Transcription of Chord Progressions
Major vs Minor
The first step in transcribing full chord progressions is to be able to hear the difference between major and minor chords. As a starting point, lets look at a theoretical definition of a chord.
A chord is a group of three or more unique pitches (excluding octaves) sounded together. When we have 2 different notes sounded together it is known as a ‘dyad’—this can imply a ‘chord’ but it isn’t technically a chord in its own right. The are many different types of chords, however, we are only interested in two: the major chord and the minor chord. Both are 3 note chords (triads). The major and minor chords consist of a specific pattern of intervals. By using this specific pattern, we can create a major or minor chord on any single note.
We can use the following pattern:
note – skip 3 – note – skip 2 – note.
From a theory perspective we describe the structure of a major chord as a major third then a minor third stacked on top of each other.
We can use the following pattern:
note – skip 2 – note – skip 3 – note.
From a theory perspective we describe the structure of a minor chord as a minor third then a major third stacked on top of each other (the reverse of the major chord).
Telling major from minor by ear
Notice that in the above two pictures, there is only one note different between the two chords—the middle note. Despite this, major and minor chords do sound quite distinctly different from each other. People often hear the major chord as being ‘happy’ and the minor chord as being ‘sad’. Others might hear the minor chord as being slightly ‘droopy’. You may find these descriptions help, or you may come up with your own in time. The best way to learn to tell the chords apart by ear is simply to practice doing it. We will be doing this in class time regularly. It also helps to learn to arppegiate both major and minor chords on your instrument. Practicing these arpeggios will help immensely with orientating your ear to the difference between major and minor.
Theory: Key centres and chords I, IV, V and Vi
Key Centres and Major scales
When we learnt about chords, we saw that if we use a specific pattern of intervals, we could create a major or minor chord on any note. Major scales work the same—once we know the pattern of intervals from which they are constructed, we can make a major scale on any note. The pattern is tone – tone – semitone – tone – tone – tone -semitone. It is perhaps easiest to visualise this pattern on a piano. A tone = skipping one key on the piano. A semitone = two keys that are next to each other. The diagram bellow shows a major scale starting on the note C (C major) and the intervals between each note.
When we construct music from a specific scale, ie we use it to create the melody and we derive the chords from it, we make music that is ‘in’ the key of the scale. So if we were to construct our music from the above scale (C Major), we would be in the key of C Major.
The example above starts on the note ‘C’ – thus, it will be the C major scale:
Represented in notation, it looks like this:
Because the scale consists of all white keys on the piano, it will have no sharps or flats. This is seen in that there are no sharps or flats written next to the treble clef in the above notation.
If we use the pattern of tone – tone – semitone – tone – tone -tone -semitone on any other note than C, we will end up having to use black keys (sharps or flats) in order to keep the pattern. If we start the pattern on G, to make the scale G major, we end up with the following (notice that the last note before returning to G is an F# a black note).
Represented in notation, it will look this:
Notice that we have the addition of the a ‘key signature’. That is the sharp sign next to the treble clef. This identifies that this key requires F#s (as was dictated by the interval pattern used to create the scale).
D major requires to black keys (or sharps) in order to maintain the interval pattern:
Represented in notation it looks like this:
We now have a key signature of 2 sharps: F# and C#.
Starting on F, we get the following scale. It also requires 1 black key. However, you’ll notice that it is named as a flat, not a sharp. This is because a scale needs to have one of every letter name, and we already have an ‘A’ so if we had an ‘A#’ we would have two As and no Bs.
Represented in notation it looks like this:
It has a key signature of 1 flat – Bb.
Bb flat major scale has 2 flats, Bb and Eb:
Represent in notation it looks like this:
How chords are derived from a scale
As we discussed above, if we are in a ‘key’, the chords well be derived from the scale associated with that key. Let’s consider C major scale—so we are in the key of C major. If we look at the bottom notes of the diagram below we will see that they form the C major scale. Above each of these notes are two more notes, each a third above the last. Thus, we derive the chords by stacking two more notes on tope of each note in the scale, and the intervals between each note is a third.
Notice that we have both major and minor chords with in the C major scale (so even though we are in a major scale, the chords that come from it are both major and minor, depending what note they are built off.) We also have what is called a diminished triad (the chord built on the 7th note). We will not spend too much time worrying about this one. In fact, in level one, we are only concerned with chords I, IV, V and vi. Note that chord vi is lower case–this is because it is a minor chord. Major chords are represented with capitols, minor with lower case. Now, lets look at chords I, IV, V and vi in the keys we’ve already discussed.
Chords I, IV, V and vi in C Major
Chords I, IV, V and vi in G Major
Chords I, IV, V and vi in D Major
Chords I, IV, V and vi in F Major
Chords I, IV, V and vi in Bb Major
A cadence is a short, 2 chord progression. We will learn to identify cadences first before tackling longer chord progressions. The skills we build from learning to identify cadences will form the basis of our ability to transcribe longer progressions.
The perfect cadence
A perfect cadence is the chord progression of chord V to chord I. It is the most important chord progression in Western tonal music. This is because when we hear chord V, we will want it to resolve to chord I—it is this structure of tension and release that is the basis of Western tonal music. Below is a perfect cadence in the key of C major:
We can see here that we have chord V, which C major is ‘G’ follow by chord I, which in C major is ‘C’. So how do we identify this cadence by ear? Firstly, it will tend to sound the most complete of the cadences. The second feature to listen for is that of the ‘leading note’ moving up to the ‘tonic’. In chord V, we have the 7th note of the major scale (one note below the starting note), and that note will naturally want to pull up the starting note (the 1st/8th note). In C major, the 7th note is ‘B’ and it wants to resolve to ‘C’. Below we can see this movement highlighted:
The plagal cadence
The plagal cadence is a progression from chord IV to chord I. It will sound less finished than the perfect cadence. It is often known as the ‘church’ cadence as it was regularly used to the set the word ‘A-men’ in hymns. Below is a plagal cadence in C Major:
Here we can see we have F major, which is chord IV, moving to chord I (C major). To identify this cadence by ear, we can rely on the fact that both chord IV and chord I share a note in common – the tonic (or first note of the scale). This means there is less tension when resolving from chords IV to I. Below this common note (which is ‘C’ in C major) is highlighted:
The interrupted cadence
The interrupted cadence is a movement from chords V to chord vi. It is called ‘interrupted’ because it initially implies a perfect cadence (as chord V wants to resolve to chord I), however, it moves to chord vi. Chord vi is very closely related to chord I in that it shares two out of three notes. Chord vi, however, is a minor chord. Here is an interrupted cadence in C major:
We can see we have G, chord V in C major moving to Am (chord vi in C major). This cadence is reasonably easy to spot by ear as the second chord is a minor chord. Because chord vi is the only minor chord we are using in transcription, this makes it easy to single out.
Longer chord progressions