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3 minutes reading time (574 words)

Playing Contemporary Pop

A piece of music can be centered around a key note, but have less of a feeling of a "western" chord progression. Contemporary pop pieces often use ambiguous chords and their harmonic structures can be based on modes rather than scales.

If you start with a scale of C, you can build modes on each note of the scale, like this:

Each mode has whole step/half step relationships. One of the most common and popular modes in contemporary pop is the Mixolydian mode, where the pattern is:

A Mixolydian mode is the same as a major scale, except for one very important point—the seventh note is "flattened" (lowered by half a step).

When you build chords on the degrees of a mode, you can end up with intriguingly different chords to use. Here are chords built on G Mixolydian:

When you harmonize a piece using G Mixolydian mode, you often find that the chords above are used. The contemporary pop piece in this lesson uses chords of G, Em, C, and F. The F chord is the giveaway!

Open chords

If a chord has a root and a fifth, but no third, it is neither major nor minor and is often described as an "open" chord. It can also be referred to as a "5" chord because it only contains a perfect fifth above the root note. Here is a series of G5 chords, with the bass note shifting to create mysterious, ambiguous chords:

G5 is quite a close relation to G2, where there is a major second (instead of a major third) above the root note. If you add an A to the G5 chord, the effect is still "open," still ambiguous:

Now we can try some typical contemporary pop right hand figures where the chords above, sometimes G5 sometimes G2, are split into a two-note, one-note pattern:

Apart from the G5 chords with shifting bass notes, the contemporary pop piece you are going to play has a very striking chord progression that uses the following chords:

  • C/F is a "split" chord—a C major chord with an F bass note
  • CaddD/E is a first inversion chord of C with an added D
  • D7sus (or D7sus4) is a dominant-seventh chord with a suspended fourth instead of a third

Notice how the "re-voicing"of the chords in a lower octave creates a quite different effect. Play around with the notes of the chords above, rearranging them and spacing them differently to see if you can find other combinations you like.

7 chords - just a reminder...

A dominant-seventh chord (7) is made up of a root note, a major third, a perfect fifth, and a minor seventh:

As mentioned above, a 7sus chord has the third of the chord substituted with a perfect fourth. So D7sus is D, G, A, and C.

The contemporary pop piece you are about to play ("For Me," shown at right) uses a pedal note (D) played above or below the melody—this is like the ringing of open strings on a guitar. Use the pedal to make the sound ring on still more.

For further listening, investigate Bruce Hornsby and Ben Folds Five.


"For Me" by Christopher Norton. © 2012, Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers. Used by Permission.

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