VII. Popular Music

Introduction to Harmonic Schemas in Pop Music

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • Pop harmony can be understood through harmonic schemas—particularly common chord progressions.
  • These schemas can be altered while still maintaining their resemblance to the prototype.


There are a number of common stock chord progressions that recur in many pop/rock songs. These stock progressions, or schemas, will often occur in cyclical patterns in a song; that is, the same progression will repeat multiple times in a row. This is particularly common in choruses of verse-chorus songs, but it also happens in verses, strophes, and bridges. 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 sevenths 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
Plagal IV–I F–C • Plagal "sigh": IV–iv–I
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–Ami–F–G • Substitute ii for IV: I–vi–ii–V
• Rotation: IV–V–I–vi
Singer/Songwriter vi–IV–I–V Ami–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–Ami–C • Replacing V (G) with V/vi (E)
Lament i–♭VII–♭VI–V Cmi–B♭–A♭–G • Minor v instead of major
• Major I instead of minor
• Added passing chords, such as V (first inversion) between i and ♭VII, or IV (first inversion) between ♭VII and ♭VI
Circle-of-fifths i–iv–VII–III etc. Cmi–Fmi–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–Emi–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 Cmi–B♭–A♭–B♭
Aeolian cadence ♭VI–♭VII–i A♭–B♭–Cmi • Major tonic (picardy third): ♭VI–♭VII–I
Dorian shuttle i–IV Cmi–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.

  1. Identifying schemas (.pdf, .docx). Asks students to identify schemas in pop songs from a wide pool of possibilities, including blues-based schemas, four-chord schemas, puff schemas, and classical schemas. Worksheet playlist


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

OPEN MUSIC THEORY Copyright © 2023 by Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book