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How to play chord progressions on piano

chord progressions

Have you ever listened to a song and been amazed by how the chords change and develop to form beautiful sounds and emotions? In music, we call this a chord progression. A chord progression is a series of chords performed in a particular order. In this post, we are going to discover a few different types of chords and then put them to use by learning common chord progressions.

What is a chord?

A chord is when 2 or more notes sound at the same time. Triads are the most common piano chords for beginners. Triads are made up of 3 different notes and are usually either “major” or “minor”. Major chord progressions often feel lighter and brighter while minor chord progressions generally sound darker and more sad. 

Combining both major and minor triads within piano chord progressions can help to create more interesting and compelling harmonies. This interactive tool from Chrome Labs helps understanding major and minor triads. If you are reading this from a mobile device, rotate it to display the tool in full width.

If you are reading this from a mobile device, rotate it to display the tool in full width.

Piano chord progressions: Major Triads

Major triads are made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of the Major scale. Let’s use the C Major triad as an example. The C Major Scale is spelled C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. This means a C Major Triad is spelled C, E, G

Take a look at the lesson Paparazzi & super hit chords and play a C Major triad with your right hand. The C major triad is the first chord being played. You can recognize the C Major chord by the letter ‘C’ written above it. When playing triads, it helps if you raise your index and ring fingers a little so that they are out of the way.

When playing triads, it helps if you raise your index and ring fingers a little so that they are out of the way.

Test out G major

Before we move on, let’s try two more major triads: G Major and F Major. Don’t worry if you don’t know every note in the scale! We’re only going to play the basic piano chords, not the scales. The G major scale is spelled G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. This means the G major triad is spelled G, B, D. The G major triad is the second chord being played. You can recognize the G major triad by the letter ‘G’ written above the notes.

And let’s try F major!

The F major scale is spelled F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F and so the F major triad is spelled F, A, C. The F major triad is the fourth chord being played. You can recognize the F Major triad by the letter ‘F’ written above the notes on the score.

A quick trick to learn chords

There is an easy way to quickly find any major chord without having to know or think about a scale: play the “root” note of the chord – that’s the note that has the same name as the chord. Let’s make a C major chord, so play C. Now count up 4 notes, including both black and white notes. Play the 4th note, which is E. Hold down the C and the E and count up another 3 notes (black and white) and play the 3rd note which is G. Did you get it right?  

You can make ANY major chord with this little trick to learn to play piano. Try starting on a different note and create another major chord. Likewise, you can make a minor chord in the same way by counting up 3 notes followed by 4 notes.

Minor Chord Progressions

Minor triads are made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the minor scale. This time let’s use A Minor as an example. The A minor scale is spelled A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. This means that an A minor triad is spelled A, C, E.

Let’s have another look at the Paparazzi & super hit chords. You can recognize the A minor chord by the letters ‘Am’ written above the treble clef.

So now you can now play 3 different major triads and 1 minor triad. But is this enough to make a chord progression on the piano? Yes! In fact, the chords you have learned make up one of the most commonly used progressions in all of popular music! 

I – V – vi – IV chord progression

Now before we put this progression into action, you may have a few questions. Why the Roman numerals? This is just a musical tradition that is still used today. Writing the progression as 1 – 5 – 6 – 4 would hold exactly the same meaning.

What do the numbers mean? Each number corresponds to a chord. For example, in the key of C major, the I chord is C major, the V chord is G major, the vi chord is A minor, and the IV is F major:

Scale of C major

 

C Major Chord progression

I – V – vi – IV in songs

Here are two more songs that the chord progression is used in.

“Let it Be”- The Beatles

Go to the lesson

“No Woman, No Cry”- Bob Marley

Go to the lesson

Chord Symbols

When composers and musicians write out chords, they often use chord symbols. This makes things quicker and easier, as it saves you having to read the chords as individual notes.

Here are some examples of chord symbols below:

Chord                     Symbol

C Major Triad             C

G Major Triad           G

F Major Triad            F

A Minor Triad           Am

In many songs, the chord symbols appear above the treble clef. In the example below, each chord lasts for 2 counts.

 

Chord progressions - Let It Be

Sad Chord Progressions

Chord progressions have many emotional characteristics and associations. One of the most sad and melancholic chord progressions is called the I – vi – IV – V. It looks like this with chord symbols:
Sad Chord Progressions

This chord progression is everywhere is music, from 1950’s doo-wop styles to contemporary pop and rock tunes.

How to write sad progressions

Here are some tips for writing sad chord progressions:

  • Move between different minor chords. For example, move between D minor and A minor.
  • Don’t use too many major chords
  • Listen to sad songs for inspiration

Common Chord Progressions

Here are some examples of the most common chord progressions in music:

  • I – IV – V. In the key of C major, this means C major – F major – G major.
  • I – V – vi – IV. In the key of G major, this means G major – D major – E minor – C major.
  • ii – V – I. In the key of F major, this means G minor – C major – F major.
  • vi – IV – I – V. In the key of C major, this means A minor – F major – C major – G major.
  • I – IV – vi – V. In the key of G major, this means G major – C major – E minor – D major.

4 rules for chord progressions

Here are some common rules for chord progressions. Obviously, these are not hard and fast rules, but they are fairly common in  music.

  • Choose an easy key to start with.
  • Check your resolutions. Not every progression needs to be resolved perfectly. Many progressions sound better when left open-ended. But many progressions sound best when resolved to the I chord.
  • Follow common chord progressions until you master them. Then try to find ways to tweak them by changing major chords to minor or vice versa.
  • Trust your ears.

Final words

Make sure that you play around more with the common chord progressions you have just learned. Once you have done this, try working your way through the Chords & Scales course. Here you can learn many more chords and common chord progressions. Get creative with them and acquire the skills to accompany hundreds of songs. Enjoy!

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Author of this blog post

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

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