The Pachelbel Progression

Posted on February 29, 2016 by songtive

This time we’re going to learn about one of the most popular chord progressions ever. How popular? Well, enough to be part of these musical hits:

  • Cryin’ – Aerosmith
  • Graduation – Vitamin C
  • Basket Case – Green Day
  • Hotel California – The Eagles (a minor mode version of it)
  • Valley of the Damned – Dragonforce
  • Changes – David Bowie
  • Go West – The Village people (yep, even them)

As you can see, a wide variety of styles include this simple-yet-effective chord progression: from rock and roll, to punk rock, disco music, heavy metal, power metal, glam rock… the list is huge!

The Progression

In the 1600s, there was this popular musician called Johann Pachelbel, who made it into the musical hall of fame due to his widely known work “Canon in D”. A canon was a musical form that consisted in starting a melody and then adding up successive melodic lines based on the same harmony that the first melody created, developing a complete and quite beautiful musical effect by overlapping each line using the chord progression (i.e. underlying harmony) as an unifying element. You can listen to it by yourself:

The cello starts the melody, and the underlying harmony that comes within gives the point of entry for the first violin and the other instruments. The notes are:

||: D – A – B – F# – G – D – G – A :||

If you take the notes and understand them as the root of their own chords in the D major key, you get the following chords:

And, if we rewrite it as a chord progression chart, we get the following:

||: I – V – VI – III – IV – I – IV – V:||

This way, you can transpose it to ANY OTHER MAJOR KEY without giving yourself the trouble of figuring out the chord types, since a chord progression chart works for every key Let’s see an example in the key of A major:

Why does it work so well?

The answer lies, as Brahms said, in the bass: the motion of these roots generates a Descending 4th’s Progression (1 – V; VI – III; IV – I) which sounds good because of the logic pattern it suggests to our ears. Just check it out by listening to the cello part again at the beginning of the ‘Canon in D’!
Even when the pattern is interrupted when moving from IV to V at the end of the progression, it sounds good due to the authentic cadence pattern it creates when you repeat the progression: IV – V – I (being I the beginning of the progression all over again). This chord progression just had all the elements that make it harmonically effective!

How can I use it?

  • Enter the Songtive.com and start a new song (or for better sound quality use our iPhone/iPad/Android app)
  • At the Song preferences tab select a key – I’m using D major for discussion purpose – select a time signature and sidescroll the metronome for setting the beat
  • In the line below just input the Pachelbel Progression and press the ‘+’ button at the right
  • That’s it! You just created a Pachelbel Progression to compose or improvise over!
  • Try to land on the chord tones as they come. This is called “playing the changes” in a jazz context, and it’s a very useful resource to make wonderful melodies