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An example - Good Life by Inner City:

The repeating progression here is (as I hear it) bm7 - f#m7 - am7 - em7.

Whilst not a standard diatonic progression, the consistent use of this one chord type maintains a sense of... er... consistency.

I have noticed that many songs and even whole styles of music can be characterised by their use of certain types of chord (and avoidance of other types of chord). Blues, for example, is associated with the dominant 7th, used (rather like my example above) in a way not fully consistent with standard diatonic/functional harmony.

Are there music theory terms for the size of 'vocabulary' of chord types used in a song, or the deliberate restriction of that 'vocabulary'? (Especially as doing so seems to be an 'excuse' for straying from the diatonic scale, and other ways of deviating from the diatonic do have names...)

  • Is this different from parallel harmony? – Todd Wilcox Apr 25 '18 at 15:29
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    @ToddWilcox the example seems to strongly exhibit parallel harmony, though I think the use of a restricted chordal palette can be observed in works that don't (or at least, not to the same extent). – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 25 '18 at 15:50
  • Maybe the term is "four chord song"? It sure seems that some pop songs spam exclusively the I-V-vi-IV chord progression at times.... – Dekkadeci Apr 25 '18 at 19:46
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I've heard the term harmonic palette used many times. We might say, for instance, that the harmonic palette of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" is limited to minor seventh chords (with Dorian extensions).

The metaphor, which is perhaps obvious, is to the visual arts. It's most often used in relation to painting, when we say that palette is the "particular range, quality, or use of color" (that's from Merriam-Webster). In fact, M-W has a second definition of "a comparable range, quality, or use of available elements." In music, harmony is one of those "available elements."

And this isn't the first time we've hijacked a visual term for our uses. What makes music "chromatic" if not the addition of color ("chroma")?

And I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out the term "ostinato" for the particular repeating progression that you pointed out. An ostinato is a repeating musical element, whether it be motivic, rhythmic, harmonic etc. I know you knew that already, but the two can be closely related, as in your example.

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