Apart from Pachelbel's Canon which uses (I V vi iii IV I IV V)

I didn't see any other classical music that uses chord progressions (?) Think Bach, Beethoven, Mozart kind of classical. Would it be safe to say that those composers didn't think in progressions that repeat? If not, what would you say they mostly did?

  • 4
    Every Bach chorale can easily be viewed as a chord progression, in fact it's how you'll be introduced to functional harmony and voice leading chord progressions in most music theory classes.
    – Dom
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 1:16
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    Music would get pretty boring if there was no movement in the chords. Yes, you can have a conservative approach to progressions but at the very least there has to be some movement.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 5:50
  • @NeilMeyer "Music would get pretty boring if there was no movement in the chords" Sorry, but you don't even need chords to make music which isn't boring. Some musical cultures have been doing that for centuries longer than Western music, and they (presumably) haven't yet got sufficiently bored to even invent the concept of "chords".
    – user19146
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 11:20
  • JS Bach made a comment after writing the Goldberg Variations that "he didn't like writing variations, because the harmony never changed" - and in fact the only common factor between all the variations in the Goldbergs is the chord progression.
    – user19146
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 13:03
  • It seems you're not being clear on what you mean by "chord progressions." Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 17:02

4 Answers 4


I think your terminology is a bit off here. Nothing about a chord progression requires repetition although a lot of more modern pieces will use progressions that repeat, it does not speak for all progressions. In fact a lot of famous chord progressions like the one in the B section I Got Rhythm, which even has its own name - "rhythm changes" - does not repeat until the whole piece is repeated to lengthen the piece.

All of those listed composers did what every good composer did which is write what's best for the piece. This wasn't necessarily with a chord progression in mind, but a general idea of harmony with tension and resolution to shape the piece. Pieces that take advantage of ideas of functional harmony like this can almost always can be analysed as some kind of chord progression like the one in the first piece you mentioned and if you take any theory course, you will analyses those progressions into Roman Numerals like Pachelbel's Canon.

They did often use repeated progressions and motifs typically on a slightly bigger scale than modern concepts of progressions which is why it may not seem that obvious. If you look up musical form analysis and musical forms of classical pieces, you should be able to see and hear the repetition in harmony that is brought by the similar sections.

Several pieces known as Theme and Variations take this to extremes where the source material will be repeated and manipulated many different ways and over a lot of variations the basic chord progression will stay and other times it will vary, but you will still hear the source material throughout the piece and one of the big points of it is to squeeze every little thing you can out of the source material which you can see how vast repetition can be.

  • "Rhythm changes" refers to the entire AABA structure of I Got Rhythm, not just the bridge ("B section"). Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 16:59
  • ....also, given how rhythm changes is used in most jazz, i.e. as the harmonic foundation for a melodic "head" followed by a series of solo choruses, that's really a poor example of something that doesn't repeat! Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 17:00
  • Great example to illustrate the concept.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 8:34

Are chord progressions used in classical music?

The answer is: Yes.

But reading the actual body of your post, its clear you are using chord progressions other than what it truly is; a chord progression (also known as harmonic progression) can be defined as a succession of musical chords.

Chord progressions may establish or contradict a tonality (a musical system consisting of an arrangement of pitches or chords; it induces a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, and attractions.).

Coupled to the above, colour, rhythm, theme and variations among others musical attributes just as the era and other conditions (worldviews, intended audience, environment, occasions, etc.) may have influence on tonality and the perceived chord progression.

All said, it is important to note that some musical patterns tend to be more common and used than others are; it does not mean that uncommon ones (in a given scope) are not correct or non-existent.

In fact: chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in Western musical tradition, to which all the composers you've mentioned (Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart) are great contributors.


Quick answer: 100% yes.

Perhaps not ALWAYS in the sense of a modern day 4 chord, repeated progression but there have always been patterns.

Besides, a chord progression is quite literally just a series of movements between chords, so your question was almost asking, "Did classical composers use chords?".

There are many repeated chord sequences used in classical music. Something to note is that all our chord progressions used by modern day music, come from the intervals used by the classics. For example: the classic V-I was used all the time in the classical period, and as it is today.


Yes. The roman numeral analysis you're using, being a shorthand for describing/notating chord progressions, was (and still is) used to describe music of the Common Practice Period well before its application to modern pop music.

As for your question, paraphrased:

Did composers in the classical period think in terms 
repeating chord progressions when they wrote their music?

The answer to that is also yes. I think the best evidence is in the music itself. If you analyze the harmony of any piece of music from the classical period, you'll see the patterns. It could only be the case composers weren't thinking about these progressions if all of harmony in western music happened by accident.

As an aside, there are also classical fake books that contain jazz/pop-style lead sheets for classical pieces.

Appendix: various definitions of chord progression (since I agree with Dom that there seems to be a terminology issue here):

Grove Music Online (their definition of progression):

A succession of chords or chord-like constructions having coherence as an expression of harmony (‘chord progression’, ‘harmonic progression’), especially one based on a familiar pattern such as the BLUES PROGRESSION. Some writers use ‘progression’ as a translation of the Schenkerian concept of Zug

Oxford Dictionary of Music (their definition of progression):

The motion of one note to another note or one chord to another chord, in logical progression.


...a succession of musical chords. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in Western musical tradition.


The movement from one chord to the next such as I - IV - V - I.


A succession of functional chords proceeding by strong root movements. The functional chords may be elaborated by intervening non-functional chords (auxiliary chords, passing chords or appoggiatura chords). These chord progressions are used to form dynamic harmony.

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