How do you determine passing chords from one chord to another, as I've seen how most gospel/jazz pianists do?

So far, I am familiar with progressions such as the II-V-I as means to go from one chord to the next. Another is where I go up a semitone using dim chords (e.g., D - D#dim7- Em).

I've also watched one where, from the A chord to a Bm chord, he used a Bbdim7-Bdim7-C#dim7-Edim7 as passing chords.

What are the underlying theories, if any, behind such, and how can I determine what chords to use?

Edit: progression was D-A-Bm-G, using a gospel song "What A Beautiful Name"

  • D-A-Bm-G - one of the two chord progressions that are allowed in pop songs these days! The other is Bm-G-D-A, which is the same, but just started from the middle. Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 18:59

6 Answers 6


You do it step by step, first inserting "midway" chords somewhere in between, and then if you want, even more intermediate chords between those. Step by step. If you want to go through all of the given original chords and aren't allowed to change them (though why wouldn't you if you're messing with the chords to begin with), there are only two guiding principles to choose from at each step.

  • Trick 1: voice leading as guide for the step. Keep the melody note as the highest voice, move some other voice somewhere a step or two or three to some direction, and choose a chord such that it includes the target note and makes sense for the overall harmony (and the melody note). The bass is the easiest choice for the moving voice you trace. Of course, all other voices may take steps too, but it's the one voice you select as your protagonist you follow.
  • Trick 2: circle of fifths as guide for the step. Instead of individual notes, look at whole chords, take a few steps back along the circle of fifths/fourths from the target chord and click-click-click move there, optionally hiding the blatant simplicity of this with chord substitution tricks like tritone substitutions, minor <-> 9th, 7th <-> dim, etc. (there are lots of such tricks). These steps you do thinking about whole chords, although you might glue the chords together using step-by-step voice leading.
  • or a combination of the above

That's basically all there is. If someone can show an actually used chord progression "glue" sequence that cannot be shown to be a combination of the two above, I'm interested in hearing it.

We can "dumb down" the guiding principles slightly, if we assume that you play piano or keyboards, and the voice you lead is the bass, which you play with your left hand, and if the whole-chords aspect is what you play mainly with your right hand ... it becomes: (1) left hand guiding, or (2) right hand guiding. This is of course very simplistic, and not very helpful for guitarists. But on the other hand (no pun intended), you can see guitar as having harmony vs rhythm as the left/right hand division, which is equally useful.

If you're allowed to change the target chords, it becomes even more interesting and opens a lot of possibilities and degrees of freedom. If you allow yourself to even change the key, it's huge fun! As an example of changing one of the given chords, in your D - A - Bm - G example, substitute the A with F#7 or a derivative. F#7 is a dominant going nicely to Bm. Or use an A#dim7 which works as a "hybrid dominant" (a word I just made up), it's kind of both A7 and F#7 at the same time, but it's not exactly neither of them.

Here's the D - A - Bm - G progression with intermediate chords added in between, and then steps between those. I want to think I only used the two tricks listed above. Voice leading as priority, or circle of fifths as priority.

You might notice how the bass moves, and how there are circle-of-fifths chord sequences in rapid succession. Or both at the same time. In addition to the voice/chord leading guide steps, there's a rhythmic aspect and general up/down motion that are used according to artistic taste. You can probably analyze and describe those aspects using theoretical tools as well as the harmony.

It's not really rocket science, you just need to spend the hours trying and trying. At first it'll be slow, but you'll get better at it. It's more like jogging.

The great thing is, you don't have to invent any of this. Find out how existing arrangements are made, and re-use the same tricks. Just don't listen to D - A - Bm - G bulk pop, you won't learn anything from that. ;) How to get from D to A? From the example above: D - D/F# - Gmaj7 - E/G# - A. (as just a random example - there are countless ways to go from one chord to another) How to get to Bm in one extra step? Add F#7 or F#9 or F#11 or any other F# dominantish chord before the Bm. With two extra steps? Add a C# dominantish and an F# dominantish chord before the Bm. With three extra steps...? It's possible, try it. How to get from Bm to G? For example Bm - A#9 - Am7 - G#9 - G. You can see that as voice-leading and circle-of-fifths at the same time, because the 9 chords can be considered tritone substitutes.

Edit: I'd like to add that IMO the only way to learn this stuff is through practice by playing and studying example material. Music theory is there to describe and reason about the examples, not to prescribe and construct. It's like learning languages - syntax and grammar are there to assist you in seeing structures, not for constructing things to say. You don't go like, "according to grammar, I should be making sentences, and in a sentence, there has to be a verb and probably a subject... I wonder, how do these people select verbs for their sentences ... are there any rules behind it?" :) Instead, you listen to and repeat a lot of pre-made sentences, and gradually you begin to learn patterns used in the language, and you start applying the patterns yourself and playing with the language. That's how music is learned too - by learning patterns through lots of examples and applying the patterns by improvising, arranging, and composing.


It's mostly about voice leading. The idea is to connect up the notes between the chords so that individual voices have their own, hopefully pleasing, melodic movement. There is often some element of "mini-modulation" going on as well.

