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Understanding common chord progressions on piano

chord progression

In music, chords change and develop to form beautiful sounds and emotions. The organization of these chords can be very complex sounding, but we can actually understand them quite simply using numbers called Roman numerals.  In music theory, we call this a chord progression, which simply means a series of chords played in a certain order.  Once we can understand this, we can give all these progressions a number value, representing where in the scale they exist.

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What are chord progressions?

Chord progressions are also sometimes called harmonic progressions. They are a series of chords that move along. When we talk about chord progressions we’re not talking about melodies, or rhythms, or which instrument plays what. We’re only talking about how the chords are organized, based on the key that they are all pulled from. 

These numbers are important because unlike normal numbers, Roman numerals can be upper case or lower case, and this lets us show if the chord they represent is major or minor. 

There are many common progressions in lots of famous songs, but there are also some unusual progressions. This is very powerful because then we can change to any key, and as long as we keep the numbers in the same relation, then we can play the same chord progression in any key! 

Tips for playing chord progressions on piano

Here are some common rules for progressions. Obviously, these are not hard and fast rules, but they are fairly common in music. Remember that a chord is anytime a musician is playing more than two notes at a same time. Keep these goals in mind when you’re learning or writing in a new chord progression: 

  • Decide what key you want to write in. 
  • Start with the most important chords in that key – for instance the I, IV and V chord. 
  • Work out a pattern of four chords for a beautiful chord progression that you like.  
  • Start to add in other chords such as vi, and iii.  
  • Remember to include both major and minor chords whether you’re writing in a major or minor key.  

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.  Play the note C. Now count up 4 notes, including both black and white piano notes. Play the 4th note, which is E. Hold down the C and the E.  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 minor chords in the same way by counting up 3 notes followed by 4 notes.

Common chord progressions

Try playing through the following. These are very common chord progressions that are all using the same basic chords in any key. Learning these will seem complex at first, but once you play the first one you will realize how simple it is to play the next, and the following will be simpler than ever. 

These common progressions will allow you to build muscle memory, and play new music with ease:

  • 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.

How to write and play common chord progressions 

Here are some tips on how to write and play common progressions: 

  • Choose an easy key as a starting point.  It can be a major key or a minor key. 
  • Check your resolutions. Not every progression needs to be resolved perfectly. Many progressions sound better when left open-ended. The best chord progressions sound better when resolved to the I chord.
  • Follow common pop chord progressions until you master them. Then try to find ways to tweak them by changing major chords to minor chords and vice versa.
  • Trust your ears.

When playing a chord shape, it helps if you raise your index and ring fingers a little so that they are out of the way. Keep your arm relaxed from the shoulder when you play and make sure you’re not twisting your wrist.  Some people prefer to play triads with fingers 2 and 4 (ring finger)  if it feels more comfortable. 

How to read and understand chord symbols

When composers and musicians write out a chord progression, 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:

ChordSymbol
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, or beats.chord progressions on piano

 

I – V – vi – IV chord progression

Now, before we put this progression into action, you may be wondering: why the Roman numerals? This is just a musical tradition that is still used today. Writing the chord progression as 1 – 5 – 6 – 4 would have exactly the same meaning, but in music traditionally we use Roman numerals. 

 

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 (which is the dominant chord in the key of C major), the vi chord is A minor, and the IV is F major: chord progressions on piano

chord progressions on piano

Here is Let it Be by The Beatles which uses this simple progression:

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Chord progressions in every key

The graphic above shows us all of the chords that fall in the key of C major. This is very important to know, and can lead us to some very powerful information. Since we know that the formula of whole steps and half steps to make any major scale is the same in every key, this means that the chords built on those scales are also the same in every key.

Musicians talk about this using a simple to remember pattern.

I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii⁰

Said out loud, it sounds like, “one major, two minor, three minor, four major, five major, six minor, seven diminished”. This pattern is the same in every key, it is important to memorize it.
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 piano chords, not the piano 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 chord by the letter ‘G’ written above the notes.
  • The F major scale is spelled F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F and so the F major chord is spelled F, A, C. F major is the fourth chord being played. You can recognize the F major chord by the letter ‘F’ written above the notes on the score. In the key of C major, the F chord is the IV chord and the G major chord is the V chord.

So now you can now play three different major chords and one minor chord. 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 piano progressions in pop music!

Different types of chord progressions 

There are many different types of chord progressions on piano that belong to different styles of music. Chord progressions can be used to analyze and make harmonic reductions of any style of music, from any time period. Musicians often use chord progressions as a short hand, to make their audience feel certain things. For instance, a composer might want their music to sound like classical music, or the blues, or contemporary pop music. Understanding basic chord progressions is the simple way to do this. 

Read on to learn some of the more popular chord progressions.

Pachelbel’s Canon

chord progressions on piano

Pachelbel’s Canon chord progression piano has been used as a basis for many pop songs.  In Maroon 5’s song “Memories” it’s very recognizable and the first half of the first verse is a copy of the melody in Pachelbel’s piece.

12-bar blues

chord progressions on piano

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 us 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. 

Happy piano chord progressions

Chord progressions have many emotional characteristics and associations. One of the most well known progressions is called the I – vi – IV – V. It is a very happy chord progression, and it looks like this with chord symbols:chord progressions on piano

This progression is everywhere in music, from 1950’s doo-wop styles to contemporary pop and rock tunes.  Learn to play “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.  This is a well known upbeat song that uses this progression.  

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How to write and play happy chords progressions

  • Play around with chords to find a pattern of 4 chords that you like.
  • Start with a major chord, but use at least one minor chord in your pattern. 
  • Try changing chords in different ways to see how it sounds. 
  • Listen to some upbeat, happy songs and listen to the underlying chords. 

Sad chord progressions

All progressions are a mix of major and minor chords.  If you wrote a song using nothing but minor chords, it would sound very strange.  When we say this is a “D minor chord progression”, we are referring to the key it is in, not that all the chords are minor. Try playing a progression of four minor chords one after the other, for instance, Cm, Am, Fm, Gm.  It doesn’t sound right as it’s a very dark chord progression,  although it could serve as a basis for some horror film music.  

So when we talk about a sad chord progression, we are still going to see a mix of major and minor chords.  Check out the progression for the blues and you’ll see that even though the word “blues” means “sad”, there are still a lot of major chords. 

Look at the A major chord progression for the chorus of the song “Someone Like You” by Adele. chord progressions on piano

Notice that the first two chords are major – an A chord followed by an E chord, but when the F#minor chord plays (with the word “you”), it gives the song a distinctly sad sound.  Sad songs are quite often written in minor piano keys which gives them a minor chord to start with, but not always.

How to write and play sad chord progressions 

Here are some tips for writing sad – or emotional 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

Final thoughts on chord progressions

Make sure that you play around more with the common progressions you have just learned. Try to play your favorite chord progressions in different keys, by thinking about their roman numerals. Once you know them, transition from C major to F major! Changing keys with this system is powerful and easy, which is why musicians all over the world use it to understand and play all genres of music. 

Once you have done this, try working your way through the Chords & Scales course. Here you can learn many more chords and some of the most 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:

 

Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.

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  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
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