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Listen to Music Through Harmony—Chord Progression Rules

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

Two or more notes (pitches) played at the same time is called “harmony.“ Listening for the harmony in music is a bit more complicated than listening for the melody or rhythm, but with a bit of practice, you will understand that you can listen to music through harmony.

Music Vocabulary in this Article

  1. Harmony
  2. Triad
  3. Scale
  4. Chord Progression
  5. Key
  6. Treble clef
  7. Bass clef
  8. Grand staff
  9. Chord

The Grand Staff

When reading or playing music we refer to the grand staff as the template that musicians and composers use to write or read their music notation. Mostly found in piano music, the grand staff utilizes two staffs which have five lines and four spaces and are called the treble-staff and the bass-staff. The treble is used for the high notes and the bass is used for the low notes.

Below is a short video explaining how the grand staff works in music.

Tonal Center

A “tonal center“ refers to the “key“ that we are in. This is based around the scale that it comes from. For instance, if we are in the key of C major, this means that the tonal center comes from the C-major scale C D E F G A B C (the white keys on the piano).

The Grand Staff


A chord is a harmonic tool that stacks notes on top of each other to give us harmony. A triad is a three-note chord, some pleasing and some not-so-pleasing. We call this consonance and dissonance.

As an example, a C major triad is made up of three notes: C, E, and G. These notes together would be called the l chord (triad) in C major. If we travel up the keyboard to the note F, which is the fourth degree of the C scale, and stack two notes on top of it, we will have a triad: F, A, and C. This is called the lV chord in C major. If we travel up one more note to G, which is the fifth degree of the scale, and stack two nones on top of that, we will have a triad: G, B, and D. This is called the V chord in C major.

For analysis purposes we use Roman numerals to identify and label chord symbols in music. These Roman numerals represent the steps away from the first degree of the scale in C major.

Chord Progression Rules

Chord Progression Rules - A chord progression in music describes the movement from one chord to another in a systematic manner. Below is an example of a very simple chord progression using the triads we talked about above. This progression would be analyzed as a l (C E G) lV (F A C) V (G B D). l - lV - V all notes taken from the C major scale. Below is an example of what it would look like on the musical staff.

I - IV - V Chord Progression in C Major


Listening Exercise #1: The Beatles

This example features a very familiar song, "Imagine," by the Beatles. This is a ballad sung by John Lennon. The emphasis on this song is the lyrics and melody. When you are listening, key in on just the harmony. These are simple chords that are backing up the melody to make sure that we are listening to the words and melody. They throw in a bit of color with a string sound half way through, but nothing that covers up the words.

Very simple harmony, eh?

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Listening Exercise #2: Advanced Harmonies!

There’s probably not a better example that I could have chosen for this example of advanced harmonies than to have you listen to a vocal group called the Pentatonix. This vocal quintet specializes in singing à cappella (with no instrumental accompaniment ) and does an unbelievable job. Each member is a professionally trained singer and can read quite well off music notation.

One critic was heard saying “They are so good that they could sightread wallpaper!”

The song that I chose for this example is the very familiar "Over the Rainbow" from the movie The Wizard of Oz. When listening to this arrangement, you won’t have any problem identifying the melody, so let’s concentrate on just the harmony.

  • Close your eyes and relax and let the harmony sell the song to you. There may be some sounds in there that you’ve never heard before, but I guarantee that you will probably like them.
  • Listen to how the five voices blend throughout the piece.
  • The lead singer has the melody.
  • Be aware of the dissonances which gives this arrangement its unique sound.
  • In this arrangement you’ll be listening to the “thickness” and “sweetness” of harmony. These are extended chords used in very structured format giving the listener a sense of “Wow”!



Listening Exercise #3: Art Tatum and Hiromi Urehara

I’ve selected this last listening exercise for two reasons.

  1. To show how music for the piano is notated on the Grandstaff. As you are listening to both of these examples you can follow along with the printed music on the screen in front of you.
  2. To showcase two incredibly talented jazz pianists and how they use harmony and rhythm as well as melody to formulate a complete composition for piano.

Art Tatum

Born in October 13, 1909, in Toledo, Ohio, Art Tatum was an American jazz pianist. In fact, he was considered one of the greatest jazz pianist of his time. Despite being legally blind, his technical proficiency and creativity set new standards for future artists young and old alike. Art Tatum was mostly self taught on the piano. He did receive some musical training at the Toledo School of Music.

The first time I heard the artistry of Art Tatum was when I was 14 years old. This was on a LP recording and I thought that I had the record player at a higher speed because this person playing this music was so fast I couldn’t believe that any human being could play with such speed.

Hiromi Uehara

Born on March 26, 1979, in Hamamatsu, Japan, Hiromi Uehara is also a jazz pianist. She is known for her virtuostic technic on the piano as she performs and composes in various genres. She started learning classical piano at age 5. At 14, she performed with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. After writing commercial jingles in Japan for companies like Nissan, she traveled to the United States and enrolled at the Berkeley College of music in Boston. There she was mentored by Ahmad Jamal.

Below are two examples of pyro, technical performances on the piano by these two artists. The first is a performance by Art Tatum playing his arrangement of a song from the 30’s called "Tea for Two." This is a relatively short performance that will give you an idea of how well Art Tatum played the piano.

The second example is a bit longer, but well worth the listen ( I always save the best for last ) and the reason why I included here is that it is definitely a remarkable performance of a wonderfully dificul piece for piano. This piece of music is called "The Tom and Jerry Show" and was performed and composed by Hiromi Uehara.

As you listen to these two compositions, they are both written in a basic song form. They are both in 4/4 time.

Listen to how the harmony is used in both pieces as it is different from what we heard with the Pentatonix. Both pianists use what we call cascading arpeggios which are chords that are broken up horizontally outlined by separate notes and not the block chords or vertical chords that the Pentatonix used. Simple they are not! Exciting and musical they are!


Future Listening

If you are like me, and have a collection of recordings, CDs, Videos and such to listen to at various times. Below I have provided a link to one of my favorite albums to another vocal group that sing in the same style as the Pentatonix. They are called Singers Unlimited. This is the group that gave many of the close harmony à cappella groups of today inspiration to develop their styles.

Please take this poll!

In Conclusion!

As we bring this article to a close I hope that the listening exercises help you in the future as you are listening to a piece of music you can concentrate on just listening to a certain musical element such as: melody, rhythm, harmony, form, timbre.

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

Please feel free to comment about the article.

sstoller on July 03, 2020:

Thank you - fantastic! This will be a great resource for my music teaching.

Reginald on November 25, 2017:

Hi Dave

Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed the video. I have others that you might like.

Dave McClure from Worcester, UK on November 25, 2017:

Hi Reginald - The Tom & Jerry piece was new to me and very impressive. For piano, I am a great Ellington fan. Not the fastest hands in the world but immaculate precision and taste!

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