There are some progressions that seem to move back and forth between a major key and its relative minor, like the "I-vi" progression (C, Am for example, two measures each.)

Most people would consider this a major progression (I do too), but I can't help but hearing both keys at the same time. For instance, the major third sounds also like the fifth of the relative minor. Not all progressions with a vi chord give a sense of minor tonality, but others really confuse me. For example (vi-IV-I-V) sounds also like (i-VI-III-IIX) : sometimes I feel like resolving to the minor tonic, other times to the major tonic.

Can one consider (i-VI-III-VII) a minor progression? Which is more correct from a theoretical standpoint? And how do you personally hear those progressions?


5 Answers 5


It is probably more likely that you're hearing deceptive cadences, which most commonly resolve from V-vi, but may in fact go to any chord.

I cannot speak to a particular progression because you haven't indicated what type of music you're listening to.

That said, sometimes (often) composers like to play with chord function for the very reason of your inquiry: it causes confusion and interest. In order to determine the function of a chord or progression, there are a few things to help guide you:

  • Study more of their music - if you see this type of function reoccurring, chances are that it is stylistic and you can see it applied in different contexts.
  • If it is not current (modern day,) then learn more about the theory / practice of the time period it was written in.
  • Figure out the key of the section / piece where the progression occurs, if there is a key. Deciphering the key will help determine the progression's function.
  • Look at how the notes in progression's chords are notated. If the notes in fact have a specific function, the notation should reflect that.

This list is not comprehensive nor chronological, but should help you get the ball rolling.

Lastly, "IIX" is not a roman numeral. If you mean "8", then it would be written "VIII", but with chord progressions "8" means "1" so it would be easier to express it as "I".

  • I meant 7, now I fixed it. Thanks for answering. If I played the following progression to you : Am, F, C, G (no melody, 1,3,5,8 voicing) would you hear it as a minor or major progression?
    – Anthony
    Jun 16, 2013 at 17:53
  • That progression functions as a vi-IV-I-V in C major where the "Am" is not the one chord but the deceptive resolution from the "G" chord. Just because the progression might begin with a minor chord doesn't mean that the first chord is also the "I" chord - those are two separate enterprises. Jun 16, 2013 at 20:11
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    There is no confusion. Am, F, C, G, (Am) is in natural A minor. G-Am is called a plagal or deceptive cadence, but those can just be regarded as names (whose choice reflects a particular musical doctrine). In fact the G-Am pull is very strong. The natural minor scale lacks the leading tone and so it does not support a V7-I cadence. It is a scale in its own right, and not something that is "based off" a relative major. The idea that the Ionian mode is "home" is historic revisionism.
    – Kaz
    Jun 17, 2013 at 6:59
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    I thought that a plagal cadence was IV - I, as in Amen. The cadence you feature is interrupted,usually ending on the relative minor.The Aeolian mode, aka natural minor, contains the same notes as the Ionian or major. However, it's rooted on the A (in your example).The Ionian mode is usually thought of as "home" because it's the only full major mode - in the Western world.
    – Tim
    Jun 17, 2013 at 8:13
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    @jjmusicnotes - 1st. para -"may in fact go to ANY chord "- bar the tonic- !!
    – Tim
    Jun 17, 2013 at 17:07

Over a C Am progression, it is possible that the music changes mode from Ionian to Aeolian. Then, in effect, over that Am chord, the tonality has changed to A. The written or improvised melodies in the music can support that by emphasizing the A note and the third and fifth above it. Modal music can change tonality without changing the key signature. The modulation clues are weak in modal music, so of course it creates ambiguities for the listener. This is particularly true if the progressions are long, or if they linger on the same chord for many bars.

If you're writing out the chord changes in roman numerals, you have to pick a "home" which is labeled I. To do that, consider the music as a whole, and in particular how it starts and ends. If the music begins on and returns to the C Ionian mode, then you have a strong justification for defending the choice of C as the I note.

If you're analyzing music which shows strong signs of modulating, you may have to shift the identity of the I note. Or perhaps keep relating the notes to the original tonic, but show their functions within the new key, in parentheses.

