Tag Archives: Music Analysis

Common Chords

By: Aaron Zimmerman

A chord is multiple notes played together.  We name chords based on patterns that the component intervals form. These patterns, common chords,  are the building blocks of harmony. Mastering chords lets you play almost anything by ear, and will greatly enhance your ability to appreciate music.

I’ll break down the most common chords, using three sections, Triads, Seventh, and Contextual Chords.  Fair warning, the contextual chords get a bit theory heavy.


The common triads are the workhorses of harmony.  Pretty much any song can be harmonized with these four, especially major and minor.  You’d miss the color and subtlety of other chords, but you can play most any song with major and minor. Triads are made of two thirds, one on top of the other. Thirds are also classified as Major and Minor, so to avoid confusion, when referring to an interval, I’ll use a single letter, M for major, m for minor. When referring to a chord, I’ll write out Major or Minor. These four triads are the possible combinations of the two types of thirds.

Triad first third second third outer interval
Major M m fifth
Minor m M fifth
Diminished m m tritone
Augmented M M minor sixth

Comon Triads

Common Triads

Major and Minor are considered stable, consonant, whereas diminished and augmented are not. Alert systems such as train whistles, police sirens, are often based on these latter two chords, as they are dissonant and attention grabbing.  Major and Minor chords are used as the basis for most of functional harmony.  See this post for more.


Seventh chords are those that include a fourth note (when compared with triads), a seventh above the root of the chord.  Like the above triads, they are based on stacked up major and minor thirds.

Chord first third second third third third
Major M m M
Dominant M m m
Minor m M m
Diminished m m m
Half Diminished m m M

Seventh Chords

Seventh Chords

The Major seventh chord is used as a tonic chord, a more colorful version of a I chord.  It is often used in pop and jazz.  The first chord heard in John Lennon’s Imagine is a I chord, the fourth beat of the first measure, this chord extends to include a major 7th.

Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC)

Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC)

The Dominant seventh chord is used in place of a plain V chord in much of western music.  The second and fourth notes of this chord resolve to the first and third of the I chord, in what is knows as a Perfect Authentic Cadence.  So, the C Dominant seventh is the V of F major, and the E resolves to an F, the Bb down to an A.  This harmonic movement is perhaps the most common in all of music.  It is used at the end of many pieces as a way to resolve any harmonic drama, landing the piece in a clear final key.

ii - V - I

ii – V – I

Jazz is built around the chord progression ii-V-I.  The V chord is the dominant used above, and the ii is a minor seventh.   C minor seventh is the ii chord in the key of Bb major.  The progression to the right demonstrates the full ii-V-I in the key of Bb major. The Diminished Seventh chord is a symmetric chord – if you add another minor third on top you are back where you started. This makes it harmonically ambiguous, the C diminished 7 is the same note for note as the Eb, Gb and A. It is a close relative of the octatonic scale in that regard.  In fact, the octatonic scale is often called the “diminished” scale for that reason.  The lower half of a Half-Diminished Seventh is the same as the fully diminished, but the top note is a half step higher, fitting nicely into many jazz progressions.


The above chords were objective, interval based definitions.  These chords are different, they are more context based.  That is, note for note, they could be classified as something else.  Used in a specific context, they have other names, and more importantly, other functions.  So rather than base the chords off of a C root as above, these examples are chords, as they would be used in the key of C Major.

Neapolitan Sixth


Neapolitan Sixth

This is another name for an inverted flat second chord.  In the key of C Major, that means a Db major chord, inverted once, (making F the lowest note).  It resolves to a V chord (G, in the key of C Major).  It is used in the song “Do you want to know a secret” by the beatles.  The second time the word “really” is heart at the beginning, it is on top of a neapolitan chord that resolves to the V.

