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Beginning Harmonic Analysis

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: An introduction to chord relationships within a particular key.

Note: You are viewing an old version of this document. The latest version is available here.


It sounds like a very technical idea, but basic harmonic analysis just means understanding how a chord is related to the key and to the other chords in a piece of music. This can be such useful information that you will find that many musicians who have not studied much music theory, and even some who don't read music, can tell you what the "I" or the "V" chord are in a certain key.

Why is it useful to know how chords are related? Many standard forms (for example, the "twelve bar blues") follow very specific chord progressions. If you know the chord relationships, you can play any progression in any key. If you are searching for chords to go with a particular melody (in a particular key), it is also very helpful to know what chords are most likely in that key, and how they might be likely to progress from one to another.

Basic Triads in a Major Key

Any chord might show up in any key, but some chords are much more likely than others. The most likely chords to show up in a key are the chords that you can make in that key without using accidentals. So these chords have both names and numbers that tell how they fit into the key. (We'll just talk about basic triads for the moment, not sevenths or other added-note chords). The chords are numbered using Roman numerals from I to vii.

Figure 1: To find all the basic chords in a key, build a simple triad (in the key) on each note of the scale. You'll find that although the chords change from one key to the next, the pattern of major and minor chords is always the same.
Chords in the keys of C major and D major
Chords in the keys of C major and D major (scalechords.png)

You can find all the basic triads that are possible in a key by building one triad, in the key, on each note of the scale (each scale degree). One easy way to name all these chords is just to number them: the chord that starts on the first note of the scale is "I", the chord that starts on the next scale degree is "ii", and so on. Roman numerals are used to number the chords. Capital Roman numerals are used for major chords and small Roman numerals for minor chords. Because major scales always follow the same pattern, the pattern of major and minor chords is always the same in a major key. The chords built on the first, fourth, and fifth degrees of the scale are always major chords (I, IV, and V). The chords built on the second, third, and sixth degrees of the scale are always minor chords (ii, iii, and vi). And the chord built on the seventh degree of the scale is a diminished chord.

Exercise 1

Write and name the chords in G major and in B flat major.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (2probstaff.png)


Figure 3
Figure 3 (GBflatchords.png)


Notice that IV in the key of B flat is an E flat major chord, not an E major chord, and vii in the key of G is F sharp diminished, not F diminished. If you can't name the scale notes in a key, you may find it difficult to predict whether a chord should be based on a sharp, flat, or natural note. If you read music, learn your scales; they are very useful for many different reasons. (See Major Keys and Scales.) If you don't read music, and are not planning to learn, you may find it easiest to simply memorize the most important chords (at least I, IV, and V) in your favorite keys.

A Hierarchy of Chords

Even among the chords that naturally occur in a key signature, some are much more likely to be used than others. In most music, the most common chord is I. In Western music, I is the tonal center of the music, the chord that feels like the "home base" of the music. As the other two major chords in the key, IV and V are also likely to be very common. In fact, the most common added-note chord in most Western music is V with a seventh added (V7). Whereas the I chord feels most strongly "at home", V7 gives the strongest feeling of "time to head home now". This is very useful for giving music a satisfying ending. Listen to some chords in the key of C and see how strongly each suggests that you must be in the key of C: C (major) chord(I); F chord - C chord (IV - I); G chord - C chord (V - I); G seventh chord - C chord (V7 - I)

Now look at some chord progressions from real music.

Figure 4: Much Western music is harmonically pretty simple, so it can be very useful just to know I, IV, and V in your favorite keys.
Some chord progressions
Some chord progressions (chordprog.png)

A lot of folk music, blues, rock, marches, and even some classical music is based on simple chord progressions, but of course there is plenty of music that has more complicated harmonies. Pop and jazz in particular often include lots of added-note chords (for example Dsus4 or E11). Classical music can also include more complex chords, and is also more likely to use chords that are not in the key. Study and practice is needed to be able to identify and understand these more complex progressions.

Figure 5: Some music has more complicated harmonies, such as sevenths and other added-note chords, or chords that include accidentals, such as I diminished and II(major).
Some more chord progressions
Some more chord progressions (chordprog2.png)

Naming Harmonic Relationships

So far we have concentrated on identifying chord relationships by number, because this system is commonly used by musicians to talk about every kind of music from classical to rock to blues. There is another set of names that is commonly used, particularly in classical music, to talk about harmonic relationships. Because numbers are used in music to identify everything from rhythms to intervals to harmonics to what fingering to use, this naming system is sometimes less confusing to use.

Figure 6
Figure 6 (tonicetc.png)

Exercise 2

Name the chord.

  1. Dominant in C major
  2. Subdominant in E major
  3. Tonic in G sharp major
  4. Mediant in F major
  5. Supertonic in D major
  6. Submediant in C major
  7. Dominant seventh in A major


  1. G major (G)
  2. A major (A)
  3. G sharp major (G#)
  4. A minor (Am)
  5. E minor (Em)
  6. A minor (Am)
  7. E seventh (E7)

Exercise 3

The following chord progression is in the key of G. Identify the relationship of each chord to the key by both name and number. Which chord is not in the key? Which chord in the key has been left out of the progression?

Figure 7
Figure 7 (chordprog3.png)


Figure 8
Figure 8 (chordprog3s.png)

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