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.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 cadence||♭VI–♭VII–i||A♭–B♭–Cm||• Major tonic (picardy 3rd): ♭VI–♭VII–I|
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 .
The following chapters group together certain schemas that share several qualities, and go into detail about each individual schema and its most common variations.
- Blues-based schemas
- 4-chord schemas
- Classical schemas
- Puff schemas
- Modal schemas
A schema is a mental representation of a stock pattern. In music theory, the term "schema" usually refers to a prototypical chord progression or formal structure. Significantly, schemas can appear with variations while still being recognized as an instantiation of that schema. We understand an individual pattern in the music (exemplar) as a version of an ideal general pattern (prototype), and that relationship helps us understand how that pattern is functioning within a particular passage of music. Schemas are often give names, like "Meyer" or "double plagal."
Schemas can have both internal defining characteristics and normative placements within a series of musical events.
• Internal characteristics may describe a schema’s melodic features, harmonic features, and metric features.
• A schema’s normative placement describes it temporal location. For example, we will normally find a closing schema like the “Prinner” at a close of a phrase.
The most common form of pop songs today. The song is built of lyric-variant verses and lyric- and music-invariant choruses that deliver the primary narrative material of the song.
Verse sections are lyric-variant and often contain lyrics thatadvance the narrative. Until the 1960s, verse sections tended to be harmonically closed. Beginning in the 1960s, verse sections became more and more likely to be harmonically open (Summach, p. 114). Verses (like strophes) tend to begin on-tonic.
A basic multi-phrase unit. In pop music, a strophe is a focal module within strophic-form and AABA-form songs.
Bridges tend to play a transitional role (neither the point from which to depart, nor the point of arrival) in the formal cycle, generating high expectation for the return of the primary section by contrasting with it and temporarily withholding it. Bridge sections tend to emphasize non-tonic harmonies and commonly end on dominant harmony.