Composing with Common Tone Progressions...

When I am working with an upper-end Intermediate student, or with one of my Advanced guitar students I always emphasize the importance of chord knowledge. 

Through a wide range of styles good chord knowledge can offer the guitarist a way to elaborate on any piece of music.

Once the basic chord foundation has been developed and several more advanced chords are being constructed on the neck, (and used in progressions), I like to introduce an exercise that will promote the students chord and composition skills even further.

The chord study that I like to use revolves around a technique known as, "Common Tones." If you're unfamiliar with this term, it simply means that a chord tone is being shared between two or more chords. 

Composers will often use the 'Common Tone' principle to smoothly connect two harmonically related chords. The most popular use of this concept is to apply the upper-most tone of one or more chord shapes as the common tone.

Take a moment to learn how to play the arpeggiated chords found in exercise one. The top chord tone of these two chords is the 'common tone' of, "E." It is applied between the two measures as the first guitar string played open.

Listen to the audio for exercise one, then practice the music /TAB notation for the chord changes given below.


As you can tell, the sound is easy for us to connect to. The use of the common tone allows us to relate the two chords without any objection. 

Of course, the chords found within the exercise are both from the same key signature, (Key of C). The "C Major (add2)" chord is the tonal center chord of our key. And, the "F Maj7" is the fourth chord of our key. It therefore goes without saying that these two chords would blend well together without our ears objecting with the common tone enhancing this effect.

However, where practicing an exercise using "Common Tones," becomes even more interesting is when the chord progressions begin to introduce unrelated chords. 

In exercise two, I have what is more or less a very diatonic chord progression in the key of, "D Minor." But, there is one unrelated chord in the phrase. It is the, "Bm7(b5)." 

Normally, it would be quite difficult to insert this chord into the key of "D Minor." In this case, the application of the "Common Tone" principle actually allows this unique chord to function within the progression without objection.

Listen to the audio for exercise two, then practice the music /TAB notation for the chord changes given below.


My final exercise applies the common tone idea within the key of, "C# Minor." The tonal center chord is performed as an extended chord of, "C#m11." The upper chord tone of "F#" is the eleventh extension and will be followed up by a "Secondary Dominant" chord built off of the 6th degree of the key. This give us an, "A dominant seventh."

Normally, the 6th degree of the key of "C# Minor" would not have access to the "F#" tone. However, by extending the harmony out to a thirteenth chord we can reach the "F#" and provide the Common Tone between both chords. The end result is that of, "C#m11" moving to "A13." Both of these chord voicings contain the tone of, "F#."

Just to spice up the chord progression even further I've introduced some sections of the, "C# Minor Pentatonic Scale." These notes will be acting as passing licks to link the independent chords.

Listen to the audio for exercise three, then practice the notation for the chord changes given below.


As you can tell, the concept of introducing connecting tones into a chord study routine will allow for each chord to have a number of different directions. Chord arrangements can take on very interesting sounds when harmonically related chords are used via Connecting Tones.

In the early days of working with this "Common Tone" practice concept, it may be somewhat challenging to find chord types that will function well as 'Connecting Tone' chords. 

As your chord knowledge increases, so will your ability to quickly discover interesting chords to provide sufficient tension and release to create more structured chord progressions.

If you just take your time, keep a good chord book or chord app handy, and work diligently at creating interesting underlying harmony shifts between chords - over time your knowledge will continue to expand along with your composing and arranging skills.

Thanks for reading this week's Blogger post and Happy New Year.

- Andrew Wasson