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I'm trying to learn some music theory. I'm interested in the magic of chord progression, and how little changes can make a dramatic change in the feeling. Anyway, I suppose that a progression moving to the tonic should sound nice and fully "resolevd".

But this progression (Dm C Dm Am C Dm Asus4 Am) sounds nice to me (well, maybe I'm wrong, I'm courious about your opinion too). It is in E key, mode phrygian. The tonic chord 'i' is never used, and it sounds good as well. Am I mistaking the key I'm actually playing?


Edit: As suggested in the reply, this progression is probably in Dm key. I would point to the suggested variant link here. It changes the taste of the progression, that probably sounds more...powerful?

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    Although most songs resolve to their roots, I've heard a few songs that never resolve. The effect gives a song a dreamy, restless feeling, and such songs usually end by drifting off or fading out. – Kevin Nov 8 '14 at 1:21
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    "Resolved" is not the same as "good", and both are extremely subjective. – Matthew Read Nov 8 '14 at 5:18
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Definitely sounds like a chord sequence in D Minor to me. Particularly because it starts on D Minor, and the A Minor chords at the end have a dominant function, despite not being major. (An A Major chord at the end would create a strong perfect cadence, A - Dm, when it repeats, which I presume it is supposed to...)

These chords are all found in D Natural Minor. Dm is chord I; C is chord VII; Am is chord V. There are two other ways you could notate these chords:

  • you could take account of whether the chords are major or minor, with minor chords being lower case and major being upper case roman numerals. This gives: Dm is i; C is VII; Am is v.

  • although the Natural Minor has a flattened seventh note, and so a major triad on this flattened note is chord VII, some analysts would relate this chord to the major key, and call it bVII ("flat-VII").

As for the question "Why does this chord sequence sound good?" - this is more subjective. My personal view is that the lack of a leading note (Major Seventh) in the Natural Minor, and so the lack of a major dominant chord, means the chord sequence has a subtle, somewhat understated character. A major dominant chord would lend this chord sequence more forward motion, more drive. But the lack of one gives it a more gentle sense of movement. However, there are a couple of elements that do give some impetus to the sequence:

  • the fifth chord is emphasised somewhat, by being at the beginning of the second four-bar phrase. As this is a major chord, it does make the music feel as if it briefly wants to move elsewhere tonally. (This is in contrast to the first C Major chord, approached and moved from by step, to D Minor.)
  • the suspension and resolution in the last two bars certainly create a satisfying bit of tension before the sequence repeats. In fact, one only has to replace the Am chord in the last bar, with an A Major chord, to pretty much sum up everything I've said in this answer: you here the drive of a perfect cadence, and more clearly hear the strength of the suspension, as it falls by a semitone, rather than tone.
  • Thank for the accurate and long reply. I tried to add the A chord at the end: the progression sounds a little more strange this way, I suppose because the movement from Am to A is not strong enough. – Felice Pollano Nov 7 '14 at 21:53
  • sorry, mistaked the A star: replacing Am with A really enforce that progression ( even if the Am ending one has some taste too) – Felice Pollano Nov 7 '14 at 21:55
  • @Bob - since the phrase finishes in a V (or v), would that be an imperfect cadence, as it is the end of a phrase? I'm asking 'cos I'm not sure ! At the end of it all, finishing on a i will definitely be perfect (authentic). – Tim Nov 7 '14 at 21:56
  • Always good to experiment; I guess neither A or Am are best as the last chord, they just give a different character, as you say... – Bob Broadley Nov 7 '14 at 21:57
  • @Tim, good point, I see what you mean. I'm thinking about the way the last chord moves the music forward to the repeat of the sequence, which the web link suggests is how this chord sequence is used. – Bob Broadley Nov 7 '14 at 21:59
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Dm C Dm Am C Dm Asus4 Am - I agree with you that it's a nice chord sequence, and I agree with the other answers, that it's in Dm, not E phrygian. it's pulling towards D, not E.

(Dm contains a Bb, whereas E phrygian contains the same notes as Am, including a B natural. As there is no B at all in the chords used, I doubt a computer tool like the one you used can tell which is the appropriate B to use in the melody, hence the confusion.)

