Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Intermediate
16:13

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Chords
Music Style
  • R&B
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When it comes to harmonic ingenuity, we can all learn a lot from 25-time Grammy Award winning songwriter Stevie Wonder. In today’s Quick Tip, The Top 5 Stevie Wonder Chord Progressions, Jonny May explores the harmonic inner workings of 5 beloved Stevie Wonder hits. Not only will you learn how to play 5 iconic Stevie Wonder progressions on piano, you’ll also learn what makes them so unique.

Intro to Stevie Wonder Chord Progressions

One of the foundations of songwriting is learning to play a bunch of different chord progressions. That’s because chord progressions are the building blocks of popular songs. If fact, the more progressions you know, the more creative you can be.

Learning chord progressions is also a foundational skill for learning to play piano by ear. That’s because you’re much more likely to recognize chord progressions that you’ve already studied and played.

So whether you’re an aspiring songwriter or a piano student wanting to play by ear, today’s lesson is designed to expand your musical aptitude by taking cues from one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Therefore, be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. PWJ members can also easily transpose these chord progressions into any key by utilizing our Smart Sheet Music.

The Must-Know Stevie Wonder Piano Chord

Stevie Wonder’s music spans multiple genres and blends elements of jazz, blues, gospel, soul, funk, R&B and pop music. In fact, music journalist Richard Williams remarks that “Wonder appeared to have mastered every idiom of African-American popular music and to have synthesized them all into a language of his own.”¹

On the piano, Stevie’s chord choices are characterized by an expressive blend of bright and warm sound colors. One particular piano chord that epitomizes this harmonic sensibility is the dominant 9(sus4) chord which shows up in many of Stevie Wonder’s songs. An example of this chord is C9(sus4), which contains the notes C–F–G–B♭–D. Unlike regular dominant 7th chords, the dominant 9(sus4) does not contain a tritone interval because the major 3rd above the root is replaced by a perfect 4th instead. The absence of the tritone gives dominant 9(sus4) chords a less dissonant and more soulful sound. In addition, the major 9th contributes added harmonic color and complexity. Note, C9(sus4) can also be expressed with slash chord symbols such as Gm7/C or  B♭/C (when the 5th is omitted) .

 

[Tap or click the keyboard to hear the chord.👇🖱🎹🔊]

The Must Know Stevie Wonder Piano Chord

Dominant 9(sus4) chords usually resolve down by a perfect 5th, signaling a Ⅴ to Ⅰ progression. Naturally, the resolution chord can either be major or minor. In addition, dominant 9(sus4) chords can be used as secondary dominants to target non-tonic chords. The following examples allow you to compare and contrast the sound of C9(sus4) resolving to major and minor target chords.

Dominant 9(sus4) Resolution to Major

Dominant 9(sus4) Resolution to Major

Dominant 9(sus4) Resolution to Minor

Dominant 9(sus4) Resolution to Minor

Top 5 Stevie Wonder Chord Progressions with Analysis

Alright, we’re ready to listen to some of Stevie’s top hits and take a look under the hood at the chord progressions behind these classic songs. For each tune, we’ve provided a piano accompaniment groove over the chord progression in the original key. In addition, we’ve included a simplified version of each chord progression that uses chords with 3-notes only. That way, even beginner piano students can enjoy playing these amazing chord progressions!

#1 – Isn’t She Lovely

Our first chord progression comes from Stevie’s 1976 hit song “Isn’t She Lovely.” This song, which celebrates the birth of Wonder’s daughter Aisha Morris, opens Side 3 of the double LP album Songs In the Key of Life. Even though “Isn’t She Lovely” wasn’t released as a commercial single, it received wide airplay nonetheless and peaked at #23 in the U.S. on the Adult Contemporary Chart in 1977.² Stevie plays all of the instruments on the recording except for some keyboard parts supplied by Greg Phillinganes. “Isn’t She Lovely” is recorded in the key of E major.

“Isn’t She Lovely” (1976)

Songs in the Key of Life

“Isn’t She Lovely” Chord Progression

Stevie Wonder - Isn't She Lovely Chord Progression Piano

Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” features a medium fast tempo ⅵ→Ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ chord progression in E major.

