I've been reading over Walter Piston's Harmony book, and it has been an eye-opener to say the least. I understand concepts like tension and release, voice leading and so forth, but I still don't quite understand the process of generating harmonic patterns other than by trial and error, or composing as a whole. I understand many things that I didn't before, but there seems to be so much more when I listen to a piece by Sibelius, Mahler, or Mozart. To be honest, I expected a kind of harmonic revelation in the sense that I would have a way to understand (in a very limited sense) and analyze works, but this is simply not the case.

It makes sense now that you can make a piece using simply I V I, and I have seen many such examples, but I still don't really understand what the composer is thinking from when he starts at I and makes his way to V. I still don't really understand how to think about harmonic progressions in a way that is useful (meaning in a way that will help me write my own music). These pieces that I hear seem like they have written themselves... so my conclusion is that I am doing it wrong.

Maybe I'm putting way too much emphasis on harmony. Should I be looking into musical form?

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    If you want to look at the "why" of chord progressions, think about the concepts of departure and return. If you look at musical form, you'll see that the concept of departure and return is very much a part of it too.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 15:19
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    By the way; don't bother comparing yourself with famous classical composers. They were so good, their works are still now world-famous. It is just unfair to compare yourself to these half-gods, especially if you haven't had any substantial education in composing (which they all had. Guess what the profession of the fathers of - for example - Bach and Mozart was).
    – 11684
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 18:15

5 Answers 5


Great question - I remember when I myself was confused about this very same thing many years ago, and indeed at first, it all seems completely random. In order to answer your question, there needs to be a little background:

Historically, thinking about music in terms of harmonic progression is one that has really only come to complete prominence in the last 150 years or so (not very long when considering the past 2000 years...) Mozart was coming out of the Baroque period, and during that time, many people thought of music linearly - as in, vertical harmonies are the result of linear motion, not the other way around. Mahler and Sibelius are a little more difficult to pin-down - Sibelius wrote a lot of programmatic and nature-oriented music, and through his technique of teleological genesis could be argued that in his own way, he was thinking linearly (or perhaps by phrase modules) moreso than harmonically, but I digress.

It is important to remember that in addition to the composers you mentioned, many other composers thought about larger implications of key relationships, and as a result, invented a myriad number of devices to facilitate movement between these relationships. These devices (tonicization, modulation, chromatic saturation) and many others would take too long to describe accurately in a simple answer. But, it is important to remember that they used these devices, and you have not begun to use them. Therefore, your music will not sound like there music.

When writing music, it comes differently for some people in terms of inspiration, and should come differently for people depending on the project. For example, if you're writing a song for your band, you'll probably come up with chord progression first. However, if you're setting text for an art song or working on a sonata for tuba or something, you'll probably come up with a couple of riffs you like before you add chords.

Moral: Don't panic; start with whatever you hear first.

Yes, there are some "canned" progressions. For example:

  • I-IV-V7-I
  • I-vi-ii6/5-V7-I
  • I-vi-IV-V7-I

A lot of composers (especially the famous ones) were regarded for their economic use of chords - they repeated them over and over again. This use provided harmonic consistency throughout the work, and locally, phrases.


You may or may not be familiar with scales and keys. With popular music, often keys are ignored, which can make it challenging if you want to put chords together that sounds like they should go together.

If you are reading the Piston (good text, through incredibly dry) then you should know that chords in major keys can be represented by each degree of the scale like this:

I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii°

In a common progression (I-IV-V-I for example), a chord or chords may be substituted with chords that share like notes. IV may be substituted with ii or vi, I may be substituted with vi or iii, V may be substituted with iii or vii° for example. (It should be noted that iii is an incredibly weak chord and cannot be effectively used as a substitute for V.)


It would be a good idea to learn about the different types of cadences and how / when to use them. You can then use the canned progressions to direct your subordinate harmonies to point toward the cadences and to give your piece forward motion.

My Advice

Start with a simple canned chord progression and make it an exercise to write some music using only those chords. Do this in all 12 keys. Once you feel comfortable, begin occasionally substituting some of the chords for more interesting harmonic possibilities. You will eventually develop your own style about what you like to hear and how it should be notated.


