VII. Popular Music

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • Pop harmony can be understood through harmonic schemas—particularly common chord progressions.
  • These schemas can be altered while still maintaining their resemblance to the prototype.


There are a number of common stock chord progressions that recur in many pop/rock songs. These stock progressions, or , will often occur in cyclical patterns in a song; that is, the same progression will repeat multiple times in a row. This is particularly common in choruses of songs, but it also happens in , , and . Knowledge of pop schemas is helpful for identifying harmonies by ear, since in addition to listening for bass scale degrees and considering whether the harmonies are in root position or first inversion, you can listen for common patterns that you have heard in other songs. Example 1 succinctly summarizes the most common forms of each schema.

[table id=54 /]

Example 1. Summary of common pop harmonic schemas.

A crucial feature of schemas is that they can be altered while still remaining recognizable as a manifestation of that schema. Think of the term “bird.” If someone asks you to imagine a bird without any extra context, you may not imagine a specific species of bird, but you would probably imagine a bird that looks something like a sparrow or robin. Your imaginary bird is your mental prototype for the schema “bird.” You can recognize all kinds of birds as being birds even if they do not look exactly like your imaginary bird—ostriches, penguins, flamingos, and swans are all clearly birds, despite their significant differences in appearance, behavior, and habitat. In the same way, you can and should recognize harmonic schemas as manifestations of the schemas listed here, even when they undergo some form of variation. Common variations include chromatic inflection or chord inversion, and are summarized in the final column of Example 1.

The following chapters group together certain schemas that share several qualities, and go into detail about each individual schema and its most common variations.


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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