For instance if music in C major music contains an A7 Dm secondary dominant, you can label these as VI7 II. But in parentheses or whatever, you can also call it (V I) to show recognition that it's functioning as small embedded change of key to Dm. The case for notating it this way is weakened if it's Am Dm rather than A7 Dm because the strong modulation signal is no longer there. Any sense of "we are in D minor, temporarily", if that is the intent, will have to be created by the music in less direct ways that are ambiguous.

Modes which do not have a leading tone do not support the V I cadence. In minor keys, we add the leading tone by altering to harmonic or melodic minor, and then we have V I.

When the V note of the relative Ionian occurs in a mode, before going to the tonic (of that mode) this is called a plagal cadence or interrupted/deceptive cadence, depending on the specific situation. However, this nomenclature is based on the assumption that the Ionian mode is the "master home" of modal music, and its V degree pervasively functions as a dominant, so that whenever it occurs, a cadence of some kind must be happening, and if it doesn't go to the I, it is somehow "false".

The term "plagal cadence" is useful in that everyone knows that it means, and therefore it communicates clearly. But in fact in music which is unambiguously in A natural minor, the G strongly pulls toward the A as a half step up, and has nothing to do with the G in C major that forms the V I cadence. It is a phenomenon in its own right.

The Ionian mode is not "home" and has not always been considered that; to believe so is historic revisionism.

Scales like Dorian and Mixolydian can be considered to exist in their own right, not simply as anagrams of the notes from the relative Ionian mode.

  • Usually I vi (in pop/rock) is given 2 or more bars per chord (it's sounds too boring with 1 bar/chord). I guess that's one of the reasons why it sounds like the vi chord is also a i chord. The song that confuses me the most is SRV's "Life Lithout You", it's two bars/chord and slow in tempo.
    – Anthony
    Jun 17, 2013 at 14:31
  • @Anthony - I don't support this answer as the correct answer to your question when it contains factual answers. You should accept an answer because it is correct and not because it tells you what you want to hear. Jun 17, 2013 at 14:40
  • @jjmusicnotes I forgot to accept yours, I wanted to accepted it right after you answered my comments. I believe your answer and Kaz's are complementary ; you explained from a classical standpoint, and Kaz gave a more recent (sort of) view.
    – Anthony
    Jun 17, 2013 at 14:53
  • StackExchange websites usually allow multiple accepted answers. Why can't a accept both here!? X( Now I remember I already had accepted jj's answer, but it was removed when I chose Kaz's
    – Anthony
    Jun 17, 2013 at 14:55
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    @Anthony The game of accepted answers and points and such doesn't matter so much. In music, there are multiple views on things and those do not usually contradict each other.
    – Kaz
    Jun 17, 2013 at 15:21

Probably the strongest cadence is the perfect. So in a major key V-I will sound very final, as in G-C (more so if G7-C). In a minor key, V-I will feel stronger if it's E-Am, rather than Em-Am. To answer your question on a specific level: if it's the former, then a major feel is perceived; if the latter, E- or E7-Am, then it's going to feel minor. Going from G-Am hasn't the strong pull like G-C or E-Am, thus it's called "interrupted" — it's not the end, merely a break.


I don't believe there are major or minor progressions (unless ALL the chords in one are the same, obviously) as most progressions will contain both. The first chord OFTEN dictates whether it's in a maj. or min.key, but a progression is just chords moving, usually within diatonic parameters. Even if the chords/songs modulate, there is still a progression. Maybe a test would be to finish on a particular chord and ask the question "Does it sound/feel like it's come to an end?" If the answer is yes, then one could say the song is maj./min.,depending what sort of chord it 'ended' on.


There are some progressions that seem to move back and forth between a major key and its relative minor, like the "I-vi" progression (C, Am for example, two measures each.)

There is no ambiguity in key here. Just because there is a minor chord in the progression does not influence key.

Can one consider (i-VI-III-VII) a minor progression?

You are somewhat mistaken on what chord progressions are. They are just a sequence of chords built on certain tone degrees of the scale.

Sometimes the chords are minor in a Major key and Major in a minor key. That just means that the details of the chord is either Minor Third / Perfect Fifth (Minor Chord) or Major Third / Perfect Fifth.

Don't confuse Major / Major chords with the Key tonality of the passage.


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