The primary chord progression for “Isn’t She Lovely” uses a common ⅵ→Ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ progression. This progression is especially common in jazz music. An interesting point about this progression is that the 2-chord (F♯9) has a dominant chord quality, which gives it a secondary dominant function as the Ⅴ of Ⅴ (pronounced as “five or five”). Additionally, the primary dominant chord is expressed with a dominant 9(sus4) quality (B9sus4).

The following “chord formula” shows a simplified version of this progression using basic 3-note chords only. If you are still early on in your playing experience or if you are newer to harmonic analysis, you will find this reduction to be a bit more accessible. The orange text identifies the relationship of each chord to the primary key of E major. This analysis will enable you to reproduce the sound of this chord progression in any key. All you need to do is play a major 6-chord, a major 2-chord, and sus 5-chord and a major 1-chord.

Chord Formula
Stevie Wonder - Isn't She Lovely Chord Progression Formula

Simplified chord formula for “Isn’t She Lovely:” 6 major, 2 major, 5 sus, 1 major.

#2 – My Cherie Amour

Our second chord progression comes from Stevie’s 1969 classic “My Cherie Amour” off his 11th studio album by the same title. However, the song was first released on the B-side of the single “I Don’t Know Why,” a song from  Wonder’s previous album, For Once In My Life (1968). “My Cherie Amour” became so popular that after a few months, Motown Records re-issued the single and reversed the sides such that “My Cherie Amour” became the A-side. The song went on to become Wonder’s third top 10 hit, peaking at #4.³ The song is recorded in the key of D♭ major.

“My Cherie Amour” (1969)

My Cherie Amour

“My Cherie Amour” Chord Progression

Stevie Wonder - My Cherie Amour Chord Progression Piano

Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” features a unique chord progression that momentarily tonicizes the subtonic tone (aka: the♭7) and then quickly returns home. The chords are Ⅰ→Ⅳsus→♭Ⅶ→Ⅴsus→Ⅴ9.

The popularity and memorability of “My Cherie Amour” obscures the fact that its primary chord progression is rather uncommon. After beginning on the 1-chord in D♭ major, the harmony quickly moves to C♭ major by means of a secondary dominant 9(sus4) chord. Then, the harmony moves abruptly back to the original key just as quickly by means of another dominant 9(sus4) chord.

The following chord formula shows a simplified version of this progression using basic chords. Keep in mind that C♭ major, which is technically the proper spelling of the ♭Ⅶ chord, is enharmonically equivalent to B major.

Chord Formula
Stevie Wonder - My Cherie Amour Chord Progression Formula (Simplified)

Simplified chord formula for “My Cherie Amour:” 1 major, 4 sus, ♭7 major, 5 sus, 5 major.

#3 – I Wish

Our next chord progression comes from “I Wish,” the lead single from Stevie Wonder’s 18th studio album, Songs in the Key of Life (1976). The lyrics recall nostalgic scenes from Stevie’s childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s. The song became Stevie’s fifth #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned him a Grammy Award in 1977 for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. Songs in the Key of Life also secured the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. “I Wish” is in the key of E♭ Dorian and is immediately recognizable by virtue of its driving bass line, which was recorded by Nathan Watts.

“I Wish” (1976)

Songs in the Key of Life

“I Wish” Chord Progression

Stevie Wonder - I Wish Chord Progression Piano

Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” features a funky groove that primarily alternates between just two chords: ⅰ→Ⅳ7.

The piano groove shown above features a simplified left-hand accompaniment. However, feel free to add the running bass line which repeats the following 8 notes: E♭–G♭–A♭–B♭–A♭–C–D♭–D♮.

The chord formula below shows a simplified version of this chord progression using two triads: E♭ minor and A♭ major. In E♭ Dorian, this represents movement from a minor 1 chord to a major 4-chord. (Note: Dorian mode is a type of minor key that that features a raised 6th tone when compared to natural minor.)

Chord Formula
Stevie Wonder - I Wish Chord Progression Formula

Simplified chord formula for “I Wish:” 1 minor, 4 major.

#4 – You Are the Sunshine of My Life

Our next chord progression comes from “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” which was released in October of 1972 as the opening track on Stevie Wonder’s 15th studio album, Talking Book. The joyful love anthem gained massive appeal on the listening charts in 1973, rising to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Adult Contemporary chart, and peaking at #3 on the R&B chart.⁴ “Sunshine” also earned Wonder the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and was nominated for Song for the Year.⁵ “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is in the key B major (with a modulation up to C major near the end).

