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Analyzing Diatonic Chord Progressions

Now that you have an understanding of the diatonic chords of the major scale, it’s important to put it to use. You need to apply it often, and you need to analyze the harmonies of everything you play. The more you do this, the faster you’ll recognize these diatonic chord progressions by ear and by sight.

Playing in All 12 Keys

A common practice strategy by musicians is to play songs in all 12 keys. This helps cement the numbers of the chords to the specific chords of each key. If you do it long enough, you’ll start to remember, for example, that in the key of Bb the iii chord is Dm. That won't ever change. Eventually, you will reach a point where no thinking is involved. You just know it. That’s the goal.

If playing in all 12 keys takes up too much practice time at first, at least try a few keys. Or, you might always play things in one key which you know well. I often have students play songs in their original key and in the key of C. This makes the number relationships of the chords jump out at them before they've properly learned their keys.

You can practice songs in different keys on your own, or you can use audio programs (like Audacity in music software recommendations) to change the key of a song. Sometimes changing the key can make playing the exact bassline tricky (or impossible). Try your best. You might need to alter the bassline some. Or, you can always improvise a similar bassline based on your knowledge of the chords.

Analyze Songs Anywhere

Harmonic analysis is something you can practice anywhere. Do this in your free time when you don’t have your bass with you. Let me give you some ideas on doing this...

Find Songs to Analyze

You can look up the chords to songs online. You can find the chords to most songs by doing an online search for “[song name] chords.”

You can also get a fakebook. A fakebook is a book of songs only showing the melody and chord progression of each song. The musicians “fake it” from there. Fakebooks are very common in jazz like the infamous Real Book (a must, but the harmonies may be too complicated for you at this stage).

They make fakebooks for almost every style now. (Note: Be sure to get fakebooks labeled "For C Instruments" or "Bass Clef") Fakebooks can be expensive because they must pay to license hundreds of songs.

Here are a few fakebook suggestions you can find on Amazon (whatever you buy through these links benefits StudyBass, too):

Your First Fake Book (This one shows all songs in the key of C!)

The Easy Fake Book (This one shows all songs in the key of C!)

The Ultimate Fake Book (for C Instruments)

The Beatles Fake Book: C Edition (Fake Books)

The Best Fake Book Ever: C Edition

The Ultimate Country Fake Book, 5th Edition

The Praise & Worship Fake Book

The Essential Modern Worship Fakebook

R&B Fake Book

You can also find songbooks in used bookstores or thrift stores for cheap.

Some hymnals show chord symbols.

Simple Songs First

I suggest starting with simple songs. Folk songs, pop songs, hymns, and older songs are usually easier and more straightforward. Country songs are great! Those Nashville writers use a lot of traditional diatonic harmony.

These may not be your favorite styles, but it’s important to beat the diatonic chords into your head. The faster you can recognize them, the better off you’ll be. Everything uses them to varying degrees.

Harmonic Analysis Steps

  1. Print out the chords to some songs and carry them with you, or look them up.
  2. Determine the key. (e.g. Bb.)
  3. Figure out the notes in the key. (e.g. Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, and A.)
  4. Write out the 7 diatonic chords or get them in your head. (e.g. Bb, Cm, Dm, Eb, F, Gm, and Adim.)
  5. Number the chords of the song.
  6. Repeat!

Stuck? Confused?

Without doubt, you will run into chords which are not one of the 7 diatonic chords. Well, you don’t know everything about harmony yet! There are many chords which sneak in in-between the diatonic chords, and there are songs which change keys. We will learn more about these harmonic scenarios in later lessons. Do your best trying to number the chords based on what you know so far. Part of learning will be going back and reviewing to see what you missed and did not yet understand.

Transposing Chord Progressions

Another approach to reinforcing the diatonic chords is to practice transposing songs and progressions into other keys in your head. Playing songs in all keys is great, but this is something you can practice without your instrument.

Maybe you know a progression in the key of Bb like: Bb - Dm - Eb - F.

In your mind, number the chords: I-iii-IV-V.

If you know the notes of each key, you can figure out the progression in each key.

Key of C: C - Em - F - G

Key of Eb: Eb - Gm - Ab - Bb

Etc...

If you ever work with singers, this will be a priceless skill. Depending on the song, a singer may need the band to play it in another key to fit their vocal range. So, on a gig you may look at a chart in one key while playing it in another. This is a rough lesson to learn on the bandstand. Knowing the diatonic chord numbering system will make this much easier.

But Andrew, It’s So Much to Memorize!

This may seem like a lot of work right now, but I promise it gets easier the more you think this way and apply it. The better you have this in your head, ears, and fingers, the more music will flow from you.

Remember, there are three main elements of music:
Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm.

Bass is the foundation for two of the three: Harmony and Rhythm.

The diatonic chords are the foundation for harmony.

Harmony is your job. Master your job!

  • Lesson

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