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Next UK ABRSM theory exams
Saturday 16th June

Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 11: Progressions & Cadences 

(Please note: you need to know about chords to understand this lesson.)

 Check out the video on cadences!



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What are Progressions?

In music, a "progression" happens when one chord changes to another chord.

For example, many pieces of music begin with notes that are taken from chord I (the tonic chord), followed by notes from chord V (the dominant chord).

Here is the beginning of the famous theme from Dvorak's "New World Symphony", which begins with a I-V progression.



The key of the piece is D major (we have simplified the key, as the original is in Db major!)

The notes in bar one fit with a chord of D major, which is chord I, and the notes in bar two fit with a chord of A major, which is chord V.

Notice that the melody also contains notes which are not part of the underlying harmony chord. In bar 1, there is an E, which isn't part of the chord of D major. And in bar 2, there are two F#s, which are not part of the chord of A major. These are non-chord notes.

The notes which fall on the beat are always* chord notes. (Notes which fall on an off-beat can be either chord notes or non-chord notes: more about this later.)

In the above example, the time signature is 4/4. This means there are four crotchet (quarter note) beats per bar. The notes which are played at the start of each of those four main beats are all chord notes:


In bar one, the notes which fall on the beat are F#-A-F#-D. These are all notes in the chord of D major.

In bar two, the notes which fall on the beat are E-A-E. These are all notes in A major. (The C# is missing, but that is ok!)

You only need to know about progressions which use the chords I, II, IV and for Grade 5 Theory.


What are Cadences?

Cadences are special kinds of progression which are used to signify that a piece, or section/phrase of a piece, has come to an end.

There are only three cadences that you need to know for Grade 5 Theory. Here they are:

V - I (also known as a "perfect" cadence)

IV - I (also known as a "plagal" cadence)

? - V (also known as an "imperfect" cadence)


As you can see, all cadences finish with either chord I or chord V. This is very important to remember!

In an "imperfect" cadence we have used a question mark for the first chord, because, in fact, any chord can be used before V. Most commonly, you will find II, VI or IV.

You won't be tested on the cadence names ("perfect", "plagal" or "imperfect") at Grade 5, but it's useful to know them! 


Here is an example in C major. The first phrase ends with cadence 1, and the piece ends with cadence 2.



Cadence 1 progresses from a chord of D minor to G major- or II-V (imperfect).

Cadence 2 progresses from a chord of G major to C major- or V-I (perfect).


Here are the same cadences from above, but fitted to a melody line and with some added decoration in the other parts:

with melody


Cadence & Progression Questions

In Grade 5 Theory, you are given a melody line and are asked to suggest suitable chords for two or three progressions

Each progression will consist of two or three chords and must include a standard cadence.

Remember, all cadences are made up of two chords. So, if there are three chords in the question, the first one will not be part of the cadence, but part of the progression. 

The positions of the cadences are marked in the score; you have to work out which chords would best fit around the notes in the melody at the points indicated.

Let's take the melody we used above as an example. This is what the question might look like:

Suggest suitable progressions for two cadences in the following melody by indicating ONLY ONE chord (I, II, IV or V) at each of the places marked A-E. You do not have to indicate the position of the chords, or to state which note is in the bass.


First Cadence: A= ..... B= ...... C= .......

Second Cadence: D= ..... E= ......


In this case, the first progression has three chords: A, B and C. The cadence is actually chords B and C. The second progression has only two chords, so both of them also make up the cadence.


You can indicate your choice of chords either by either by 

  • using the Roman numeral system (e.g. IV) (recommended),


  • writing the notes of the chord directly onto the stave (more chance of making a mistake!)

You don’t need to indicate the inversion of the chord (i.e. you don’t need to say what position it is in, or which note is in the bass).


Method for Suggesting Suitable Chords

To work out the correct chords, follow these steps. More guidance is given for each step below.

  1. Identify the key signature
  2. Write down the notes of each of the chords I, II, IV and V in that key signature.
  3. Identify which notes are enclosed by the bracket.
  4. Decide which are chord notes, and which are non-chord notes.
  5. Identify the possible chords and select the most likely if there seems to be a choice.


1. Identify the Key Signature

Using the key signature, work out which two keys (major and minor) it might be. E.g. if there is one sharp, it might be G major or E minor.

