Cadences, Chord Patterns: The I – IV – V Lesson

Studying Music Means Studying Chords

This course in music theory is written primarily for guitarists. As guitarists we know the most important thing in our musical world is chords and pleasing combinations of chords. Music schools that offer courses in a harmony and theory, spend a good bit of course time dealing with chord progressions, for the remainder of this course, the art and science of chord progressions will be our focus. In fact, all songs in every style are based on pleasing combinations of chords, as we learned earlier (The Concept Of Key), these combinations of chords called cadences, are the musical building blocks used to create songs, sections of songs, musical arrangements or entire compositions. The two most important cadences are the authentic cadence, or the V chord to the I chord and the plagal cadence, where the IV chord resolves to the I chord. This area of musical study is called Diatonic Harmony, “Dia” meaning through and “tonic” meaning just that, the center of the key, it’s home, the root note of scale or the I chord of the key. Diatonic Harmony -through the center of the key.

Diatonic harmony is the law of the land and pop, jazz, blues, country, folk and rock ‘n roll styles. That having been stated, the diagram below, which is using basic voicings to express diatonic harmony in the key of C, is just one of those things that all of us guitarists should be familiar with. Use and play through this example to acclimate yourself to the key of C as you continue to focus on this lesson.

I – IV And I – V Cadences And Chord Patterns

The most important chord progressions is in the world of modern popular music employ the I – IV – V chords of the key in which they are written in. Basically anything and everything goes when it comes to combining I – IV – V chords. The most important rule is this: when it sounds right it is right. We are all amazed at the number of great songs written using only these three chords, equally as amazing is that each writer can put their own spin or tack on the chords and still manage to have them sound great. Despite the seemingly endless amount of combinations of these three basic chords there are still a few tried-and-true principles concerning them that are essential bits of knowledge for guitarists.

The strongest chord progression music is V to I, in the case of the key of C that would be G to C. Its short cadences like these, the little self-contained units that make the entire form of the song. The V to I is essential feature of nearly every style. Use this material as an ear training study in chord progressions.

In terms of chord progressions, anything and everything is possible, and some wonderful amazing chord progressions may appear to defy logic, but music and songwriting are generally things that work by rules. For example, the chords that sound best together belong to the same key. Another rule might be that the short cadences and longer chord progressions seem to work in groups of two and four measures. The more music you learn or write, you’ll notice that cadences in modern musical demand a length of two bars or four bars and usually ‘feel’ best in groups of two or four measures.

Tension And Release

Tension and release is the name given to the dynamic in music that makes chord progressions sound as though they have resolved, that makes them sound good. The 2 most basic and important chord changes in music are the authentic cadence, the I – V cadence and the plagal cadence or the I -IV. The magic of chord progressions, the lightning in a bottle, is summed up by this term: tension and release. It’s what makes chord progressions sound good, right and as though they make sense. To repeat, all songs in every style are based on pleasing combinations of chords. Musicians learn these combinations of chords as cadences. Thinking a little more deeply about the cadences we will arrive at what songwriters call chord (1) short patterns, and (2) longer chord progressions. What makes all of this sound good, right and wonderful is the game of tension and release, the sense of home coming and resolution produced by arriving at the tonic chord.

Spend time with the interactive graphics below until you really own sound of the V to I and I to V chord patterns, these examples are longer than just a simple cadence, but not quite a full song or progression so we will call them each a pattern, another of building block or brick in your wall. These chord patterns are your all important vocabulary words as a songwriter, arranger, composer or all-around ear player. You need to to know them, feel them and be able to identify them simply by hearing alone.

Below is another interactive graphic designed to help you internalize the sound of the subdominant chord, the IV chord. This IV chord is very interesting in regard that it has the ability draw your ear away from the tonic as it proceeds to the V chord but the IV chord can also produce a desire to return to the tonic. In the example below, The IV chord is returning your ear to the I chord.

I – IV – V ProgressionsTo repeat, undoubtedly, the most important chord progressions is in the world of the guitarist are combinations of the I chord, IV chord and V chord. It is actually quite involved to systematize or codify the exact forces at work when creating I – IV – V progressions, but the first place to start is a standard 12 bar blues progression. In terms of music theory and also artistic considerations, blues progressions are not inherantly sad nor do they convey any one specific feeling. In music theory, blues is simply and order and freequency of chords.

Blues Progressions

Acrobat PrinterChord Charts

Printable versions of all the blues progressions discussed in the preceding video are available here.

I – IV – V Songs

In terms of I – IV – V progressions, it seem like anything goes, and to repeat, when it sounds right it is right. I am always amazed at the seemingly endless combinations of good sounding songs possible using the three primary chords.I have read in many music theory textbooks that the purpose of the four chord is simply to precede the five chord this certainly is sound musical thinking, but once again any combination of the three primary chords can sound good. The examples below are I – IV – V progressions wher the subdominant, IV, precedes the dominant chord or the V chord.elow there are two songs utilizing the I – IV – V chord progression written below. These songs are traditional progressions taken from American country music. Country music, along with all other forms of roots music, country music is an invaluable tool in this study and mastery of basic chord progressions and song form. All forms of traditional American music are guitar oriented and guitar driven so you should study as many of their standard songs as possible. This includes folk music, blues, country, bluegrass and of course rock ‘n roll. study the two examples below, the first one is the basis of countless songs and the second employs the same harmony as I Walk The Line by Johnny Cash.

Acrobat PrinterLesson Plan

An summary and additional perspectives on this I – IV – V lesson are available in a two page PDF format here.


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