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I really like the chord progression Gmaj - F#maj - Amaj ... (I think it can be written I, VII, II)?

While all the chords are major, there is some sadness about it.

What is the story behind this progression, is it in another mode other than the standard major or minor?

  • 2
    It could also be IV - III - V in the key of D major, with the III being a borrowed chord from the parallel minor (D minor). – Todd Wilcox Nov 24 '15 at 18:39
  • Just to compare notes - just quickly strumming it on the guitar, I'm not really feeling the sadness :) do you have a link to a sound file? These things can be very arrangement-specific. – topo morto Nov 25 '15 at 9:57
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It's actually can be looked at modally as a chords from the Phrygian/Phrygian Dominant scales. The Phrygian scale due to its lowered third is viewed as a minor scale and thus contributes to the "sadness" you hear especially since the A would be the 3rd of the Phygian scale giving the progression a slightly more minor sound even using just major chords.

With the root of F♯, you have the following notes of the Phrygian scale:

F# G A B C# D E F#

and from the Phrygian Dominant scale you have the following notes:

F# G A# B C# D E F#

The notes in each of the chords above are:

  • G major - G, B, D
  • F♯ major - F♯, A♯, C♯
  • A major - A, C♯, E

From the two of these scale, you have all the notes of the chords in the progressions. The progression is simply a II I III in F♯ Phrygian with the I chord coming from Phrygian Dominant, or bII I bIII if you prefer to look at analysis from the perspective of the major scale.

  • I see how you identified the Phrygian scale based on the notes in the chords. But, using your logic, couldn't one also make an argument for the G Lydian or A Myxoldian scales, which also encompass the same notes? How did you decide that F#maj should function as the I chord in this progression and therefore establish the Phrygian mode? – seanreads Nov 26 '15 at 1:56
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    @seanreads Phygian is a very distinct mode where the I, II, and III chords are very important to the mode and really defines and establishes it. The II chord (in this case G major) leads to the I chord very well. So strong in fact there's a cadence named for it. Even the F# being major is very distinctive to the commonly associated Phygian Dominant and this chord wouldn't make sense in G Lydian or A Mixolydian nor does the progression in general fit it. – Dom Nov 26 '15 at 2:01
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I believe the sad impression is most of all due to the chromatic descent B - A♯ - A embedded in these chords. It has a kind of disillusioning effect: you start out on a nice major third of the G chord. But then you drop down to F♯, whose A♯ third is enharmonic equivalent to the G chord's minor third. Normally this wouldn't be perceived as bluesy, because the F♯ would then be clearly a dominant to b minor. In your case, this resolution does not happen though, instead the supposed leading voice goes yet another semitone down, to the fundamental of A.

That in turn could be heard as a dominant to D. Or, alternatively, the chromatic descent could go on in the familiar way à la Hotel California.

Neither expectation is fulfilled, instead we go back to G which has now a sort of anticlimactic subdominant character to it.

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All three chords are major, consonant chords. But, there is no strong resolution that identifies a tonic chord. If in the key of G Major, it could be written I - VII - II. But the VII and II are non-diatonic to the G Major key and so do not set up a strong tonality with G Major chord as Imaj. (In contrast, the diatonic versions of these chords, VIIdim and IImin, would be dissonant and could be resolved to Gmaj functioning as the tonic (I) chord.)

So - to my ears the sound is “unresolved consonance,” a progression of major chords troubled by the uncertainty of “where is home?”.

  • 1
    You would never find II or VII in a major key as it is much outside the functional harmony of a major key. Even if you see let's just say a D major chord in the key of C major, it's not functioning as a II, but instead a V/V (the dominant chord of the dominant.) – Dom Nov 26 '15 at 2:03
  • @Dom: well, Pythagoreically speaking, the ii degree is basically defined as the secondary dominant. Only if you stay in a single diatonic scale, the ii chord is rendered as minor and thus doesn't function as V/V, but using the secondary dominant and labelling it II is fine and common. – leftaroundabout Nov 28 '15 at 11:15

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