I think it goes without saying that there are a lot of different approaches to creating meaningful chord progressions, but I wanted to share a useful "trick" I learned while taking music theory in college. This trick does not require an extensive knowledge of theory, so it is an easy way to get started creating progressions that sound good and have some idea about what you're doing. Also, let me start off by mentioning that all of the canned progressions jjmusicnotes mentioned in his great post actually follow this trick to the letter, so this is a really neat trick to have under your belt. :)

The trick is to use chord movements that always sound like they are moving forward and these movements are:

  • Up a 2nd
  • Down a 3rd
  • Up a 4th

The theory behind this is that the notes with the chord either:

  • Move to the next note in the scale (move forward in the scale)
  • Stay the same

Here is an example of each chord movement in the key of C major:

Up a 2nd: C major to D minor

All of the notes (C,E,G) in the C major chord move up to the next note in the scale.

C --> D (move up)
E --> F (move up)
G --> A (move up)

Down a 3rd: C major to A minor

The G note in the C major chord moves up to the next note in the scale. The C and E notes stay the same.

C --> C (stay the same)
E --> E (stay the same)
G --> A (move up)

Up a 4th: C major to F major

The notes E and G in the C major chord move up to the next note in the scale. The C note stays the same.

C --> C (stay the same)
E --> F (move up)
G --> A (move up)

And finally, I mentioned at the beginning that the canned chord jjmusicnotes mentioned in his post follow this trick, so here is the breakdown of those chord progressions (for simplicity I'm omitting the chord extensions jjmusicnotes included):

- up a 4th
- up a 2nd
- up a 4th

I vi ii V I
- down a 3rd
- up a 4th
- up a 4th
- up a 4th

I vi IV V I
- down a 3rd
- down a 3rd
- up a 2nd
- up a 4th

Give this a try and you'll find that the chord progressions created with this method have the same feeling of moving forward that all of these chord progressions have.

As an added bonus, if you REVERSE all of these chord movements to "Down a 2nd", "Up a 3rd", and "Down a 4th" you will create the exact opposite effect. Instead of moving forward you will now be moving backwards. This gives you another flavor to work with when you want to use it.


This is a very good question that all people who set out to write music (in any harmonic system, be it tonal or atonal) struggle with. The conclusion that I have settled on at present is that it all comes down to voice-leading.

I will admit to not having read Mr. Piston's text (though I admire his music), but from the way you phrase your question I am lead to believe that he is presenting harmonic theory in the usual vertical, way. There is nothing technically wrong with this approach, however I personally believe this way of thinking is much better suited to analysis than composition. The whole business of thinking about harmonies as vertical structures is rooted in the thinking popularized by French baroque theorist and excellent composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, and has been prominent in analytical thought ever since. This theory follows the notion that the patterns of root motion in the bass dictate the harmonic progression. I beleive, however, that Rameau missed the mark and merely made useful observations about the results of good writing and not the principles behind it.

To get a better picture of how harmony works, I think it is useful to think about it in its historical context. Prior to the advent of the Baroque, in the Middle Ages into the late Renaissance, composed music was a fundamentally polyphonic art. The dominant way of conceiving music was of multiple voices singing separate lines that were fully independent but interacted with each other in harmony. Each voice (alto, soprano, bass, etc.) sang in what was essentially a slightly more florid chant like gregorian style that conformed to a common tactus or pulse. The conception of voices of a composition as separate entities was so pervasive that until the advent of the baroque, scores quite literally did not exist. Even while composing pieces in as many as 9 voices (40 in one famous case!), the composer would write out each voice separately in its own partbook. Organists were expected to be able to read 5 part motets written in this way from 5 different books at sight to be considered for a post in a respectable church!