Augmented Sixth

Augmented Sixth Chords

Augmented Sixth Chords

An augmented sixth chord has the interval by the same name as its outer interval, with a third above the root as well.  In this plain form, it is called an “Italian” augmented sixth.  If we add the second degree of the scale (D in C major),  it becomes a “French”, and if we add the flat third (Eb), it is called a “German”.  The Italian is enharmonically equivalent (it has the same pitches) as a dominant seventh chord.  The difference is that it resolves to the V of the tonic.  The chord above would resolve to a G chord, the V of C major. Used as a dominant chord (Ab7), it would resolve to a Db major chord.


Picardy Third

Picardy Third

A picardy third is when a Major third is used to end a piece that has been in minor key.  It was used a lot in the renaissance, as a major third is a more mathematically pure interval than a minor third.  So this makes the major third more consonant, and more appropriate for the end of a piece.  More about math and acoustics in a future post!

Secondary Dominant

Secondary Dominant - V of V

Secondary Dominant – V of V

A secondary dominant is a dominant seventh that is borrowed from another key.  The most common usage would be borrowing from the V key – so the secondary dominant is the V of the V.  In the key of C major this means a D Dominant Seventh, resolving to a G (the V), which in turns resolves back to the I.

Mumford and Sons – I Will Wait

By: Aaron Zimmerman

MumfordAndSonsI Will Wait is a rock-bluegrass song in the key of Db major.  Give this song a listen, and while you do, consider what about it you like.  What about it is memorable?  How would you describe it to a friend?  Music theory is the attempt to standardize answers to these questions.  See this post for more info about music theory.

When I listen to this piece, the thing that jumps out at me are the different “riffs” that make it up.  A riff is a musical idea, a piece of music that is reused.  Each riff is a few chords, and maybe a melody that sits on top of it. Then these riffs are put together to form the song in its entirety.

To make them easier to compare and discuss, I’ll assign each riff a capital letter.

A – Intro

0:00, 0:48, 2:59

The first time this riff is heard there is no melody, but it is included here for the sake of completeness.

The most notable feature of this progression is that it has two more beats than we would usually expect.  This piece has a time signature of 4/4.  That means that there are 4 pulses grouped together to form one unit of time.  Most music written in 4/4 time would utilize riffs whose length is a multiple of 4, such as 4, 8, 16.  The extra two beats in the middle create a slightly off-kilter sensation when you first listen, like you lost sight of the landmark you were using to navigate.

B – Verse

B - Verse

0:18, 1:30, 2:28

A sus chord is one in which a note is SUSpended from the previous chord.  In this case, a Db is suspended from the I chord on top of the V chord.  This Db is a fourth above the new chord root, an Ab.  Traditionally (I.E. Bach), this sus4 would resolve down to the third (a C in this case).  But in rock music, the sus chord has become accepted standalone.

C – Chorus

C - Chorus

1:08, 1:59, 3:59

The melody outlines a descending Db major chord, moving from the 5th degree of the scale, to the third, and then sliding down to the 1st.  The harmony mirrors this pattern, starting on the I chord, moving up to the iii, and then up to the V.

Interplay between melody and harmony

Interplay between melody and harmony

D – Bridge

D - Bridge


Like the into, this progression plays with rhythmic expectations, holding the lyric “hands” a little longer than you might expect.  This makes the “paint my” seem like the end of the measure, and at the same time seem like the beginning of the next measure.  The notation of this is not important (you could count it either way), what is interesting is the ambiguity, the tension.

Overall Form

If we consider A’ to mean the introduction material with lyrics, the overall structure of ideas is:

A B A’ C B C B A’ D C

With the sections identified, we can look for higher level patterns in the piece.  How did M&S put these ideas together, and why?  After looking at it a few different ways, what seems to make the most sense to me is using the chorus as the delimiter, it signals the end of a musical “paragraph” made up of the riff “sentences”.

The idea of a chorus is that it is familiar material that the listener can “relax” during, it is easier to keep up with a song when part of it keeps coming back. Choruses lend to sing along, pub-crawl type songs, because the chorus can be picked up quickly and everyone can join in when it comes back around. The chorus is the high point of the song, the third and final iteration is a clear climax.

