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Home > Progressions > Resolution

Chord Resolution in Guitar Chord Progressions

In its simplest terms, chord resolution is about bringing a chord journey (the chord progression) "home", usually back to where you began the progression. This is often referred to as a cadence.

Resolution is one function that gives songs a sense of purpose and meaning. You can often hear when a chord sounds "unresolved", because it holds a lot of tension (for example, a diminished chord). Similarly, you should be able to hear when a progression sounds resolved, because of the satisfying, relaxed feel you get from bringing the journey to an end.

It's not just about ending a song though, as resolution can often appear at the end of an intermediary musical phrase. In this lesson we'll be looking at the basics of resolution, hopefully training your ear to sense when it can be used.

Video Introduction

Chord resolution basics - the tension-resolution dynamic

Resolution in a chord progression comes out of tension. Without tension, or a feeling of being "away from home", there is no resolution to be made.

This tension can be heard as being unresolved. It leaves you with a hanging feeling, as if there's no closure to a given chord sequence. Of course, that may be the sound you want, but it's good to know your options.

So, let's start with some audio examples to help us get an ear for this tension-resolution sound.

The most common is the relationship between the dominant (5) and tonic (1) of a major key progression.

For example: B7 (V) - E major (I) - click to hear

Hear how the V chord provides a natural air of tension before resolving to the tonic I chord. A very common relationship, used in nearly all genres of music.

Typically, a chord progression would lead up to that dominant 5 chord, preparing the journey for its return home. A signpost, if you will. This is a good analogy to think about (which is why I always use it!).

There are also various ways to enhance this V tension, by modifying the chord built on that position. You can learn some of these variations in the dominant chord lesson, but here's an example of how we can deepen the tension of that V chord by using an augmented 7th chord. This time in a different key (but the V - I relationship is the same, remember)...

Gaug7 (V) - C major (I) - click to hear

Jazz commonly uses the augmented 7th as a tension chord before resolving.

This relationship also works with minor key progressions. So now a minor chord is our tonic "home" chord to which we resolve. The only difference is our "home" is a little less warm and happy!...

A7 (V) - D minor (i) - click to hear

I hope you're really letting this tension-resolution sound sink in. It's a sound you'll eventually be able to hear in your head when writing songs. You'll have the option to use it based on intituition - when it feels right to use it.

Another natural "tension chord" commonly used prior to resolution is the diminished chord and its variants. In the diatonic scale mapped out in the songwriting section, the diminished chord's natural place is one half step down from the major tonic chord. The diminished chord in this position is known as the leading tone chord (7).

Another name for this chord is a "leading chord", because it has a tendency to resolve (or lead) up to the tonic.

Bdim (vii) - C major (I) - click to hear

Commonly, the bass (root) note of the V chord in the same scale will move from its natural V position up to the vii position to enhance this "leading" resolution.

So you should now have a basic grasp of what constitutes chord resolution. Experiment with it in your own time. The two main examples we've looked at (V - I  and vii - I) are by no means the only forms of resolution, and others will become clear as we progress through other lessons in the songwriting section.

Enhancing the tonic chord resolution

So we looked at some ways in which we can enhance tension chords, but we can also enhance the resolved chord to reaffirm its resolution and really bring the progression home. This technique is most commonly used at the end of a song, or to mark the end of a section of a song.

In both major and minor key progressions, we have various options as far as modifying and extending the tonic chord to really bring the progression home. It's like a big finale that shouts "welcome home!!".

The chord theory section shows you how to form extended chords for use in this way.

Some examples would be...

Eadd6 - click to hear

A9 - click to hear

Cmaj9 - click to hear

Or for a "big" minor tonic (where the welcome home is less... welcoming!)

Abm13 - click to hear

EmM9 - click to hear

That last one (a minor major 9th chord) has an especially distinctive flavour. If you're familiar with James Bond films, that's what you'll most likely associate it with!

Listen out for chord resolution as you learn...

As you work your way through the chord progression section of this site, listen out for the chord resolution effect. I'll most likely point them out as we find them, but it's good to get an ear for this dynamic independently.

For example, there will be a lesson on "backdoor cadences" which will add a new resolution path to your songwriting options. It's up to you which path you take, but the resolution function is invaluable as it can help bring even the most wandering chord journeys home and naturally resolve even the most unconventional progressions.

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