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Chord iii in major key is often avoided. This transcends specific styles. Popular music almost never uses chord iii, classical music usually shies away from it even with its large harmonic potential, even some of the most dissonant musical styles have a tendency to circumvent chord iii. Some textbooks even advise you to avoid chord iii at all costs. I've always found this odd. I find chord iii's mediant and leading tone contradiction to have a really beautiful and unique sound in a major key, and I can think of many progressions where that sound would work really well.

Why is chord iii avoided in so many styles?

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    I don't believe it actually is. When transcribing, I used to get it mixed up with Imaj7, and often Imaj7 would do the job just as well, but it does have a right place all of its own.
    – Tim
    Feb 19, 2023 at 8:01
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    Find an actual person who avoids it, and ask that person. Or just stop reading music theory that doesn't make sense to you. If you find something that smells rotten, it probably is. Trust yourself and don't ask for permission. Disregard bogus authorities. Make music that you like. Feb 19, 2023 at 23:40
  • Notable example of iii in the baroque: Bach BWV 478, 'Komm süßer Tod', begins with a i bVII iii, essentially (ascending bass 1 2 (6) 3).
    – Not Legato
    Feb 24, 2023 at 6:15

6 Answers 6

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I'll go a slightly different direction with my answer and say that I think this is a misconception. And frankly, I blame lackluster textbooks for it.

I recall Kostka/Payne's Tonal Harmony in my undergraduate basically saying "this chord is weird, so don't use it." Nothing could be further from the truth! It's incredibly colorful, and it's a great way to harmonize the leading tone in a way that almost masks its function as the leading tone.

The Beatles used the iii chord all the time: "Can't Buy Me Love" begins with a iii chord right on "love," and "I Feel Fine" uses it right on "I'm so glad." (I could keep going, but I won't.) "Puff the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul, and Mary uses a iii chord in its chorus. In the classical style it's used rather frequently both in sequences and in chord progressions moving to the IV or vi chord. It's used to great effect in the second movement of Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto, one of my favorite piano concertos ever, and in Mahler's Second Symphony—one of my favorite symphonies ever!—Mahler uses it to great effect in two different critical brass moments (in the fourth and fifth movements).

True, the iii chord is probably the least used diatonic triad in tonal music, but something has to come last. But I think the musical community is wrong to suggest that it's ever avoided; it brings a wonderful new sound to the harmonic palette!

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  • If that Shosty movement doesn't make you cry, you have no soul!
    – nuggethead
    Feb 19, 2023 at 14:18
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    I'll also add a possible reason for its lackluster handling in textbooks and its somewhat lesser importance among the other chords. In the grand scheme of things, you first need to understand the tonic, then the dominant and subdominant. These are more important as fundamental building blocks, which leaves the iii, vi, and vii for a later day. Of these three, vii is quickly explained as a lesser dominant. So it makes sense that iii and vi are last to enter the discussion. And the mere fact that vi appears more frequently in music might explain why iii is in last place.
    – nuggethead
    Feb 19, 2023 at 14:31
  • I recall Kostka/Payne's Tonal Harmony in my undergraduate basically saying "this chord is weird, so don't use it." - I just read the book and it didn't say this. Maybe it varies over the editions, or maybe it was your instructor's attitude you remember rather than KP itself?
    – Deipatrous
    Feb 20, 2023 at 7:43
  • @nuggethead I think you've hit the nail on the head. Plus that it's so easy to use the iii chord rather badly.
    – Ian Goldby
    Feb 20, 2023 at 8:39
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Just an addendum to the other answers:

The iii chord is central to the so-called royal road progression, which is used in a great deal of Japanese pop music, especially anime.

The royal road progression is IV7 V7 iii7 vi7. Both the iii and the vi serve as substitutes for the I chord, leaving the progression ambiguous in terms of a cadence point.

One example is the song "Star!!", the opening song for The Idolmaster: Cinderella Girls.

In the screenshot below, the Royal Road Progression is highlighted:

Royal Road progression in "Star!!"
(Image Source: "The History of the "Anime Canon" Chord Progression" by Cadence Hira. I highly recommend the entire 30-minute video.)

A list of songs containing this progression can be found on the progression's Wikipedia page: "IV△7–V7–iii7–vi progression"

David Bennett Piano also has a list contained in his YouTube video "Japan's favourite chord progression and why it works".