“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (1972)

Talking Book

“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” Chord Progression

Stevie Wonder - You Are the Sunshine of My Life Chord Progression Piano

Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” features a quasi-bossa nova groove over the chord progression Ⅰ→Ⅳ→ⅲ→Ⅵ→ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ→Ⅴ.

The above piano groove for “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” uses a standard bossa nova accompaniment pattern. This Latin jazz style from Brazil became popular in American in the 1960s and influenced many American pop artists and songwriters, including Stevie Wonder. This chord progression, Ⅰ→Ⅳ→ⅲ→Ⅵ→ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ→Ⅴ, features a secondary dominant in bar 4—the Ⅴ of ⅱ. Also, note the use of the dominant 9(sus4) sound in measures 6 and 8.

The simplified chord formula for “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is as follows: 1 major, 4 major, 3 minor, 6 major, 2 minor, 5 sus, 1 major, 5 sus.

Chord Formula
Stevie Wonder - You Are the Sunshine of My Life Chord Progression Formula

Simplified chord formula for “You Are the Sunshine of My Life:” 1 major, 4 major, 3 minor, 6 major, 2 minor, 5 sus, 1 major, 5 sus.

🔎 Be sure to check out John Proulx’s Quick Tip on Play You Are the Sunshine of My Life.

#5 – Ribbon in the Sky

Our final chord progression comes from “Ribbon in the Sky,” which was released in 1982 on Stevie Wonder’s greatest hits compilation album, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I. The compilation featured twelve of Stevie’s biggest hits from 1972–1980 along with four new songs, one of which was “Ribbon in the Sky.” This enduring love ballad peaked at #10 in the U.S. on the R&B charts. Essence magazine ranks “Ribbon In the Sky” at #7 in their list of “25 Best Slow Jams of All Time,” citing that “no 90’s dance or wedding was complete without this classic Stevie ballad.”⁶ The tune begins in D♭ major and modulates twice, ascending a ½ step each time.

“Ribbon in the Sky” (1982)

Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I

“Ribbon in the Sky” Chord Progression

Stevie Wonder - Ribbon In the Sky Chord Progression Piano

Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” primarily centers around three chords: ⅱ→ⅲ→Ⅵsus.

The primary chord progression from “Ribbon in the Sky” is a beautiful marriage of simplicity on sophistication. On the one hand, the whole song primarily centers around just 3 chords: ⅱ→ⅲ→Ⅵsus. On the other hand, there is some beautiful harmonic subtly behind these chords. Specifically, the B♭9(sus4) serves dual harmonic functions. Firstly, this chord sounds quite similar to B♭m11, which would be a diatonic 6-chord in D♭ major. However, B♭9(sus4), with its omitted 3rd, has a more open and ambiguous quality. The fact that this chord resolves down a perfect 5th to an E♭m chord also gives it a secondary dominant relationship as the Ⅴ of ⅱ. The ingenious part is that by using a dominant 9(sus4) quality, Stevie effectively achieves a secondary dominant sound without using any accidentals! Therefore, it truly sounds like a diatonic progression and the listener doesn’t experience any jarring chromaticism…just good vibes.

The simplified chord formula for this progression is 2 minor, 3 minor, 6 sus.

Chord Formula
Stevie Wonder - Ribbon In the Sky Chord Progression Formula

Simplified chord formula for “Ribbon in the Sky:” 2 minor, 3 minor, 6 sus.

🔎 Be sure to check out Jonny’s Quick Tip on Ribbon in the Sky: How to Solo on Piano (Beg–Adv).

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on The Top 5 Stevie Wonder Chord ProgressionsNot only can you now play these fantastic-sounding progressions, you can also understand and appreciate the refined sense of musicality that fostered them.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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¹ Williams, Richard. “Stevie Wonder.” Britannica.com, 2 Dec. 1999.

² Gallemore, Dee. “‘Isn’t She Lovely:’ Stevie Wonder’s Inspiration Behind the Song.” HubPages, The Arena Media Brands, LLC, 6 Mar. 2018.

³ “My Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder.” Songfacts.com.

⁴ Hogan, Ed. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life Review.” AllMusic.Com, Netaktion, LLC.

“Artist: Stevie Wonder.” Grammy.com, Recording Academy.

“25 Best Slow Jams of All Time.” Essence, Essence Communications Inc., 30 Oct. 2020.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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