Understanding the Maps
The maps are groupings of chords that work well together, arranged in a way that encourages exploring and playing chord progressions.
Years ago, while teaching young piano students, I began searching for a way to make the basic principles of songwriting and chord progression theory more accessible to them. I decided to draw locations, each location representing a chord, on a piece of paper.
The I chord was "Home" and I drew a small picture of a house. The V chord was the "Post Office," and I drew another small building to represent it. The IV chord was the "Donut Shop," and so on. I explained to the students that they could start at "Home" and take a trip that would visit some of these other places. Then they could work their way back home again.
I also made the decision to use "gravity" in the maps. I placed the I chord (Home) at the bottom of the picture. I told the students they could jump from the I chord anywhere they wanted, but after jumping, they should allow gravity to pull them back toward the I chord again.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Mugglin
Although the idea was interesting, students grow up more quickly sometimes than ideas, and the maps remained mostly a personal project. They grew more complex over time, as concepts were added to them, and some of the maps were duplicated and marketed in a limited way.
Eventually the web came along, and I realized it would be easier to put the maps on the internet where others could easily read about them or print them off. So the website "Music Theory for Songwriters" was introduced at Chordmaps.com.
The web descriptions allowed the maps to be seen and shared, but they were still silent, and I pictured the day when someone could touch a location on the map and hear the chord being played.
The first playable version was created in Liberty Basic for computers running Windows. The program, called "Yours To Play It," was mouse-driven, and was a step forward, but when Apple began using touchscreen interfaces, the vision shifted in that direction.
Our first touchscreen app was called ChordMapMidi, but because it was on a small screen, (the early iPhone screen), there were limitations as to how many chord locations could be represented.
The iPad, with its larger screen, allows for more information to be displayed in a single view. This provided the opportunity to try again.
The maps described online at Chordmaps.com come in two versions: the Simple Map and the Big Map.
The Simple Map is an educational tool. It demonstrates one way of representing the I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi chords in a given major key. The "rules" (more accurately, "suggestions" for beginners) are to start at I, jump up anywhere into the diagram, and then allow gravity to pull you back down toward the I chord. Arrows on the chart indicate paths that sound natural and strong, and have a sense of forward momentum.
Going backwards against the arrows is encouraged, but not as often as going with the arrows. The recommendation is to go with the arrows maybe 75 or 80 percent of the time. (Of course, as the progressions become familiar, the student moves more easily from chord to chord, and the maps are not needed as much as at the beginning.)
Note: some will ask, "Isn't there also a vii diminished chord?" The answer is, "Yes, in a thorough study of music theory principles, the vii chord would be included." But I was teaching these basic songwriting ideas to young students when the maps were first being developed, and learning the concepts of major and minor seemed enough of a challenge for them. Also, by this time I had either played or looked at quite a number of pieces of music, and my overall observation was that in the world of songwriting I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi were used many thousands of times, and the number of times I had seen vii dim was much less often. So, it was a decision made for educational reasons, to simplify the challenge. (vii chords were later used as secondary chords in the Big Map.)
The Simple Map and How to Use It
"Rules" for the Simple Map
1 - Start at I.
2 - Jump anywhere up into the map.
3 - Follow the arrows back toward I.
1 - Start anywhere.
2 - Follow the arrows for a few chords.
There are two locations for "ii" and "V." Think of these locations as being connected. For example, you can enter ii or V at the bottom, and leave at the top.
The Simple Map gives an educator, student, or beginner a way of illustrating recognizable chord patterns on a two-dimensional view. For example, the following chord progressions can be "seen" as a sequence of locations on the map.
I - V - I
I - IV - I
I - IV - V - I
I - IV - I - V - I
I - V - vi - IV - I
I - ii - V - I
I - IV - ii - V - I
I - vi - IV - V - I
I - vi - ii - V - I
I - iii - IV - V - I
I - iii - vi - IV - ii - V - I
If you decide to start somewhere other than the I location, here are a few more.
vi - IV - I - V
ii - V - iii - vi
vi - IV - ii - V
iii - vi - ii - V
From an educational perspective, this has the benefit of providing a visual experience that corresponds with the audio experience of hearing a familiar chord progression played. Secondly, the diagram applies to all of the major keys, so switching from the key of C to the key of D, a change that means a lot of new hand positions if playing a chord sequence on piano or guitar, doesn't mean a change in the diagram.
