Harmonic Stress: Why the Order of Chords Matters | Hub Guitar

Harmonic Stress: Why the Order of Chords Matters

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We're going to do a quick lesson about harmonic stress. Harmonic stress is the idea that, if you play a group of chords, the order matters. Each chord's relative weight or importance will be affected by the position it takes in the series.

Let's consider a C, Am, D, and G. These chords have the function of I, vi, ii, V.

In a series of four, the harmonic stress can be described as very strong, somewhat weak, somewhat strong, very weak. So the first chord is the heaviest, followed by 3. 2 is lighter, and 4 is the lightest.

So if we take these same four chords and change them around, the strength of each chord will increase or decrease based on its new position in the series. So I'm going to show you an example. Here is I, vi, ii, V.

This concept is often used as a guide when writing chord progressions. For instance a powerful-sounding chord will often be weakened by placement on a weak beat. That evens things out and prevents the chord from overpowering everything else.

So far, each of these chords took up one measure each consisting of four beats. But you can actually find another, deeper harmonic stress by dividing those measures into four beats. For instance, if we take the last measure, which is already the weakest measure, we'll find that the first beat in the last measure is the strongest in that measure, and the last beat in that measure is the weakest. So sometimes a very powerful and dissonant chord would be placed near the last beat of the last measure in a group of four. And that chord will sound very weak.


Harmonic stress is the perceived importance of a chord, in relationship to the other chords in the progression.

This is a matter of metricRefers to the repeating lattice of beats (steady pulses expressed as BPM), and how they are divided into even units called measures.s. The position of the chord within a group of other chords will affect its perceived importance. In psychology, all lists create this effect. Test subjects who see a list of items will tend to remember the first one and the last one on the list, for instance.

Another way to think of harmonic stress is the strength of the chord. Understanding harmonic stress will help you to emphasize or de-emphasize chords in a progression.

Consider the following chord progression. Which of these chords will be the strongest?

I vi ii V
Cmaj Amin Dmin Gmaj

From a harmonic standpoint, clearly the I chord is the most important chord, though you could say the V chord has the strongest motion.

Another factor that affects the perceived strength of a chord is its placement in the progression.

Most songs are in common timeAs the name implies, the most common time signature, having four beats per measure. . This means one measureThe basic unit of beat grouping in music. Often the grouping is a measure of four beats, also called common time. or bar has four beats.

Just as four beats create a measure, four measures can create a bigger idea sometimes called a phrase; in traditional music, two such phrases might be called a period, and this might be a building block for songs or tunes.

“STRONG WEAK strong weak”

Within any group of four chords, no matter how fast they go by, some chords will have a sense of strength and others will be relatively weak. This is due to the human tendency to try to organize the chords into metrically equal groups. The composer can play with this tendency, but the most common grouping seems to be four. Consider the four chords above: if repeated, they would take on this harmonic stress:

The first chord is the strongest; it leads the others. The impact of the next is weak by comparison. The third chord, being the first in another group of two, is moderately strong. The last one is weakest of all—now we anticipate the beginning of another four.

The “strong” or “weak” stress has nothing to do with musical performance or composition, necessarily; it’s a matter of perception. Listeners will hear these strengths and weaknesses subconsciously. You can place chords you wish to emphasize on a stronger beat to increase their impact.

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