Harmony in Rock and Popular Music

You may be familiar with the word harmony to describe the music usually sung by backup singers in songs. But for music theorists, and other classically trained musicians, harmony is a more general term. It describes how musical pitches are grouped together, usually into chords, and then how these chords are grouped into progressions. These pitches are supplied by all of the singers and instrumentalists singing and playing at any given moment in a song whether or not they are “singing harmony.” We will be using this broader definition of harmony for our purposes.

I won’t go into building musical objects and learning music notation that I spend a lot of time teaching music majors. It doesn’t take much time to understand these things, but they are not necessary for understanding and hearing harmonic progressions. (If you know some about reading music already, you can read the resources I have created for my music theory classes. If you can’t read music, I am more than happy to give you the basics individually.)

Basics of Harmony

Here’s what you need to know.

  1. Most popular and rock music uses 12 notes.
    • A through G plus modifications: sharp, flat, etc.
    • These notes are duplicated in higher and lower registers using the same names.
  2. We usually use basic groups of these notes called scales.
    • Scales usually range between 5 and 8 notes. Our most common scales have 7 notes.
    • Think of a scale as a bag we choose notes from to get particular sounds.
    • We name scales based on their main note and how the notes relate to each other. For example, E major.
  3. So, you choose a scale, and use the notes to build chords.
    • Chords are ways to play notes at the same time to sound pleasing. A chord usually has 3 or 4 notes.
    • We name these chords based on a specific note name, and how the notes relate to each other. For example, C major or A minor.
  4. These common scales give us common chords which are put into common chord successions called progressions.
    • These progressions help define the form of songs, and often repeat throughout a section of a song. For example, the blues defines both a particular song shape as well as a particular chord progression.
  5. Since notes and chords are possible in multiple different scales, we need a way to describe chord progressions to notice similarities. We will use roman numerals.
    • A chord based on the starting note of a major scale will use I (uppercase because the chord is major).
    • A chord on the second note is ii (lowercase because the chord is minor). And so on.
My goal is for you to be able to notice certain patterns, but you will not have to figure out complicated chord progressions without guidance.

Common Progressions

The Blues Progression

The Blues is a common basis for lots of early rock and roll stretching through the 70s. The blues progression usually uses only three chords. In E major, these chords are:

  • E major: I
  • A major: IV
  • B major: V
Equally as important for the blues is how these chords happen in time. The blues is usually arranged into three phrases: three lyric lines and three 4-bar phrases. A good example of the 12-bar blues is “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. Click on the larger roman numerals to hear each individual chord as it happens during the first verse.
Phrase 1 (1-4) I

Deep down Louisiana close to


New Orleans,


Way back up in the woods among the



Phrase 2 (5-8) IV

There stood a log cabin made of


earth and wood,


Where lived a country boy named


Johnny B. Goode,

Phrase 3 (9-12) V

Who never ever learned to read and


write so well,


But he could play the guitar like a


ringing a bell.

Other songs that are structured around a 12-bar blues include

The Doo-Wop Progression (I-vi-IV-V)

Another common progression is famous for its appearance in 50s doo-wop. This progression has a four-chord palette. It takes our three major chords from the blues progression and adds a specific minor chord. This progression usually lasts two or four measures and repeats over and over again. In C major, these chords in order are:

  • C major: I
  • A minor: vi
  • F major: IV
  • G major: V

A good example of this progression in a doo-wop song is “Earth Angel” by the Penguins. Starting right from the beginning, every two beats the song move through this four-chord progression. A new progression happens during and moving into and out of the bridge.

Strophe 1 I vi IV V
1-2                Earth angel, earth angel, will you be mine?
3-4 My darling dear, love you all the time.
5-6 I’m just a fool, a fool in love with
7-8 you.
Other “doo-wop” progression songs include

Doo-Wop Variants

If we reordered and/or substitute chords, we can get a lot more progressions that are the basis of many, many more songs throughout the history of rock and popular music.

Here’s a funny video for you about these progressions.