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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?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem Jul 14 at 18:11
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    Thanks to Maika for highlighting, and Grace for editing - reopened, and comments moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem Jul 14 at 18:12
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    Thanks for doing so @DoktorMayhem – Grace Jul 15 at 17:02
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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. The 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.

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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 May 14 at 5:17
  • What are examples of chord progressions where I can use the chord iii? – Grace May 14 at 5:19
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    @Grace e.g. 1-3m-4, 1-3m-6m or 6m-3m-4 – trolley813 May 14 at 6:04
  • Thank you @trolley813 – Grace May 14 at 6:29
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    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 – Michael Curtis May 14 at 20:14
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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 May 14 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 May 14 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 May 14 at 10:03
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    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 May 14 at 15:20
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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 May 14 at 13:34
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    @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 May 14 at 14:49
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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.

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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

C E G

B E G

A C E

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

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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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