I'm going to give the simplest possible answer. It sounds nice but it doesn't sound finished. You could repeat the progression throughout the song, but it would not be conventional to end the song on the Am. Because it doesn't sound resolved. Play a Dm at the end, and it sounds finished. That is how you resolve it, and that is why the correct key is Dm.

Putting convention aside, this is music and you can do what you like. If you want to leave your audience in suspense, you can finish on the Am. That might be appropriate if you had some tense, edgy lyrics about still being in love with someone. On the other hand, if you choose to add the Dm on the end, it resolves with a final sigh, as you accept that this person is not coming back into your life.

  • Thank you for the tips on finishing: I think it could would work having the Am (or A) ending on all the song but the last measure wil stop at Dm that is the first of the progression. – Felice Pollano Nov 8 '14 at 4:25
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To add to Bob's excellent answer - E Phrygian contains the same notes as C major, which contains the same notes as A minor. If this were in E Phrygian, there would be a pull towards E. There isn't. All the chords are from C/Am - apart from the recently changed A, which could, as Bob states, put it into Dm. Not sure where E Phrygian came from, but I feel it's a red ferret.It will sound fine mainly because the sequence contains chords that are all from the same key, thus will blend one to another.

There are a few songs which end on a V. It sort of leaves a question mark at the end, rather than a full stop. That's why it's termed an imperfect cadence.

Another way to complete the whole song, rather than end a verse, is to use the 'tierce de Picardie' trick, where a song is in minor all through, then has the tonic major as its last harmony.(D major in this case). The sun just came through the gloom, some may say.

  • E Phrygian come to the fact I'm experimenting with a tool, the fact I was probably working in another key mode was a suspect I pointed in the question :) Thank for extending Bob's answer – Felice Pollano Nov 7 '14 at 22:43
  • @Tim: does that mean a song in E phrygian should end in E minor or, much more rarely, B major (not sure about Bdim as it is unstable)? Could an E Phrygian song end in the note E but with Am for the chord? Thanks☺ – mey Feb 3 '15 at 2:14
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    @mey - if a song is deemed to be in E anything, it will tend to finish on an E, otherwise it won't feel like it's come home.Yes, it could end on B, n an imperfect cadence (as we say in Britain), which leaves it hanging.The same idea would be relevant finishing on an Am chord - listeners would be waiting for that resolution that never came. – Tim Feb 3 '15 at 8:56
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    @mey - of course you haven't! The old adage 'if it sounds good...' works. If Z# sounds better, then use it. The rules have been made retrospectively, to reflect reality, not vice versa. – Tim Feb 3 '15 at 11:19
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    @mey - keep it a secret - let 'em guess! The old idea of 'Third Symphony in Bb minor' has waned somewhat! When it's written, it'll probably either have the parent key sig. as in if it's F# Phrygian, 2#, or no key sig., and accidentals as and where. – Tim Feb 3 '15 at 11:30
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Your progression is in the key of C. All the chords and notes you mention are diatonic in the key of C. Also there is no A major chord in your progression. The chord A ( sus4) is diatonic in the key of C because it is comprised of the individual notes A,E ,D..these notes are all diatonic in the key of C. There is no C# note in your progression and you would need that note to claim an A major chord... The answer to your question is quite simply that the most pleasing interval is the root five. Analyze any major scale and you will find all the notes in the scale are related by a root five sequence. Example : start with a C note and go to the fifth which is G . Then go on the fifth from G which is D and so on . You will have a series of notes that looks like this CGDAEBF#.... Have look at those notes and rearrange them and you have a G major scale GABCDEF#G. The major scale is simply a combination of root five notes... If you want more info a good read is George Russels Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization.. Commonly known as the 'Concept'.. Best Regards

  • There is no B in the chords, so you can't tell by looking if a B natural or a B flat is the best fit. But if you play the progression you will find that it pulls toward Dm and the B flat fits the melody best. In D minor, Am--> Amaj is a very common substitution (hence the harmonic minor scale.) I'll hold off on the downvote as you are a new user, but I strongly suggest you play something and trust in your ear before you comment. Music is about playing and listening. Don't just spout theory like a machine. – Level River St Dec 22 '14 at 21:30
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D dorian which of course is C major starting on the 2nd degree sounds nice to solo over this progression, or any other mode of C major should do nicely. Tonally to me sounds minor so maybe a mode with the same tonality?

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