Chord Numerals - I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi
There is a way to unlock the subject of Harmony, and that’s through Chord Numerals.
Playing chords and chord progressions by ear seems an unattainable feat for many. A dream never to be realized. But the truth is that you can learn how to play harmony by ear. How? Start with Chord Numerals.
Chord Numerals look just like roman numerals, but in the context of music, they represent the six most popular chords in human history; but most importantly, they do so in a way that combines how they sound with how they’re constructed. This is important. Combining sound with theory is the actual game-changer: chord names don’t do this (they de-emphasize functional/diatonic harmony, they promote absolute pitch and a static approach to harmony), guitar tabs don’t do this (they emphasize where you put your fingers over what you’re hearing and how chord progressions behave), and most guitar tutorials certainly do not do this (Why would they? You’re just there to learn one song, after all). The one exception in today’s music education landscape — sheet music — does combine sound with theory. But to use sheet music, one needs to learn how to read standard notation. And as ubiquitous as standard notation is, it is just as esoteric with its ledger lines, stems, noteheads, clefs, and jargon descended from Italian opera.
There is a better way to learn all of these real world chord progressions by ear.
Four Chord Song
Have you ever heard of the “Four Chord Song?” If you haven’t check out this hilariously funny and slightly acerbic comedic video.
The truth in this video is plain to see: many popular songs use a powerful chord progression.
The chord progression they call “1-2-3-4” in this performance is really I-V-vi-IV (pronounced “One-Five-Six-Four”). It just might be the most popular chord progression in musical history. It is the progression used in all of these popular songs, and many more:
- Journey — “Don’t Stop Believing,”
- James Blunt — “You’re Beautiful”
- Alphaville — “Forever Young”
- Jason Mraz — I’m Yours
- Mika — Happy Ending
- Alex Lloyd — Amazing
- The Calling — Wherever You Will Go
- Elton John — Can You Feel The Love Tonight,
- Maroon 5 — She Will Be Loved
- The Last Goodnight — Pictures Of You
- U2 — With Or Without You
- Crowded House — Fall At Your Feet
- Kasey Chambers — Not Pretty Enough
- The Beatles — Let it Be
- Red Hot Chili Peppers — Under the Bridge
- Daryl Braithwaite — The Horses
- Bob Marley — No Woman No Cry
- Marcy Playground — Sex and Candy
- Men At Work — Land Down Under
- Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda
- A Ha — Take On Me
- Green Day — When I Come Around
- Eagle Eye Cherry — Save Tonight
- Toto — Africa
- Beyonce — If I Were A Boy
- The Offspring — Self Esteem
- The Offspring — You’re Gonna Go Far Kid
- Pink — You and Your Hand
- Lady Gaga — Poker Face
- Aqua — Barbie Girl
- The Fray — You Found Me
- 30h!3 — Don’t Trust Me
- MGMT — Kids
- Tim Minchin — Canvas Bags
- Natalie Imbruglia — Torn
- Five For Fighting — Superman
- Missy Higgins — Scar
Chord Numeral Flash Cards and You
Chord Numerals represent the six most popular chords from the Major Scale. Using these Chord Numeral flash cards, you can try any number of the following exercises to improve your level of fluency in Harmony:
- Chord Spelling — perhaps the most immediately useful of these exercises when it comes to improving your musical communication with others, you can use these flash cards as a way to challenge your ability to spell chords. Lay the flash cards face down in a random order, pick any key, and flip one over. Now name the chord, and spell the notes of the chord out. Example: Key of C, flip over card “IV.” What is your answer? “F Major, F-A-C.”
- Songwriting — Stuck when it comes to writing new chord progressions? You can create new (diatonic) chord progressions you haven’t used in your songwriting before. Example, vi-iii-IV-I sounds nice. In the key of C, that means Am-Em-F-C. Try it!
- Relative Pitch Training — the most musically beneficial skill to come from quizzing yourself in Harmony is most certainly the ability to outline a chord by singing it out loud without the aid of an instrument. Lay the flash cards face down in a random order, play any tonic, and flip one over. Now sing the chord out, relative to the tonic. Example: Key of C, flip over card “IV.” Your task: play the “C” to establish your tonic, then sing F Major (F-A-C) out loud without any help from an instrument. When you can hear the “1” (a.k.a. the tonic) but can sing “4–6–8” (a.k.a. the subdominant, submediant, tonic, or the subdominant chord) without any other reference pitches, you build your internal model of the Major Scale from that tonic. An internal model of pitch relationships is EVERYTHING when it comes to ear-training. I can’t possibly overstate it.
Learn all of this and more in my Harmony Module. The first four episodes are available, completely free.