Now, to relate this to tonal harmony. If one spends some time looking at the development of polyphonic music over time, as voices become more numerous and relations between them start to get more complex, the harmonic structures that result begin to sound more and more like common practice harmonic progressions. Of course, all this music was basically modal in character; true major minor tonality did not truly emerge until the baroque period proper, but it was in essence a sort of patternization of common trends in Renaissance voice leading. Bach chorales, the most commonly analyzed 4 part harmony known to man, make much more sense viewed from a linear, polyphonic stance than a vertical, chordal one.

To get a better feel for writing harmonic progressions, find a 16th century counterpoint textbook and make a point of following all the rules. It will feel restrictive at first but I think it's instructive. Try to write 2 voice counterpoint with equally interesting melodic lines in both voices, then begin adding voices. I think you'll be surprised by how close your results are to good common practice harmony without thinking about vertical structures at all.

Of course, not all music is contrapuntal in nature, since Rameau published his treatise his ideas have been in the general musical consciousness. Much music written after him has been at least partially based on his thinking. I believe very strongly, however, that the greatest composers (Sibelius, Mahler, and Mozart among them) understood very well this deep universal relevance of voice leading, and it is this that I think contributes in part to the wonderful organicism of their harmony, a rich interplay of contrapuntal and Ramellian thinking.

Voice leading and good controll of tension and release and an awareness of the flow of time and momentum (all of which, coincidentally, are not exclusive to tonal music, read Hindemith's theory textbook and look at some analyses of Bartok!) in your music are the most important things to consider. Tonal progressions are not and never have been a goal, but an outgrowth of the ways people have dealt with these fundamental issues over the centuries. I think that if you try to think about music in these terms, not only will you write better music, you will also be more likely to hit upon new and original ways to address them, and create a more personal and less contrived style.

Good luck composing!


Great question Sketchyfish, and the reason that your question has yet to be answered in other forums, is because there isn't really a clear answer. Theory is great to know. I consider it a must-have for composers.

Good and interesting chord progressions are based on the melody. From your question it seems as if you're trying to come up with chord progressions before a melody, or just come up with a standalone chord progression. Not that there is anything wrong with that method, but the progressions that seem to manifest on their own are because the melody called for those specific chords.

I highly doubt that any composer deliberately thinks, I must play these sequence of notes so that I can resolve to V chord. More often than not a composer will come up with an interesting melody, and then use the chords to harmonize the melody. It's easy to run into some progressions that make no sense, because composers can and do use chords that belong to a very distant key. The thing with harmony is that there are so many ways to harmonize a melody and note. When harmonizing you have to decide do you want the melody to harmonize with the root, third, or fifth of the chord, or even an extended note like a 6th or flat 13th.

I think that you should try writing a melody and then adding chords to it afterwards. Start with the simplest chords, that belong to the key, but then start using chords that are from other keys. For instance if you're playing in the key of Cmajor, and your melody lands on a D note, harmonize it with a Bb chord. Bb is the IV chord of Fmajor which is very closely related to Cmajor, and it could make your melody more interesting, because it contains a D note which will go with your D note, but it also contains a B flat, which does not belong to the key of Cmajor.

To sum it up, I really don't think that composers like Mozart, were so methodical that they were thinking, "I have to properly resolve this so I need to make my way to V by doing this theoretically correct passage". I think they kind of let their melody and emotions take the tune where it needed to go and then they harmonized it in ways that were interesting. There is a lot of trial and error in the early stages of music, but eventually you start develop an ear for it and it becomes easier to achieve a desired sound.

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    Actually, I highly disagree with your third and fifth paragraph. Many composers (if writing tonal music) think precisely that - how can I get out of this mess I've gotten myself into and get to that V chord? MANY composers thought about all of these very carefully because they often attributed larger structural connotations as well as local ones. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 14:15
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    I have to say that I disagree for just the reasons that jjmusicnotes does. I've written a few things of my own, and I usually start with some sort of melodic theme and some idea of what form I'm going to use. I often get into just the sort of "messes" that he mentions. Also, you might have a look at this. Beethoven's sketches have a lot of detail represented as lines, which give the general direction of the notes. This suggests that he often conceptualized a larger structure first, and filled in the details later.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 16:55
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    I appreciate your advice, MrTheBard. Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 3:23
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    I don't see the difference between BobRhodes approach and MrTheBard's. BobRodes claims Beethoven conceptualized the direction (ascending, descending) then filled in the details. That sounds pretty much the same as coming up with a melody first and then working in a chord progression to support it. What am I missing?
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 17:09

