Chords are the bedrock of most of the music we listen to today. They can convey specific emotions, give a sense of structure or direction to a piece of music, or simply color a given tune.
Like most things in music, however, this is largely dependent on context. In other words, the effect that a particular chord has within a song depends more on what happens before and after the chord, and less on the chord itself. We refer to this context as a chord progression, which happens to be the main topic of this article.
By the end of this article, you’ll learn in more detail what chord progressions are, tips for playing, reading, and learning chord progressions on piano, common chord progressions, and much more. So, without further ado, let’s begin!
What are chord progressions?
Before we continue, let’s recall that a chord is simply a collection of pitches — usually between 3 and 5 — that, when played simultaneously, act as a harmonic unit. For instance, the pitches C, E, and G, form together the C major chord. If you’re feeling rusty on piano chords, however, feel free to read this article first, and then come back for more.
To start, we can define a chord progression (also called harmonic progression) as a sequence of chords, ordered one after another. Notice that order is important here since, as was mentioned earlier, the effect that a chord can have depends largely on what happens before and after it appears. Consider, for instance, the following chord progression
Here we have a progression consisting of 4 chords, C major, F major, G major, and C major again. There’s a few things worth mentioning here:
- A chord progression can have chord repetitions or no repetitions at all — in this case, the repeated chord is C major.
- Chord progressions are often in a specific key. In this case, the progression is in the key of C major.
- As you’ll soon be able to see, the number of chords in a chord progression can vary greatly, but are usually between 4 and 8 chords long.
- Chord progressions often have a clear sense of direction (hence the word progression in the name). More precisely, we can think of progressions as an interaction between moments of release and tension. Play it and try to pay attention to the amount of tension and release that each chord brings!
How do chord progressions work?
As was mentioned earlier, progressions can be described as an interplay between release and tension. In the previous example, the sense of release is provided by the C major chord, the sense of tension is provided by the G major chord, while the F major chord simply acts as a transitional chord between C major and G major.
How do progressions work? Well, while an in-depth explanation is far beyond the scope of this article, let’s take a look at some of the key concepts. Consider the following two examples:
All available triads in C major
All available triads in G major
Above, are all the triads available within the C major and G major keys, respectively. Notice that, although the chord names shown at the bottom of each graph are different for each key, the labels shown at the top are the same: The first chord in both keys is I, the second one ii, the third one iii, and so on. These labels, also known as roman numerals, are an alternative and convenient way of notating chords, because they tell us how chords relate to each other regardless of which key the progression is in. Before we delve deeper, here are some of the most important things to keep in mind about roman numeral notation:
- Major and minor chords are differentiated through capitalization. In other words, major chords are written in uppercase roman numerals, while minor chords are written in lowercase roman numerals. For instance, in the key of C major, the D minor chord is labeled as ii, meaning it’s the second chord of the key, and it’s minor.
- Diminished chords are labeled in lowercase, but have an additional circle at the top, to differentiate them from minor triads. For instance, the F sharp diminished chord in the G major key is labeled viiº, meaning it is the seventh chord of the key, and it’s diminished.
- In later examples we will find that some chords are labeled with a flat sign before the roman numeral (e.g., bVI). This essentially tells us that the chord’s root is a half step lower, relative to how it would be in a major key. Let’s consider the following example
All available triads in A harmonic minor piano scale
In the key of A minor, the F major would be notated as bVI. This is because, in A major, the sixth chord would be F# minor (labeled as vi), so bVI tells us that F major is a major chord, and its root is a half step lower than it would be in a major key.
Although roman numeral notation might understandably seem difficult or confusing at the beginning, it’s an extremely useful tool and will allow you to more easily recognize and gain a deeper understanding of piano chord progressions, regardless of the key they’re in!
Now, coming back to the topic of tension and release, let’s dig deeper. In most western music, specifically in tonal music, chords can play one of three roles: tonic, pre-dominant, or dominant.
- Tonic: Tonic chords are those that provide a sense of release or closure. They are usually placed at the beginning and/or end of chord progressions.
- Dominant: Dominant chords are those that provide a sense of tension or unrest. They are often used as the climax of a musical phrase.
- Pre-dominant: predominant chords play a transitional role between tonic and dominant chords.
To keep things less abstract, here’s a cheat sheet for both major and minor keys:
As you can see, each chord is notated in roman numerals to show that these rules apply regardless of which key we’re in. For each role or function (i.e., tonic, pre-dominant, or dominant) there are 2 to 3 options, in order of preference. For instance, in a major key, I is a stronger tonic than vi, and vi is stronger tonic than iii.
Now, if this still seems too abstract or complex, don’t worry! you’ll soon be able to use this to create your own chord progressions and, eventually, your own songs!
Tips for playing chord progressions on piano
To quickly get used to playing chord progressions on piano, we recommend the following steps:
- Decide in which key you want to play the chord progression.
- Identify the notes of each chord in the progression, including its root. The root will be played by the left hand, to ensure it’s the lowest-sounding note of the chord.
- Choose a comfortable fingering for each chord, and optionally try to minimize the amount of movement between chord changes. This will make it easier to play and will also make the chord progression sound more fluid and smooth.
- Play it from beginning to end, first at a very slow tempo, and then at the tempo you would like it to be in.
