and the note a perfect fifth above. Widely used in rock music.s and use heavy distortion. The distortion makes it undesirable to play more complex harmony.

Guns N' Roses, Sweet Child of Mine

(1987)

I♭VIIIV
DCG

A simple chord progression, and one of the most iconic rock songs. The song uses the mixolydian chord ♭VII, which by 1987 had become widely-used in popular music.

Michael Jackson, Billie Jean

(1982)

IminIImin/7♭IIImin/5IImin/7IVmin
EminF♯min/EG/DF♯min/EA-7

Another example of musical roles separating in modern, dance-oriented music. The bass-line plays a riff consistening mostly of the tonic note. The synth adds a bit of simple minor-scale harmony. And Michael’s vocals are what take the spotlight.

Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody (Intro)

(1975)

IV/VVIIminVIIIminI
B♭6C7F7C-7F7B♭C-7B♭
VIminV/IVIVIIminV
GminB♭7E♭CminF7
bIIIbVIIIbIIIbVIII
BB♭AB♭BB♭AB♭
IVI/3bIIIdimV/3VI
E♭B♭/D♭C♯dimF/CFB♭

A complete analysis of the chords for this song would be difficult, as it uses dozens of chords. Taken from a songwriting perspective, this song is a true work of art. The structure of the song defies popular music, with no verse-chorus, but a cycle through various moods, like a miniature symphony. The chords are rich and complex, as is the melody by necessity. And, astoundingly, this relatively complex song has also been extraordinarily popular.

Just the intro is rich with clever chord changes.

In the first line, the second chord is a secondary dominant resolving to the V of the key.

The second line has a subdominant minor chord as well as another secondary dominant resolving to the IV of the key.

The third line is rich with chords borrowed from other modes.

Finally, in the last line, a real clever move: a C♯dim, which would normally resolve either up to a D chord or down to a C chord. Instead of doing that, the chord pretends it’s resolving down to a C chord, but actually the C is the fifth note of the Fmaj chord, which is the V of the key. Pretty cool!

John Lennon, Imagine

(1971)


Verse

IImaj7IV
CCmaj7F
IVVIminII-7
FAminD-7
VV7
GG7

Chorus:

IVVIV/VI
FGCE7

The verse uses a relatively simple diatonic harmony, colored a little bit by the use of some seventh chords.


The chorus gets a little bit more complex. The E7 would normally be a V/IV, but in this case it resolves to the F major chord.

(Traditional) Amazing Grace

(1779)

IIVIV
DGDA7

Another simple chord progression, revolving around I, IV and V.

Key Task

Choose a favorite song of yours. Write the chords down, either by yourself or by looking them up. Now, determine the key. Can you figure out what function each chord has?

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