The first step to hearing changes (chord progressions) in a song is to become familiar with the voice of each of theDiatonic Chords. In the key of C: 1st: C Major-Tonic (Key Note) 2nd: D minor-Supertonic 3rd: E minor-Mediant 4th: F Major-Sub-dominant 5th G Major-Dominant 6th A Minor-Sub-mediant 7th B Diminished- Leading Tone 8th C Major-Tonic (Octave)
To understand the role of each chord and its scale degree, let’s put the chords into the context of a popular pop song, Nick Lowe’s Cruel To Be Kind.
Key of C
Intro: I-iii-IV-V-I 2x
Chorus: IV-V-iii-vi 3x Hold on IV
Bridge (@1:43): Oooh, Oooh, etc. I-VI (A Major)
Let’s examine the role of each chord in the song. First, look at the diatonic names of the chords and see how they fit the chord’s personally and placement in the scale. TheI is the Tonic, the place where the song starts. We then move to the iii, the Mediant, which in the Latin means in the middle. And as you’ll notice, the iii is indeed in the middle between the I and the V. The song then moves a whole tone up to the IV or Sub-Dominant which is the last chord before we reach the fabulous V or Dominant chord.
Play through the introduction listening to the chord quality (major/minor) and it scale degree placement. Also, listen to the lyrics that fall on each chord and how the chord quality and scale degree placement mirror the emotion of the lyrics.
The first part of the verse is a re-statement of the introduction which then uses a vi/ii re-joiner back to the melancholy IV-iii-IV. The verse then moves to the V (Dominant) which in-turn sets up the movement to the chorus. The V however does not have the tension provided by a Dominant 7th chord (G7) to force it back to the I, so the song can seamlessly move down a whole tone to the IV to begin the chorus. I love when songs do this!
Play the IV-V-iii-vi chorus listening closely to the role of each chord in the sequence. I think one of the most memorable sections of the song is the way it holds on the IV at the end of the chorus. The bridge is also interesting in that it uses the VI Major as opposed to the vi minor which was used at the end of the chorus. The bridge then returns to the chorus.
At first, looking at songs in this fashion may be a bit confusing. The key (no pun intended) is to first simply play through the diatonic chords in order, up and down, listening to the quality of each chord (major/minor) and its placement in the diatonic hierarchy. Once these sounds are in your head it will be much easier to hear the chords when they are scrambled up in a chord progression. Also, get used to using the numbers instead of the letter names for each chord as it will make transposing the song to another key a snap.