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Victoria Williams

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Figured Bass Lesson 5: Common Progressions

Grade 7 Music Theory Q1, Adding a Figured Bass. Lesson 5: Common Progressions

Music composed in the era we are studying followed standard patterns of chords, known as "progressions". Lots of different melodies can be composed using the same chord pattern. (This is also true of modern pop music, but the chord patterns common in pop music are not always the same as those used in classical.)

Chord patterns are important to know, because if you need to choose between two possible chords, you should always choose the most likely chord (in the grade 7 exam).



Use a standard cadence whenever there is pause in the music, and at the end of any phrases.

A pause can be marked with a fermata (pause symbol), with a double barline, with a long held chord, or even with a rest in all parts.

However, the end of a phrase might not be marked in any special way – you will need to work out the phrases based on the melody and any sequences. For example, the melody might be built from a 2-bar rhythm which is repeated at different pitches. The end of the phrase could happen in bar 4 and/or bar 8, (bars 4 and 8 are always a good place to look!)

The standard cadences are the perfect (V-I), plagal (IV-I), imperfect (anything – V) and interrupted (V-VI). In a minor key, chord V in a cadence is always major and will need the third raised by a semitone.


VI-II-V-I (The Incomplete Circle of 5ths)

Each degree of the scale has its own dominant.

Let's take the key of C major. Starting on the tonic (C), the dominant is G. Starting on G, the dominant is D. If we carry on in the same way, we get this: C-G-D-A-E-B-F#. Each note in this sequence is the dominant of the previous note. (You could keep on going, but Baroque/Classical composers generally didn't!)

Of these, the first 4 chords (I-V-ii-vi) are seen the most often in a progression – but in reverse order. So, the progression we frequently see is vi-ii-V-I. Any "dominant" could also have a 7th added on to it, so you could find ii7-V-I, or ii-V7-I, for example. (Avoid V7 at a cadence though). As dominants, they can be found in their major or minor forms.

Here is an example, the key is G major:


The notes in the bass line and melody allow us to use the circle of fifths progression vi-ii-V7-I, figured like this: (the inner parts are shown for reference only)


Chord Ic

The second inversion tonic chord needs to be used with care. It can only be used

• in a cadential 6-4

• in a passing 6-4

• in an auxiliary 6-4

Remember that if you use a 6-4 chord, you need to write out the figures of the 5-3 chord which follows in in full (i.e. don't leave the figure blank).

A cadential 6-4 is the chord progression Ic-Va, and it is often (but not always) found, as the name suggests, at a cadence. Remember that a cadence is expected when the music pauses for a moment, at the end of a phrase or the end of a piece. In a cadential 6-4, the Ic chord always falls on a strong beat.

Chords Ic and Va have the same bass note. You can spot a place where a 6-4 progression will work by checking that the bass note is the same for two different successive chords. A long note might be used which covers both chords, there may be a repeated note, or there may be an octave difference. All of these bass lines would fit a Ic-Va progression:


A passing 6-4 happens when the bass line moves by step. The 6-4 chords falls on a weak beat in this case. (The 6-4 chord acts like a passing note). An auxiliary 6-4 also occurs on a weak beat, and is found when the bass note is an auxiliary note (a note which is one scale-step between two identical notes).

In fact, it's quite rare that you will need to use either a passing or auxiliary 6-4 in this question. Unless you are sure about using them correctly, it's safer to avoid them. However, cadential 6-4's are very likely to come up, so make sure you know how they work!




The chord which happens immediately before a cadential 6-4 is very often iib. This is because the bass line moves by step, and it sounds nice!

It is worth remembering the cadential 6-4 as a longer sequence of iib-Ic-Va-Ia. Here is an example:


And here it is with the figures (and inner parts for reference):



Chord VII is a "substitute dominant". Because it contains 3 of the same notes as chord V7, it can be used in many of the same places where V7 works. However, you shouldn't use it at a cadence – only chord V should be used in a proper perfect cadence. It is best to always follow VII by I.



In a major key, chord iii is minor. It is not used very often, but can be found before chord vi as part of the circle of 5ths.

In a minor key, only a major chord III can be used (meaning that the leading note is not sharpened.) For example, in A minor, the leading note G is not sharpened to G# in chord III, the chord is C-E-G, a C major chord. Chord III is the relative major, and so is often found with the dominant chord in the relative major key, which is a major chord VII. So in A minor, you can find C major (III) with G major (VII). III also works with ii°b in a minor key, taking the modality back to the relative major.


V7 - Modulation

If the music changes key, chord V7 in the new key makes the modulation stronger.

Look carefully at the key signature at the start, and analyse what is happening in the melody. The addition of accidentals usually means a key change is taking place (although they can also be normal scale notes in a minor key, or simply added for decoration – check carefully).
Here is an example. The original key is D major, but at this point several G#s have been introduced. This tells us that the piece must be modulating to A major (to the dominant key). The last given chord (shaded) is Vb in the new key:


The next chord (with the first asterisk) would also fit with chord V in A major (root position), however as the music is changing key it would be much more satisfactory to use V7 instead. This would be followed by chord VIa (F# minor) (remember that V7 is usually followed only by I or VI).

This is how the figures look:


The root position 7th chord is notated with "7", but because the third of the chord has been sharpened (G#) we also have to add a sharp sign underneath. (Remember that accidentals which are written without a number always refer to the third above the bass). The next chord is left unfigured, as it is a 5-3 chord.


Summary of Progressions

Here is a brief summary of good progressions (many other progressions are allowed, but these are the most likely to fit!)

I > anything but avoid III

IIa > V

IIb > Ic

III > VII, ii°b

IV > I, V

V > I or VI





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