For any major or minor key, you can build a chord on top of each note of its scale. That gives you seven chords that naturally exist for every key. If you do that with C major, for example, you get the following chords:
- I: C
- ii: Dm
- iii: Em
- IV: F
- V: G
- vi: Am
- vii: Bdim
Of those chords, Bdim is used the least in pop songs. It may surprise you to know that the next in line for least used naturally-occurring (called “diatonic”) chord is the iii-chord: Em.
I’m not really sure why it’s used so infrequently, but here’s a likely reason: If you consider that most progressions use parts of the circle of fifths, the Em chord takes you furthest from the logical end of that progression (not counting the Bdim chord) as it makes its way back to the I-chord.
But it’s an absolutely gorgeous chord when used well. So in case the only reason you’re not using a iii-chord more is because you don’t know how to get to it, or what direction to go once you’ve used it, here are some progressions to try:
1. C Dm F Em Am G C G (I ii IV iii vi V I V)
In this one, the Em is approached by step from above, and then does what’s probably most logical: moves to the chord that’s a 4th higher: Am. Example: “Love So Right” (Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb)
2. C Em F G C (I iii IV V I)
This progression is surprisingly common for ones that use an Em at all. (As a slight aside, iii-IV in pop music is a common progression, and I’m often fond of reminding people how much classical and pop make use of the same progressions. But in this case, however, iii-IV is relatively rare in classical repertoire.) Example: “Crocodile Rock” (Elton John, Bernie Taupin).
3. Em Am Em C Am F G7 (iii vi iii I vi IV V7)
In this progression, the Em is followed typically by Am like #1 above, but then the second occurrence of the Em is followed by C – a much less common move. Example: “Hard Day’s Night” (Lennon & McCartney).
Check out the progressions below, which feature alternations of the iii-chord:
4. C F E7 Am (I IV V7/vi vi)
Here the Em is changed to E7 – a major chord with a 7th on top. This is a kind of secondary dominant, where the E7 temporarily makes the Am sound like a tonic chord.
5. C Dm Edim7 F7 (I ii vii7/IV IV7)
This one has a kind of gospel sound. The less-than-common feature of this progression is the moving from chord to chord by adjacent roots: C-D-E-F.
6. C Eb F C (I bIII IV I)
When you lower the E chord by a semitone and make it major, it’s an altered chord that acts as a good stepping-stone to the IV chord, useful in pop and rock genres. Example: “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
If you have some time and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you’ll want to give the Hook Theory Blog a read, and particularly this article. It’s very interesting, and describes the use of particular chord patterns.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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Great point on number 6. I wouldn’t have really thought of that as a iii chord, but that’s certainly what it is. I would probably think of it as a III borrowed from the parallel minor.