And there is also Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up". (No, you're not being Rick-rolled.) It is sometimes cited as an example of the IV V iii VI progression, but it's not.

It's actually ii7 V iii VI. (So, sorry, but here's the video anyway.)

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  • Interesting, I've never heard of this! Can you share some examples?
    – Richard
    Feb 19, 2023 at 20:53
  • @Richard As a quick starting point, the Wikipedia page. It includes a list of examples.
    – Aaron
    Feb 19, 2023 at 21:23
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    Evidently "Never Gonna Give You Up" uses this, and I wouldn't pass up a chance to link that video...
    – Edward
    Feb 19, 2023 at 22:46
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    @Edward I've updated the post to address Mr. Astley's opus.
    – Aaron
    Feb 20, 2023 at 9:24
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    For once, a Rickroll that's actually on-topic!
    – dan04
    Feb 20, 2023 at 23:50
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Richard may be correct that Kostka/Payne's Tonal Harmony and probably others say this chord is weird. But is it avoided? Of cours it won't substitute the tonic as homechord and final chord. But it is often used in a turnaround like I vi ii V: I vi ii V -> iii vi ii V ... for continution (avoiding the homechord feeling).

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    iii vi ii V - the classic circle of fifths progression :-)
    – Ian Goldby
    Feb 20, 2023 at 8:35
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    @IanGoldby Here I think we would often use III or III7. III-vi briefly tonicizes the relative minor, while iii is sort of the weak cousin of III in terms of tonicizing vi.
    – OprenStein
    Feb 21, 2023 at 3:25
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Maybe because it sounds rather like a weak version of I. In the same way that vii sounds like a weak, rootless V7. But is it avoided THAT much? Let it be your secret weapon!

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  • It's not uncommon to treat a vii(diminished) as though it were a V7 chord (especially in 3-part writing), and the same treatment may apply to the iii chord. A IM7 with a missing root would be indistinguishable from a iii. Given a sequence like C Em/B Am G, the Am serves a different tonic function from I, but one could argue that the Em/B chord is functionally a continuation of the C chord with a passing tone in the bass.
    – supercat
    Feb 20, 2023 at 16:39
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Although Richard's answer is accepted and correct, since he references the attitude in Kostka/Payne's Tonal Harmony, here's what another popular textbook has to say regarding the relative rarity of iii. From Harmony, fifth edition by Piston & DeVoto, Chapter 3 "Harmonic Progression in the Major Mode: Principles of Voice Leading":

The following generalizations are based on observations of usage by composers in common practice. They are not proposed as a set of strict rules to be rigidly adhered to.

(Emphasis mine, to show that this is intended as descriptive, rather than prescriptive.)

I is followed by IV or V, sometimes vi, less often ii or iii.

ii is followed by V, sometimes IV or vi, less often I or iii.

iii is followed by vi, sometimes IV, less often I, ii, or V.

IV is followed by V, sometimes I or ii, less often iii or vi.

V is followed by I, sometimes IV or vi, less often ii or iii.

vi is followed by ii or V, sometimes iii or IV, less often I.

vii° is followed by I or iii, sometimes vi, less often ii, IV, or V.

(Note that Piston & DeVoto do not follow the common convention of lower-case roman numerals for the minor triads; I've adjusted the above quote to avoid confusion about chord quality.)

In 4 of the 7 cases, the iii is in the "less often" column. In one case, it's in the "sometimes" column. Only after the vii° is it among the common choices

This list seems to reinforce the notion that the iii is rare, but not because it's to be avoided, only because it's special.

If this list does suggest anything like avoidance, it would be of the vii°. It never appears following anything in the list. A Stochastic chord progression based on this list would only ever produce a vii° if it started there.

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Whereas the vi and ii chords use two of the three minor scales, the scale of the iii chord does not. So it doesn't function well in the circle of fifths cadence. Therefore it's mostly used as a sub for the I.

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  • What exactly is the issue with the iii chord's scale? The scale for vi is often called natural minor, true, but the extremely common ii chord produces the Dorian scale which isn't one of the "three minor scales" (assuming this meant natural, harmonic, melodic). The iii produces the Phrygian scale, so why would chords that correspond to the Dorian mode be common while Phrygian mode chords aren't? It doesn't seem as though these 3 minor scales could be the key to this question, even if you accept the shaky premise that those scales specifically are the most relevant for popular music.
    – user45266
    Jul 4, 2023 at 19:41

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