I haven't come across music as yet where chord iii is used in a chord progression. I read somewhere that generally chord iii is not used, or very rarely used. Is this correct?

If chord iii is used, can you state examples of a chord progression showing how chord iii can be used in it?

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    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 18:11

9 Answers 9


Kostka/Payne is one source that explains the iii chord is used relatively infrequently. But they don't simply say it isn't used.

You can account for iii's use (or any other diatonic chord) through various harmonic sequences.

The "falling thirds" harmonic sequence (a.k.a. Pachelbel's Canon) is one good example of iii in classical music: [I V][vi iii]...

Another sequence using iii is [I V][ii V/ii][iii V/iii]

And of course the most well known, circle of fifths: [I IV][viio iii][vi ii][V I]

So, you might ask why there is even this notion that iii is relatively infrequent.

I offer this quick overview from the classical style:

The primary target chords are V and I. They are the two tonal pillars.

The most common root progressions are: descending 5th, descending 4th, and ascending 2nd. Those progression leading to V and I give use the following...

ii (desc. 5th) V
I  (desc. 4th) V
IV (asc. 2nd)  V

V    (desc. 5th) I
viio (asc. 2nd)  I

...I'm glossing over IV I but that isn't really important for the conclusion.

The progressions above give us the subdominant chords ii and IV and the dominant chords V and viio and the tonic I.

Chords iii and vi are left out from that basic list of progressions. You can call those two chords the modal chords. Too much emphasis on them would shift the tonality away from V and I and into a potentially modal harmony. That sound is actually prized in pop and rock music, but it isn't the mainstay of classical style.

  • vi is so common! Surely there must be a version of this that accounts for it...
    – mathlander
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 19:28
  • vi is accounted for. The point is just about how often used. III and vi are less often used than I and V in typical tonal harmony. Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 18:17

iii is used, I'm not sure where you heard that it wasn't really used much.

Sure, you could argue that it's used less than other diatonic chords, (Em in the chart for chords, according to this site), but it's nowhere near the point where people would hear it and go, "Whoa! What's that chord?". In popular music especially, it's often kind of a substitute for the I chord, since it shares two of the notes.

For a more classical example, try Pachelbel's Canon, or really any circle-of-fifths progression. In a more popular (as opposed to classical) tradition, "Hey there Delilah" uses it to great effect in contrast to the I chord.

Jazz musicians use this (or sometimes a related substitute) all the time, in iii-vi-ii-V-I progressions. It's ubiquitous!

I wouldn't trust any website claiming that no one uses the iii chord with no qualifications or caveats at the end of that statement.

A couple other examples, and some explanation in video format: "Hey there Delilah" (Plain White T's), "Lost Theme" (Michael Giacchino), "It will rain" (Bruno Mars), "A Day in the Life" (the Beatles). Also, "What a Wonderful World" (Louis Armstrong).

Tangentially related: Ed Sheeran's "Thinking out Loud" used the iii chord, and it (last I checked) was actually facing a lawsuit alleging that it's a ripoff of a Marvin Gaye song, largely because the iii chord was analysed by the prosecution as not "affecting the function of the progression" to the I6 (I in first inversion). Adam Neely really lays into them for that allegation in the above video (at around 4:20, he gets to the chords).

  • Oh yes, the Canon! Then I guess I have got the wrong info of it not being used regularly.
    – Grace
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 5:17
  • What are examples of chord progressions where I can use the chord iii?
    – Grace
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 5:19
  • 2
    @Grace e.g. 1-3m-4, 1-3m-6m or 6m-3m-4
    – trolley813
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 6:04
  • 2
    Kostka/Payne is one source that explains the iii is used relatively infrequently in classical style. But they don't simply say it isn't used Commented May 14, 2019 at 20:14
  • 1
    As Michael Curtis said, it's frequently mentioned that iii is not used often in major keys in classical style. I'm pretty sure I've seen an entire Mozart symphony in a major key that never used a iii chord. It's quite uncommon in major keys in classical style, except when used in sequences (or sequence-like progressions). Modern pop styles are a completely different matter, where iii is encountered regularly.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Dec 6, 2019 at 18:08

As iii is diatonic in a major key I’m sure it’s used all the time.

I flipped open a song book and the first song was “she loves you” by the Beatles. Key of G, verse has two B minor chords.

“Got to get you into my life” and “I feel fine” by the Beatles also in G have B minor.

“I guess that’s why they call it the blues” - Elton John. In C, has E-7.

