VII. Popular Music

Introduction to Harmonic Schemas in Pop Music

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

There are a number of common stock chord progressions that recur in many pop/rock songs. In pop/rock songs, these stock progressions, or , will often occur in cyclical patterns; that is, the same progression will repeat multiple times in a row. This is particularly common in choruses of songs, but also happens in , , and . Knowledge of pop schemas is helpful for identifying harmonies by ear, since in addition to listening for bass scale degrees and considering whether the harmonies are in root position or first inversion, you can listen for common patterns that you have heard in other songs. Example 1 succinctly summarizes the most common forms of each schema.

Schema name Progression in Roman numerals Progression in C major Common variations
12-bar blues I | I | I | I |
IV | IV | I | I |
V | IV | I | I |
C | C | C | C |
F | F | C | C |
G | F | C | C |
• Dominant 7ths in every chord
• 16-bar blues, repeating first four measures of I
• IV in m. 2
• ii–V in mm. 13–14 instead of V–IV; applied ii-V in m. 8 (jazz blues)
• Turnaround in mm. 15–16
Double plagal ♭VII–IV–I B♭–F–C • Rotation: I–♭VII–IV
Extended plagal ♭VI–♭III –♭VII–IV–I A♭–E♭–B♭–F–C
Doo-wop I–vi–IV–V C–Am–F–G • Substitute ii for IV: I–vi–ii–V
• Rotation: IV–V–I–vi
Singer/Songwriter vi–IV–I–V Am–F–C–G • Rotation to start on any chord: I–V–vi–IV; IV–I–V–vi; V–vi–IV–I
Hopscotch IV-V–vi–I F–G–Am–C • Replacing V (G) with V/vi (E)
Lament i–♭VII–♭VI–V Cm–B♭–A♭–G • Minor v instead of major
• Major I instead of minor
• Added passing chords, such as V6 between i–♭VII, or IV6 between ♭VII–♭VI
Circle-of-fifths i–iv–VII–III etc. Cm–Fm–B♭–E♭ • More chords continuing the fifthwise root motion
• Chord quality can be altered to create applied dominants or applied ii–V progressions
Puff I–iii–IV C–Em–F • Minor version: i–III–iv
• "Deceptive" version: I–III♯–IV (III♯ sounds like a V/vi that resolves deceptively by step instead of authentically)
Subtonic shuttle I–♭VII C–B♭ • Rotation: ♭VII–I
• Aeolian version: i–♭VII
Aeolian shuttle i–♭VII–♭VI–♭VII Cm–B♭–A♭–B♭
Aeolian cadence ♭VI–♭VII–i A♭–B♭–Cm • Major tonic (picardy 3rd): ♭VI–♭VII–I
Dorian shuttle i–IV Cm–F
Lydian shuttle I–II♯ C–D
Lydian cadence II♯–IV–I D–F–C

Example 1. Summary of common pop harmonic schemas.

A crucial feature of schemas is that they can be altered while still remaining recognizable as a manifestation of that schema. Think of the term “bird.” If someone asks you to imagine a bird without any extra context, you may not imagine a specific species of bird, but you would probably imagine a bird that looks something like a sparrow or robin. Your imaginary bird is your mental prototype for the schema “bird.” You can recognize all kinds of birds as being birds even if they do not look exactly like your imaginary bird—ostriches, penguins, flamingos, and swans are all clearly birds, despite their significant differences in appearance, behavior, and habitat. In the same way, you can and should recognize harmonic schemas as manifestations of the schemas listed here, even when they undergo some form of variation. Common variations include chromatic inflection or chord inversion, and are summarized in the final column of Example 1.

The following chapters group together certain schemas that share several qualities, and go into detail about each individual schema and its most common variations.


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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