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A turnaround progression is a series of chords whose most important characteristic is to circle back to the starting point, allowing the music to continue on rather seamlessly. These kinds of progressions are quite common, having been in use for centuries, though they weren’t known by their colloquial term “turnaround.” In fact, though jazz often gets the credit for introducing the turnaround, composers from as far back as the Baroque era were using them (Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D, for example).
In common usage by today’s songwriters, the turnaround refers mainly to the latter part of a progression whose main attribute is to “turn the phrase around”, and get it back seamlessly to the starting point.
The turnaround is the bringing together of two important characteristics:
- It is harmonically strong, often using a circle-of-fifths sequence of chords.
- It turns back to the beginning by ending on a non-tonic chord (particularly if the first chord of the next phrase is tonic), allowing for another play-through of the progression. This characteristic is known as a melded cadence.
A melded cadence means that a chord that serves as the end of a progression also serves as the start of a new one. So a melded cadence allows two musical phrases to overlap. This is an important feature of the turnaround.
Turnarounds are strong progressions, by which I mean that as they progress, they seem to point unambiguously to the tonic chord as being the most important. The circle-of-fifths progression is a very strong progression, and that’s why we see it so often in turnaround examples. Turnarounds can be the short progression that gets tagged on to the end of a larger progression, but can also be the entire progression itself (“Heart and Soul” is a good model of this.) Any progression that uses consecutive chords whose roots move by 4ths or 5ths will be the basis for a strong progression.
Music theory tells us that a IV-chord moving to a V-chord strongly points to the tonic chord as being the likely harmonic goal, so IV to V is also strong. Pachelbel’s Canon makes use of circle-of-fifths characteristics as well as the IV-V-I cadence.
I V vi iii IV I IV V
To create your own turnarounds, simply incorporate these two crucial features: 1) Use primarily strong progressions, featuring adjacent chords whose roots are 4ths or 5ths apart; and 2) make sure that the last chord moves easily back to the first chord.
Below, I’ve listed several turnaround progressions, some which revolve about the I-chord, but others which avoid the tonic. The final chord of each progression below will move easily back to the first chord. The longer ones can serve as complete progressions, and the shorter ones will work well as turnarounds added to an existing progression.
I’ve used chord names from C major, as well as Roman numerals to indicate the chords in the following examples. If you need a refresher on how Roman numerals work, read this post.
- I vi ii V (C Am Dm G)
- I IV vii iii vi bVII bIII V7 (C F Bdim Em Am Bb Eb G7)
- I ii V vi (C Dm G Am)
- iii7 vi ii V (Em7 Am Dm G)
- vi7 bVI7 V7 I (Am7 Ab7 G7 C)
- I V7/ii ii V (C A7 Dm G)
- V/vi V/ii V/V V7 (E7 A7 D7 G7)
- I bIII7 II7 bII7 (C Eb7 D7 Db7)
- iii7 biiio ii7 V7 (Em7 Ebdim Dm7 G7)
- iiø V7 iii V7/ii (Dødim G7 Em A7)
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