Now try these steps with the following progression, notated in roman numerals:
Here’s the same progression in three different keys:
I–iii–vi–V–I chord progression in C major
I–iii–vi–V–I chord progression in D major
I–iii–vi–V–I chord progression in F major key
Notice that these are just a few out of many possible versions of these progressions. You might have chosen a different register for each chord, but the progression itself is still the same!
Common chord progressions
Now it’s time to look at some of the most common chord progressions, which you can incorporate into your daily piano practice.
I–IV–V chord progression
I–V–vi–IV chord progression
ii–V–I chord progression
I–IV–vi–V chord progression
How to write and play common chord progressions
A great way to practice common chord progressions, is to play them in different keys. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it:
- Either choose one of the progressions above or write your own progression in roman numeral notation. Feel free to use the cheat sheet from earlier if you want to write it yourself.
- Choose a key, and write down the corresponding chords for each.
- Play the progression with the fingering of your choosing. Feel free to review the tips for playing chord progressions.
- Go back to step 2 to practice the same progression in a different key, or back to step 1 to try a different progression.
How to read and understand chord symbols
So far we’ve been focusing on reading roman numerals, but let’s take a moment to better understand how to read chord symbols. This is by far the easiest and simplest one of the two.
When reading chord symbols, pay attention to the following features:
- All chords start with the name of the triad root. For instance, G stands for the G major chord, F for the F major chord, and so on.
- Minor chords have a lowercase m after the chord name. For instance, Gm stands for the G minor chord, C#m stands for the C# minor chords, etc.
- Major chords may optionally be notated with an uppercase M after the note name. For instance, G major could be notated as either G or GM.
- Some chord symbols may have numbers at the end. These numbers refer to added notes or extensions. For instance, G7 stands for a G major seventh chord, Fm7 stands for an F minor seventh chord, and so on.
Take for instance, this progression in Michael Jackson’s Heal the world, available as a lesson through the Skoove app:
I–ii–iii–ii chord progression
Please note that the lesson is also available on the mobile app
Popular chord progressions
Not all chord progressions are created equal — some are more ubiquitous than others, and not only come up more often in music but can sometimes be strongly associated with specific popular music styles or genres, like rock music. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Although this progression is extensively used in many kinds of music, it’s most commonly associated with jazz harmony. Try playing it these two version and see if it reminds you of any song:
ii-V-I chord progression
ii7-V7-I7 chord progression
The 12-bar blues is another, perhaps even more, recognizable progression. This progression was particularly popular during the 50’s, but still crops up in all styles of music. Some of the many well known songs that use this pattern are: Rock and Roll Music by The Beatles, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2, and Hound Dog by Elvis Presley. Feel free to play it yourself:
12-bar blues chord progression
This progression is also featured in plenty of songs, including pop music hits like Taylor Swift’s Clean or Aerosmith’s Cryin’. Give it a try and see if it brings any other pop songs to mind.
I–V–vi–IV chord progression
Also known as the 50s progression, this chord progression is used by Elton John in Crocodile Rock, as well as by Avril Lavigne in Complicated. Try it yourself!
I–vi–IV–V chord progression
This progression is most common to find in Classic Rock. Different from the previous progressions, this one has what we call a ‘borrowed’ chord. This simply means that, even though it’s a major key progression, we find the bVII chord, which is being ‘borrowed’ from the minor key. Popular examples of this include the final section of Hey Jude by The Beatles, or the verse in Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine.
I–bVII–IV–I chord progression
Although this progression is sometimes associated with Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it’s one of the most common chord progression in popular music as well. Some relatively recent examples include Maroon 5’s song Memories, Belle and Sebastian’s Get me away from here I’m dying. If you’re in the mood for some musical comedy, make sure to check this old viral rant about Pachelbel’s canon:
Happy piano chord progressions
Chord progressions can convey many emotional characteristics and associations. One of the most well known progressions is the I–vi–IV–V progression, characterized by its bright and upbeat character, which may be commonly associated with happiness. Try playing it at the piano:
‘Happy’ chord progression
This progression is everywhere in music, from 1950’s doo-wop styles to contemporary pop and rock tunes. It also happens to be used in Eric Idle’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, which you can learn through the Skoove app.
Please note that the lesson is also available on the mobile app
Sad chord progressions
The type of emotion that piece of music conveys is highly subjective and dependent on many factors, including the listener’s life experiences, mood, culture, etc. This is especially the case when trying to pin down what makes a chord progression ‘sad’.
For instance, although major keys tend to be associated with happiness and minor keys with sadness, this is by no means an absolute. One clear example of this is Radiohead’s No surprises, a rather depressing song written in a major key. Here’s the progression of the verse:
Chord progression from Radiohead’s No surprises
Progressions like this brings us back to the initial point of the article: Music is all about context! In this case, the slow tempo, gloomy lyrics, and lullaby-like character of the song subvert the usual assumption of “major key equals happy”.
Final thoughts on chord progressions
In this article we looked at different chord progressions, what they are, how they work, and helpful tips for writing, reading, and playing them on the piano. Although it’s certainly a challenging topic to understand, knowing how to write chord progressions is a highly rewarding skill!
Now that you’ve come this far, all you need to know is get in the habit of practicing them by incorporating your favorite chord progressions into your routine. Once you feel more comfortable, try working your way through the Chords & Scales course. This will help you expand your music knowledge, and teach you other common chord progressions. Get creative with them and acquire the skills to accompany hundreds of songs. Happy playing and until next time!
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