  • On closer inspection My Girl modulates to D in the verse following the bridge and that E- is the beginning of a ii-V-I to bring it to the new key. So removing that.
    – b3ko
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 5:01
  • Haha, you still edged me out by 3 seconds though! It's not quite a**-o'clock yet where I'm posting from right now, but I feel you :)
    – user45266
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 5:02
  • Is the chord iii also used that often in chorales, hymns, etc.? Sorry if my question seems a bit stupid, was curious to know ;)
    – Grace
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 10:03
  • 1
    Grace, the best way to find out is to get some sheet music for hymns and chorales and figure out the key, and then figure out what the iii is in that key and see if the chord is in the song. An even better, although a bit harder way is to find recordings of hymns and chorales and figure out what key they are in and then figure out the changes and see if the iii is used. If you figure it out by reading the sheet also listen so you can learn what iii sounds like making future figuring out easier.
    – b3ko
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 15:20

When I learned at school how to write strict four-part harmony I was taught never to use the iii chord (one of many rules were were given) and it is probably this 'rule' that is behind the notion that the iii chord isn't used.

No, there are plenty of places where the iii chord is used. Having said that, it is generally true that it is rather less common than I, ii, IV, V, vi, and perhaps even vii. But it depends a lot on the genre. And if you write one in your elementary four-part harmony exam you will probably lose marks, just as if you failed to make a leading note resolve upwards.

  • Oh, so is it only modern & pop music which uses it a lot more often?
    – Grace
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 13:34
  • 4
    @Grace It's more that it isn't used so much in strict four-part harmony, at least at an elementry level, and that is probably what has led to the false perception that it isn't used much at all. That's a rather big leap but I could see how it might have come about.
    – Ian Goldby
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 14:49

The only reason I can think of for the nonsensical "rule" that you can't use iii in a major key, is that often the leading note in the iii chord does not move up to the tonic, but down to the sub-mediant.

For example if in the common iii IV chord progression, if the leading note of iii moved up to the tonic, if would make parallel fifths with the roots of the chords (E-B F-C in C major).

Of course in real music (as compared with answering exam questions) nobody cares about two so-called "rules" contradicting each other.


iii is actually one of my favorite chords.

I, iii, I, iii

is a really common chord progression for creating a bittersweet melancholy sound. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a bunch of piano songs using this:

Lost Sad theme, by Michael Giacchino

Stuff We Did, also by Michael Giacchino

These give a similar feeling to a Imaj7 chord, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the notes that make up a Imaj7. The first three notes make the I and the last three notes make the iii.

You can also have a iii -> IV, for a little bit more of a shifting in feeling. This is a little bit less "sad" then then the I, iii, I. For example, that happens at about 0:30 in

Gracie's Theme, by Paul Cardall

Or, like user45266 pointed out, Pachelbel's Canon does this too.

Another common use is a walkdown to the relative minor, e.g. I, I/7, vi. TBF, this isn't exactly the same, but a I/7 could be made up of the same notes as a iii. For example




Which of course could also be a walk-up from the relative minor to the major.


The most used progression are certainly I-IV-V, I-ii-V and I-vi-ii-V

But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't use iii. We can use in a I-vi-ii-V loop as substitution of the tonic, especially if the melody has not the root tone of I:

I-iv-ii-V->iii-vi-ii-V (the loop can be continued several times)

Then I remember a time when many hits were built on the progression I-iii-IV (mind that iii can be related with I7

usually when one song is in the charts it will have followers of the same patterns.

Then I have in mind a 6/8 with dropping bass line: I iii34 vi I46 (or V) ...

also I-vi-iii... IV-V-I... in "memories" of Cats, "quando calienta el sol aquien la playa

What I can say is that all my examples are not Pop-"rock"-songs but rather sentimental "Schlager" music.


Today I found the iii chord in the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." I was looking for rock and classical analogs to the common jazz (swing) progression from the song "All of Me," which begins I III7 VI7 ii. The first near-analog I found was the Beatles' tune, which begins I iii vi and then IV vi(2nd inversion) ii.

So there ya go. A iii in a rock tune.

My little search illustrates how a iii chord might be used. It's part of a natural progression that shows up a lot in rock with the bass walking downward from the tonic, "do ti la". Typically the "ti" fits into the structure as the first inversion of a V chord (and the progression becomes I V vi), but it can just as easily be the second inversion of a III or a iii. And this shows up VERY often in jazz or swing tunes as I III vi, which is a version of the same thing. The jazz version creates more tension with a chromatic walk up from the dominant 5th to the minor 6th by way of sharping the 5th, which is what makes the passing chord III instead of iii. (To make that clearer, if we're starting on a C triad, C E G, the passing chord is E G# B D (III7) and you resolve to A C E (vi). The tension is created by the notes G, G#, and A in sequence.)

Hope that helps some.


iii-vi-ii-V is used in a hymn I played today. You will find iii chord in hymns. Buy a book with hymns harmonized. You will eventually see a iii chord.

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