To answer the posters question, you should study "the circle of fifths", and embrace it as the center-piece for musical theory composition. There is a mathematical reason, looking at "A" at 440 Hz, and working down of up from there, that certain chords in a circle of 5ths ascending, or 4ths descending, will 'resonate' correctly in the ear and make for 'correctness' to the ear drum and nervous system. This explains the 'must get to V' notion in composing.

All of the chords I-XII, even above with 13th and 14ths, relative to the root chord, can be reached within the circle of fifths, or the progression it derives.

All composers will assert that 'artistic' license allows for atonal and other progressions outside of the circle of fifths - I am certainly one of them. But relied on too much, such music will generally sound discordant, poorly written, and though achieving tension and resolve, will not always sound 'sensible' or particularly appealing.

I'd say it is for mathematical reasons more so than for 'artistic' reasons that I-V-I or I-II-V-I are 'correct' progressions. Though a composer may 'play by ear' or write 'emotionally' or 'with inspiration', those human motivations do not change the laws of physics and therefore how harmonies form a progression. A good composer embraces these natural laws, not fight them and pretend they don't exist.

Of course, tension and resolve can be fabricated, for instance whole tone intervals, or just random chords. And, like many good song writers, I think these 'affects' when used well, particularly for transition and bridge sections, are crucial to good writing. But I doubt a serious composer will abandon the circle of fifths altogether.

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    I respectfully disagree with the large majority of this answer. The circle of fifths is created by tetrachords and intervallic proportionality, Hz ratios merely determine the temperament in which the notes are produced. Paragraphs 3-5 are just simply untrue. Look at Wagner, look at Bartok, Stravinsky, Copland, Glass, Reich, Stockhausen, Feldman, and hundreds of other very successful composers that did not adhere to the circle of fifths. Most music throughout history has been made without the circle of fifths. Your assertions are made out of ignorance and are short-sighted. Please edit. Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 13:49
  • Yes, hundreds of very successful composers admonish the circle of fifths. There are thousands of EVEN MORE successful composers that embrace it. Music ultimately is an acquired taste, which can be quite subjective. I think I answered the question correctly. I am not going to edit the answer because a smallish subset of composers were able to create tolerable sounding music admonishing the circle of fifths. To use a math example, you can add two digit numbers tens column first, as taught by Common Core math. Yet, this is not an approach I would recommend if you want easy success adding numbers.
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 17:00
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    With due respect, I think you would be quite surprised how many composers and people enjoy non-tonally-functional music. You said it yourself: taste is subjective. Your own taste is obviously biased toward tonally functional music. While that is perfectly okay, it is wrong to pass it along as the be-all end-all. You do not seem to be very well educated in this subject, and as such, should be cognizant of your limitations. I would not attempt to make wild, ridiculous arguments about Android coding, and neither should you concerning music. It is only respectful and mature. Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 22:34
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    I respect that composers and listeners often want more (far more) than what a circle of fifths offers. That my song writing abilities exceeds my software coding abilities is irrelevant. I at least address the poster's desire: "...understand how to think about harmonic progressions in a way that is useful". Atonal random chords is not useful. I also address his query: "Maybe I'm putting way too much emphasis on harmony. Should I be looking into musical form?" I give an highly educated answer to this. Not some half-baked "dude, just do what feels right, man". Perhaps, you should do the same.
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 22:56
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    You gave a slanderous, over-generalized answer with short-sighted scope and little to none factual or anecdotal support. You are merely purporting your opinion of artistic aesthetic as concrete fact, and therein lies the crux of my point with my first comment. You and I have having two different conversations here - I am speaking about factual accuracy and providing best information; you are speaking about artistic aesthetic and who is "right". The internet is not a constructive place and one-sided conversation is not conversation. Such things are best left to amicable parties with open minds. Commented May 1, 2014 at 4:42

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