Your example : when I play it through with all those dim chords it doesn't make so much sense to me, but perhaps that is because I don't hear it in context. However, changing :

|D / A /|Bm / / / |


|D / A A#dim| Bm / / / |

is a very well worn and still pleasing example. (Here D is tonic, A is the fifth and B- the relative minor.) And you can figure out why first by looking at the voices in 3 parts:

A- C# A (the E fifth could be here as well) A# C# G B D F#

is one way, and we see that the bass moves in a nice chromatic way upwards, while the upper voice has a nice contrary downward movement, with the G natural as a particularly pleasing "colour tone".

Another way to see this is that the A#dim is a sub for F#7 (b9) which is the "mini-modulation". Basically the passing chord provides voice movement and also makes a mini-cadence onto the relative minor. It all just fits together nicely.

You can do the same trick with the 2-minor chord in a 1-2-5 ... in the same key:

|D / / / | E-7 / A7 / |

can be played as :

|D / D#dim / |E-7 / A7 / |

(now it became a sort of turnaround if we see the dim chord as a modified B7)

Dim chords for 7ths aren't the only way of course, there are many many ways, and you can find your own by sitting at the piano and looking for ways to move inner voices pleasingly. This is one thing arrangers do a lot. Some knowledge of counterpoint and so on also helps.


I think the simple theory of these passing chords is they are secondary or temporary leading tone diminished seventh chords.

In the key of C major the leading tone is B and the fully diminished seventh chord built on that tone is B D F Ab. The leading tone chord resolves strongly to the tonic chords, so Bdim7 resolves to C major.

But you can precede any major or minor chord with a temporary leading tone chord. That leading tone will be a half step below the major/minor chord root. So, in the key of C major the temporary leading tone to the D minor chord is C#, the leading tone diminished seventh chord is C# E G Bb.

In D D#dim7 Em, passing chord D#dim7 is a temporary leading tone chord.

In A A#dim7 Bm, passing chord A#dim7 is a temporary leading tone chord.

I think it's clearer to spell the passing chord with the letter below the target chord. So A# to B rather than Bb to B natural.


The (I would guess) most useful is to find a bass line that connects the two (or more) chords being played. Play a chord (or more if they fit) that uses the interpolated bass note as the chord's lowest note (doesn't have to be the root); make sure that the other notes in the chord don't violate any (or at least not too many) voice leading rules (probably don't want parallel perfect intervals with the bass.) Here I'm assuming the soprano note is just held; the passing chord may be dissonant. It's fairly easy to use first inversion chords for passing; root position chords are not too bad. Using second position chords (with the fifth in the bass) is a bit tricky to do on the fly. Seventh chords in third inversion (seventh in the bass) sound OK if the voice leading is good. (Handel like these 42 chords.) You might start by just interpolating a passing note in the bass then add to it as you get more familiar with the process.

Were you arranging a piece for a group of soloists, you could ornament the soprano. A choir and even less, a congregation would have trouble with this. The bass line can make passing dissonances with the soprano so I wouldn't worry about things too much.


Someone once told me that I should study the blues because that's where it all starts. The blues is the root of most modern popular genres including Jazz, rock, gospel, soul, you-name-it etc. It is through the study of the blues that we get to understand most concepts including that of passing note/chord or approaching target note/chord;

There are many concepts but I'll just touch on a few popular ones;

  1. Chromatic approach to target notes. Let's say you have a chord progression in 1-4-5 (I-IV-V). You can insert a chromatic note/chord - semitone above or below the IV but on the last bar of the 1 just before changing from the 1 to the 4. The same could be applied in approaching other chords like the V.
  2. ii-V approach: it's similar to the above just that you play ii-V-I voice leading to your target note/chord. This could also be extended for longer jazzier approaches and it becomes iii-vi-ii-V-I -> landing on your target note.
  3. Harmonized scale, which is created by using each note of a musical scale as a root note for a chord and then by taking other tones within the scale building the rest of a chord. To apply that in our example of approaching the IV from the 1 (I), you can play I-ii-iii-IV, thus using (ii-iii) as passing chords. Feel free to explore.
  4. Chord substitutions; instead of playing the 1 (I) a iii or vi maybe played and mixed with the above concept like using harmonized scales to approach your target note. This would lead us to something like I-ii-iii-IV. Chords subs will include V-of-V, tritone substitution, relative minor/major.
  5. Licks and fills; You can also incorporate single note licks/fills or double stops before your target note. It adds a lot of fun to the music especially when phrased right. This licks and fills could be based on a key scale (pentatonic for starters) but later on other sophisticated techniques like modal play could be adopted.

All in all, the possibilities are endless but you just have to use your ear. Whatever sounds good, you keep. Above all, don't forget to have fun and fool around with your instrument. Fiddling, noodling, diddling all the way to mastery.


What are the underlying theories, if any, behind such, and how can I determine what chords to use?:

The key is: the dim7 chord is used as a secondary dominant function (vii dim7 = substitution of Vb9) which you can insert between each degree.

e.g. in a progression I vi ii7 V7 as C am dm7 G7 you can substitute the vi degree (am) by c# dim7 and we get:

C c#07 dm7 G7 => I (vii dim7) ii7 V7

that’s what you’re questioning in D major

another variant of substitution for am could be: C eb07 dm7 G7 (whereby the substitution of eb07 is the 2nd inversion of a dim7.

Another example of passing chord is Gb7 between G7 and F7 (V7 - bV7 to IV7) in bar 9 in a Blues in C.

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