A B  (intro – verse)
A C  (intro – chorus)

B C (verse – chorus)

B A’ (verse – intro)
D C (bridge – chorus)

Usually with a “verse chorus” song, we would have “intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus”.  But that’s not what we have here.   Each iteration of “verse-chorus” is slightly different. The first one prefaces each with the intro riff, the last separates the verse from the chorus with the intro and a new “bridge” riff. And the middle version is as expected.

Ultimately theory has one purpose:  to make music more interesting to listen to.  So, does it make I Will Wait more interesting to label the C section as a chorus?  I think so, it makes the song easier to understand,  appreciate, and discuss.  But what makes this song more interesting than other rock songs, (perhaps what makes it more popular…?), is that it doesn’t stop there.  Great composers didn’t take a form and play fill in the blanks – they redrew the lines.

I will wait is more fun, because it strikes the balance between keeping us on our toes, with rhythm and form unexpectedness, and keeping us satisfied and comfortable by bringing back the same material, and having a good time to boot.  It is like a movie with a plot twist. “I see dead people” makes you remember the movie.  And rhythmic inventiveness, experimenting with variations on verse-chorus, makes you remember the song.

What do you think makes the song memorable?


photo credit: Anny Turolla via photopin cc

Music Theory Rocks

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Music Theory Rocks

Music theory sometimes gets a bad rap.

People tend associate music theory with tediums like naming notes, labeling chords, and determining form.   These are good skills to develop, they help answer questions about music that come up frequently.  But they are not at the core of music theory.

Music theory is an attempt to answer a simple question:

Why is this music good?

This is a different question than what makes music good.  That is a rabbit hole I’ll not venture down at the moment.  Rather, lets first just assume that a given piece is good, and try to figure out why.  What worked for this symphony?  What made this rap song memorable?  Theory is observations about music that has been created.  We learn about chords, scales, harmonies, because these form the basis for almost every piece of music we encounter.  When someone discovers a new way to make good music, we label it, share it, and discuss it.  Music evolves over time, as innovators discover new ways to create it.  Music theory is a reaction, a formalization of these discoveries.

Music theory is context, vocabulary, and enjoyment.

Most people can identify the chorus of their favorite pop songs.  This is an internalization, a labeling, of something they like in music.  Verse-chorus is a form, a pattern for organizing musical ideas.  It is an easy form for the listener to identify. There is a chorus that is always the same and a verse that is the same except for the lyrics.  By giving this pattern a name, we create three advantages:

Context –  We can identify where we are in the song, we can understand how the music will flow.

Vocabulary – We can talk about the song together – “I really like the chorus of that song”.  “I like American Pie, but it has way too many verses”, etc.

Enjoyment – We can identify what we like in music, and compare one piece to another.  A lot of music is an aquired taste, you have to develop a base line theoretical understanding of that music in order to appreciate the beauty therein.

Music theory changes how you listen.

If you listen to a pop song that doesn’t follow verse-chorus, it might take longer to appreciate, it might feel a bit awkward, and the end result could be something you like or something you don’t like. The more music you listen to, or study, the greater experience you will acquire.  The more music you have experienced, the larger your vocabulary, the more context you will have from which to appreciate a new piece you listen to, and the more enjoyment you will get from music of all kinds.

Music Theory Rocks

Along with other posts about teaching and learning piano, I’ll post an occasional analysis of a popular piece of music.  I’m not really sure how to define popular music, so I’ll just stick to the self-evident definition of “music that people seem to like”.

The purpose of the analysis is to think about why people like the piece in question.   Along the way I’ll try to point out core music theory concepts where they apply.  I’ll also be forced to use some of the jargon, I can’t explain what a scale is in every post, etc.  If you need a refresher on some basics, check out this post.

photo credit: rockfingrz Photography via photopin cc