Medieval chord progressions

Medieval chord progressions DEFAULT

Medieval by RuneScape Chords and Melody

About The Key Of C Minor

Medieval is written in the key of C Minor. According to the Theorytab database, it is the 2nd most popular key among Minor keys and the 6th most popular among all keys. Minor keys, along with major keys, are a common choice for popular music. The three most important chords, built off the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees are all minor chords (C minor, F minor, and G minor). See the C Minor Cheat Sheet for popular chords, chord progressions, downloadable midi files and more!

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Chord structure in medieval music

For many musicians, especially those more familiar with other styles, a fundamental early question concerns the chords of medieval music. While a description of chords can become rather technical, the interested amateur will find it fascinating when supplemented by recorded examples, and when considered in small pieces. The following discussion is written in an open and inclusive manner, and should remain approachable for the careful reader.

The use of chords, or what we might call "vertical structure" to distinguish it from the "horizontal structure" defined principally by melody, is a topic which is both crucial for understanding the music itself and illustrative of general conclusions about polyphonic music. First it is important to understand that medieval composers did not use "harmony" in a sense which classical composers would have understood. This is perhaps most easily grasped by realizing that the lowest voice of many of the most elaborate polyphonic works of the period consists of a pre-existing melody, often plainchant. Other melodies were added to these, and each layer would have its own horizontal concerns. Of course, in the greatest masterpieces, the vertical elements add something tangible to this mix, without sacrificing the horizontal beauty.

Cadential motion, i.e. the way in which individual phrases are brought to a close, is crucial for understanding this structure, and so must play a major role in subsequent discussion. Such ending motion is crucial to horizontal ideas as well, just as the "final" (or last note) of a mode is fundamental to defining it. Of course modality is a theoretical idea specifically developed for application to the system of Gregorian plainchant which underlies medieval polyphony, and so is never too far removed from polyphonic music. Nonetheless, it is generally not possible to assign modality to polyphonic music of this period, unless it is notionally assigned based on that of the lowest voice, a common technique. Ideas to let this modality dictate chord structure, and thus accidentals in other voices, are frequently flawed.

Much of Early Music history can be viewed as a series of changes to cadential formulas & combinations. For instance, the earliest Western polyphony generally cadences on the unison. Shortly afterward (by epochal standards, anyway) composers start cadencing on octaves & fifth combinations. Eventually this gives way to more frequent use of the third, and then to fully third-based cadences in the high Renaissance. At this point, cadential formulas become more evidently analogous to the triadic system which today we call "common practice" harmony. Nonetheless, the differing idioms of these intervening centuries provide many stimulating ideas on chord construction & combination. A developing set of articles here, most by Margo Schulter, will hopefully provide a glimpse of some of this richness.

For more details:

This article provides a fine orientation to the general context in which discussions on chord structure in medieval music will take place, illustrating examples from what is perhaps the most dynamic & exciting period in the history of the development of polyphony.

This article is even more extensive, surveying what is known about medieval approaches to tuning, the Pythagorean system in particular, as well as a broader history of Western tuning in general. It provides a wide range of informative discussion on tuning issues in polyphony.

This extensive article discusses the role of hexachords & solmization in medieval music, how they affect musica ficta choices, and how they interact with other concerns of the era.

The articles on hexachords & Pythagorean tuning serve to illuminate underlying concepts which frame the idea of medieval chord structure per se. In many ways, issues of tuning and solmization are sufficiently different from the modern reader's intuition that without these discussions, it can be difficult to appraise the medieval approach to vertical structure.

Also see the following:

With some luck, and some interest from readers, other articles of this type can be developed.

To Early Music FAQ

Todd M. McComb
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Epic chord progressions

In this post, I'll be going through some chord progressions commonly associated with a grand feeling, or "epicness," with some examples of how they've been used in popular media.

Chords & Expression

Expression isn’t strongly intrinsic to a chord progression. On their own, chords don’t do much and are reliant on the arrangement for their expressive power. Even if it is a simple strings arrangement, every aspect of it contributes to which facet of the chords is being expressed and how strongly it comes across.

So, when we go through these examples, take note of how the composition is arranged.

The chords in this post are written out as text. A slash (“/”) refers to the end of a measure and a hyphen (“-“) refers to a beat. If there are no beats written out, a chord lasts for the full measure.

Examples of Epic Chord Progressions

This is a selection of my personal favourites when it comes to chord progressions that fit into the definition of “epic.” I’m writing these down as they come to me, and I’ll try to include an equal number of examples from film and video game soundtracks.

Howard Shore – A Journey in the Dark

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 2:48 and 3:06.

F / Am / F / G / C

My favourite musical moment of the entire trilogy. The fellowship walks inside the massive dwarven city of Dwarrowdelf. ‘Tis indeed an eye-opener. The chord progression is simple; two upwards movements (from the F) combined with upwards step-wise melody in the strings.

Note the amount of tension created by the initial upwards third, from the F to the Am, which is then enhanced by one of the most powerful movements of them all, a downwards third, in this case back down to the F, followed by an upwards second and then finally released by a perfect cadence, G to C.

Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard – Honor Him

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 1:12 and 2:18.

