TonalityGUIDE - basic tonal music theory and analysis for undergraduates
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Short Progressions

introduction diatonic chromatic

introduction | fifths | seconds | thirds

introduction | perfect cadence | imperfect cadence | plagal cadence | seventh chords

short progs.
longer progs.

The perfect fifth is one of the most fundamental relationships in tonal music. This section discusses the progressions between chords related by this interval, but fifths play an important role at every level, from the construction of the major scale to understanding the relationship between keys.

Most of the two-chord progressions discussed on these pages are cadences at the end of phrases, but, as discussed in the introduction to perfect cadences, it is important to remember that chord progressions by fifth also occur at the beginning and middle of phrases.

One of the most interesting aspects of fifth progressions is the way in which descending fifths are generally understood to generate a feeling of closure and release of tension while ascending fifths have become associated with opening and increase in tension.

The origins of the perfect cadence (a descending fifth) as the most closed ending can be found in earlier repertoires. In music of the sixteenth century and earlier voice-leading was more important that harmony in creating a sense of closure. The example below shows the most common closing gestures - the major sixth moving in contrary motion to an octave and the minor third (its inversion) moving in the opposite direction onto a unison. Perhaps part of the reason that a perfect cadence in the example below (V - I) sounds more final that, for example, V-ii or I-V (both rising fifths) is the fact that it incorporates this voice-leading pattern.

Whatever the reason, the rising fifth chord progression as opening and the falling one as closing is so ingrained in our culture that it has to be accepted as a fact of musical life to understand much of the tonal repertoire.

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© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst

TonalityGUIDE - Tonal Harmony and Voiceleading - Table of Contents