  • If there aren’t any sharps or naturals added, it will probably be in a major key.
  • If there are sharps or naturals, one will usually be on the leading note. The semitone after the leading note is the tonic of the corresponding minor key. E.g. in A minor, we'd expect to find a G#.
  • Sing through the melody in your head and think about whether it sounds major or minor
  • Look at the first and last notes of the piece - they will normally be the tonic or dominant notes of the key the piece is in. E.g. in the example above, the piece starts and ends on the tonic of C major.

(Check Lesson 5 - Key Signatures if you need more help on this.)  


2. Write Down the Chords

Write down the notes which make up the chords I, II, IV and V in the key signature of the piece (this is a good way to avoid mistakes!) You will use this for reference.

For example, if the key is D major, write: 

I= D/F#/A



V= A/C#/E


3. Identify the Bracketed Notes

Look at the first place marked in the extract. You will see a bracket which encloses 1-5 different notes. Write these notes down in letters, and then double check to see if there any accidentals which need to be applied. Check the key signature, tied notes and accidentals which occur earlier in the bar.


4. Identify the Chord Notes

As we mentioned at the start of this lesson, notes which fall on the beat are chord notes. This means that the first note in the bracketed group must be part of the chord, because the bracket will always start on note which is on the beat. So, the first note is always a chord note.

If the next note is an interval of a 2nd away from the first note (i.e. a scale-step), it will be a non-chord note. If it is any other interval away, then it will be a chord note.

In these examples, the first note D is a chord note. The 2nd (boxed) note is sometimes a chord note, and sometimes a non-chord note.


If there is a third note (or fourth, fifth and so on!), apply the same logic: if it is a 2nd away from the last chord note, it will be a non-chord note. If it's not a 2nd away, it will be a chord note. 

The notes marked with a star here are all chord notes.


In bar 1, the E is a non-chord note because it is a 2nd away from D. The F# is a 3rd from D, so it is also a chord note.

In bar 2, the F# is a third from D, so it's a chord note. The A is a third from F# (the last chord note), so it's also a chord note.

In bar 3, the B is a third from D, so it's a chord note. The C# is a 2nd from B (the last chord note), so it's a non-chord note.

See if you can work out the logic for bars 4 and 5 yourself.


5. Select the Chords

All the notes which you identified as chord notes in step 4 must be part of the chord you select.

Remember that all cadences end with only chord I or chord V: this narrows down the choice for the last chord in each progression.

If the last chord is I, then the one before it can only be V (perfect cadence) or IV (plagal cadence). V-I is much more common than IV-I.

Progressions have to progress! This means you cannot immediately repeat the same chord (e.g. V-V) even if the notes seem to fit.

Working Through a Question

Now let's use the method to find the chords from our original example.

The first progression is made up of chords A, B and C, and the second is chords D and E. 


The key is C major, because there is no key signature and there are no accidentals, and it starts and ends on the tonic.

We'll write out the notes of the chords for easy reference:





Next, we'll work out which are the chord notes. Chord notes are shown in square brackets at the end of each line.

Chord A: The first note is B, so this must be in the chord. C is a non-chord note (it's a 2nd from B). [B]

Chord B: The first note is A, so this is a chord note. G is a 2nd from A, so it's a non-chord note. [A]

Chord C: G is the only note! [G]

Chord D: B is the first note. A is a 2nd away. [B]

Chord E: C is the only note! [C]


Finally, select the chords. Remember, we are restricted to I and V for the last chord in each progression, so start at the ends!

Chord C: The note G fits with both I and V.

Chord B: The note A fits with II and IV.

This means that there are two possible cadences: chords B and C could be II-V (imperfect) or IV-I (plagal).

Chord A: The note B fits with only chord V.

So, for the first progression, A=V, B=II and C=V or as an alternative, A=V, B=IV and C=I.


In the second progression, again we start at the end:

Chord E: The note C fits with chord I, but not chord V.

(If chord E is I, then chord D can only be V (perfect cadence) or IV (plagal cadence).)

Chord D: The note B fits with V. 

So for the second progression, D=V and E=I.


Here's another question, this time a little more complicated:

suggest-chords 0 0suggest-chords 0 1suggest-chords 0 2suggest-chords 0 3suggest-chords 0 4suggest-chords 0 5

See if you can work it out for yourself, then hover your mouse (or tap on mobile devices) over each bracket to check if you (and your reasoning!) were right! 


* "always" refers to "in the grade 5 music theory exam". In real life, non-chord notes sometimes also fall on the beat, but this is covered in grade 6 and above.



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