F#m / D(add6) / E / E / F#m – E / D / D / Bm / E / C#m / F#m

I’ve always been fond of this track since it employs one of my favourite chord movements; going from the i to the VI with an added sixth, here sung by the vocals.

It’s built as a classic rise-and-fall, and it employs two downwards stepwise movements in a row with the melody playing the thirds, resulting in a harmonic and pleasing progression; a good juxtaposition between strong triad harmony and the sixth.

Klaus Badelt – He’s a Pirate

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 0:05 and 0:18.

Dm / B♭ / Am / Dm / B♭ / F / C / Dm / Dm / B♭ / Gm / Dm / Dm / A / A / A

The score to the first Pirates of the Caribbean films was a bit of a mess and Hans Zimmer is often falsely accredited with many of the compositions that were later used in the sequels. I’m quite sure that this is Badelt’s work because it’s back to basics. The melody is the very typical “upwards to chord note”-pattern that is the underlying structure of so many themes (I’ve often compared this track to the seminal Jeremy Soule’s Nerevar Rising.).

He’s a Pirate plays at a quick pace at double-time and both the chords and melody jump back and forth, creating an expression that is somehow epic but still friendly and jaunty. Perhaps the word is “cool.”

Inon Zur – Fallout 3 Title Theme

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is between 0:00 and 1:00.

Cm / C
A♭ / B♭ / Cm

Whilst this track may not be the best example for either of these progressions, it is a well-known one and it deserves mention because of the arrangement.

The upper chord progression is used at the beginning of the track. That Zurian brass blares up just a half-step and turns the initial minor tonic into major. It’s a small movement that has nevertheless become quite popular since.

The lower progression is the climax, which begins at 0:47, and it is our old friend the three-chord progression.

Jack Wall – Suicide Mission

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is almost the entire track.

Dm / B♭ / C / Gm / B♭ / F / Gm / Dm

You’ve got to love this one. Excellent melody, great ostinato, an exciting time signature and it’s played during one of my all-time favourite battle scenes from any video game; the ending to Mass Effect 2. It starts off on a high note and grows throughout the full length of the piece. I’ve always thought that Jack Wall has a very good understanding of video game music and this track is a testament to that.

You can examine the entire arrangement in the YouTube video linked above. I should mention that the rhythm is unusually integral to the expression of this piece.

Clint Mansell – Earth

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is almost the entire track.

Em / C / D / Em / Em / G / Am / Bm

Since we’re on the Mass Effect theme, we might as well include this one. This track is an excellent example of when a chord progression is almost enough on its own to express an emotion. There is no melody; the piano plays the tonic and third above the bassline and even the orchestral arrangement is without motif.

Following the Am with a Bm after the stepwise movement from the G is a bold move. At that point, you’re outside the three-chord area and without common tone. This creates an almost strained sensation, a rather mechanical upwards movement, as if the music is dragging something heavy along with it as it moves.

Harry Gregson-Williams – Metal Gear Solid 3 Main Theme

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is from 5:32 to 6:14. Make sure you wait for 5:55.

Am / F / C / G / Am / F / Em / Dsus4 / D / Bm / G / D / A / Bm / G / F#m / Esus4 / E

This chord progression, i – VI – III – VII, is pivotal and common enough that it should have a name. It is the easiest chord progression to grab if you want to create high drama and emotion and it works almost regardless of what you place on top of it. The one danger is that it is very generic and you have to work hard to make it sound yours.

The title theme to Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of those golden video game songs because it is epic and it plays the heartstrings of what video game music used to sound like back when it was simpler and more straightforward, owing in part to heavy use of the classic chord progression. It even has a key change in the middle. It doesn’t get any more classic than that.

Howard Shore – The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is from 4:44.

Fm / D♭ / A♭ / E♭

Same chord progression but arranged with gentle string harmony and vocals to evoke a kind of poignant sadness. In The Fellowship of the Ring, this is after Gandalf’s death and the fellowship is out on the rocks mourning. If you’re Swedish, or speak Swedish, you may have had this scene ruined by Sagan om de Bannlysta.

Garry Schyman – The Ocean on His Shoulders

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is from 1:22.

Am / Em/G / FMaj7 / G/D

Only a little one and perhaps not necessarily epic but it’s worth pointing out because of the excellent use of the moving bassline and inversion of the final G.

Also, Schyman is responsible for the famous song Praan which incidentally employs the exact same chord progression as the above two examples, in this case Cm – A♭ – E♭ – B♭.

Hans Zimmer – Time

Listen on YouTube. Relevant part is the entire track.

Am / Em / G / D / Am / CMaj7 / G / D

The reason behind all the Zimmer in this list isn’t necessarily because of his skill but rather because he so often employs the classic chord progressions and most people know his songs so he makes for very good examples.

In Closing

I hope this list will be of some use. I could probably spend all day listing tracks, famous or otherwise, with effective uses of good chord progressions, but this will do for now.

All the best,


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Chord progressions medieval

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GOD CHORDS - Writing Epic Changes [Composing/Songwriting Lesson]

At this time, her mouth, having taken the shape of a large letter "O", was rhythmically strung on a third impressive staff. A woman pierced from three sides, confident male hands forcibly pushed onto their solid rods, causing her some pain, and along with pain carrying the bliss of satisfying her insatiable desire.

I was fascinated by what was happening.

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