I've been trying to figure out the chord progression from the beginning of this Mussorgsky piece (orchestrated by Shostakovich, link below) and I'm just curious if I'm getting things right. The chords are the first three played by the strings within the first 15 seconds. Unfortunately I can't find sheet music for the orchestration, but I tried playing the chords by ear and from what I've transcribed, the chords are fifth-chords/power chords and the progression is I-III-VI. Does this sound correct to anyone else?

Here is the piece:

Power chords seem to be rare in classical and I think this is what gives it an exotic feel, and that is what piqued my interest for analyzing this piece.


2 Answers 2


First off a power chord is a modern name for something that has been around forever in music which is the perfect 5th specifically parallel fifths when used in succession. There is nothing special about the use of them in modern music or classical music and in fact when the melody is introduced the full chord is typically shown in the harmony regardless of parallel 5ths being used.

The piece is utilizing parallel octaves which is sometimes grouped with 5ths when used in parallel due to the similar traits the have when used. In classical study when learning about proper voice leading the concept of parallel 5ths and octaves is avoided due to how the interval make the voices dependent rather than independent. That being said when outside of the context of trying to make voices independent you cans see both for example parallel octaves used in this piece and parallel 5ths found in another question on this site that this concept was used from time to time.

  • Thanks for your answer. So the parallel octaves grouped with fifths would explain why it sounds rather exotic, as this was rare in the common practice era, yet common in Medieval music... Also, would the numeral progression I stated still be accurate or does this completely change that? Sorry for the questions, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to theory. Feb 12, 2016 at 23:11
  • @concealedcurry look at the score I posted it should be quite clear.
    – Dom
    Feb 12, 2016 at 23:12
  • 1
    Parallel 5ths are to be found in classical music wherever classical composers borrowed material from folk music -- just about any kind of folk music from every culture everywhere at any time in history. But in school when you study music theory and composition they teach you that parallel fifths are against the rules and are to be avoided. This is simply because they don't have much harmonic content and don't do much to contribute to a functional chord progression, which is what Western classical music is supposed to be about.
    – user1044
    Feb 13, 2016 at 2:30
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    @WheatWilliams - 'against the rules' - if composers all followed rules we'd still be in the dark ages. 'Music rules o.k.!' NOT... Wish schools would teach music better...
    – Tim
    Feb 13, 2016 at 7:57

No, nobody would call them that in your context. I've only seen the term used in rock music. And technically by the classical definition of a chord, a power chord is actually not even a chord but only an interval of a fifth, typically with with one or more doubled at octaves.

The term is almost as much about function as it is about tonal structure. In rock, the power "chord" serves a different function than what these orchestral fifths do in your example. In the former, it is typically about, well, conveying a sense of power. Major or minor might be implied by the usually simple chord sequence, but not always. You could almost think of it as a primitave monophonic music.

In your example, we have a 1 3 6. (Haven't listened repeatedly, but you're probably right). But notice that the vocalist is filling out the missing chord tones. So in this case the vocalist is part of the chord,

BTW great catch. I really enjoyed listening.

  • In the third movement of Orff's Carmina Burana, Veris leta facies, some orchestral instruments combine to sound like a pipe organ playing a single line, yielding an effect very similar to a power chord.
    – supercat
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:47

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