Secondary chords, borrowed from other keys, can be used to lead the listener back to the familiar chords that are part of the current key.
For example, playing from I to ii (from C major to D minor in the key of C) is a common progression. But the ii chord (Dm), if you set it apart for a moment, can be temporarily thought of as the "i" chord, or the home chord, in the key of D minor. This "i" chord would have its own "V" chord in the key of D minor, which would be the A major chord. The A major chord is not part of the I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi grouping of chords we were working with while playing in the key of C, but if we wanted to add some interest and color to the chord progression, we could play a C major chord, followed by an A major chord, followed by the D minor chord. The listener might be a little surprised by the A major chord when it first comes, but they will immediately recognize the sound of A major going to D minor, and they will relax when the progression arrives back in the familiar key where we started.
Many secondary chords were added to the Simple Map to create the Big Map, and, if you are interested, you can read more about it at Chordmaps.com, but for now the main thing to understand is that the secondary chords will be to the left or right of the Simple Map, and, when you play one of them, they tend to lead back in toward the Simple Map. Here's a simplified diagram.
How the Secondary Chords are Added
"Rule" for Secondary Chords
You can use a secondary chord any time you want to, and you can jump to it from anywhere, but there will be a little bit of a surprise factor to the listener, so you might want to follow the unexpected jump with something more familiar. That's why the arrows suggest moving back toward the recognizable sounds of the main key. It isn't always necessary to go back to the main key right away, but when you are first experimenting with secondary chords, it's a good place to start.
Some of the maps in ChordMaps2 use the flow diagrams we've been discussing, but, because we wanted to use the iPad screen area well, the chord boxes have been moved close to each other and the arrows have been taken away. So when you see a map that looks a little like these diagrams, remember that the outside areas tend to flow in toward the center, and the main chords found in the center columns tend to flow down, or criss-cross back and forth, until they arrive back at the I chord.
This relates in particular to Maps 0, 5, and 8.
Maps 1, 2, and 3 are arrangements of various groupings of I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi. You can jump from chord to chord in any order you like. The principles of chord progression still apply, so if you would like to experiment with some of the chord progressions listed above (after the Simple Map), that would be a good place to begin.
Map 4 is a Blues map. Basic Blues follows the progression...
I / / / I / / / I / / / I / / /
IV / / / IV / / / I / / / I / / /
V / / / IV / / / I / / / I / / /
where each of the sections (for example, I / / /) represents one measure, or 4 beats.
The last two measures do not have to be just I chords. This section, the last two measures, is sometimes called the turnaround, because it leads back to the beginning.
Map 4 has areas for I, IV, and V, and a fourth area for playing interesting turnarounds.
Map 6 plays iim7 - V7 - IM9 - I6 progressions around the circle of fiths.
The flow is toward the center. You can choose any row to begin with, playing the iim7 chord on the outside edge first. You can then play V7 followed by one or both of the I chords. After playing ii - V - I in any given row, working from the outside in, you can then move to an adjacent row and try it again, gradually working your way around the circle of fifths.
Map 7 is an extension of the ii - V - I concept, but now there are variations for each chord. The circle of fifths has been pushed into the top left corner. You can tap on any of the named locations to choose that particular key. Then you can play ii - V - I variations in that key, choosing whichever chord variations sound best to you.
There are some extra chords above ii that can be used if you want to play VI - ii - V - I, or even IV - iii - VI - ii - V - I.
Map 9 is a melody map, but it doesn't play the melody sounds. It sends out one note at a time using the Chord sounds. This might be useful if you are playing two different sounds (like a trombone and a trumpet) that are soloing back and forth. One of the sounds could be assigned to one of the Melody Sounds (M1 or M2) and played on the melody keyboard, and the other sound could be assigned to one of the Chord Sounds (C1 or C2) and played on Map 9.
Full size iPad or iPad Pro recommended
The Simpler Explanation
The Technical Explanation