If you’re a pianist, a composer, or both, you’ll turn to piano chord progressions countless times in your musical work. Chord progressions can serve as a platform for an entire song or composition, and you’ll recognize chord progressions as the basis of several of the most popular songs to play on the piano.
Whether you’re just starting out on the piano or are experienced and seeking to refresh your repertoire, this article will outline common piano chord progressions, how to use them, and how they can benefit your music. The chord progressions that we’ll discuss in this article are:
- I – IV – V
- ii - V - I
- I - vi - IV - V
- i - VII - VI - VII
Need a refresher on piano basics? Check out How to Teach Yourself Piano - Easy Method for Beginners for a crash course in the fundamentals of piano.
What is a Chord Progression?
Let’s start with the basics: How is a chord progression defined?
A chord progression is a series of chords (at least two notes played in succession) that come together to create a harmonic sequence. This sequence can be built upon to create a melody, the chorus of a song, or even the tonal theme of an entire composition. Chord progressions can also be described as the arrangement of chords in a musical composition.
There are seven individual chords in every major key. The chords are created using the notes of the scale, and each chord may be in augmented or diminished, or played in the major or minor key. This opens up an abundant number of possibilities for chord progressions.
Chord progressions largely determine the “feeling” of a song. Progressions hold power over tone, which is the main reason why they’re crucial to songwriting. We’ll expand more on this concept later in this article.
Musicians use Roman numerals to notate and evaluate chords. If the Roman numeral is a capital, it translates to a major chord. If the Roman numeral is a lowercase, it translates to a minor chord. So, chord progressions are notated as a sequence of Roman numerals. Once the chord is put in a key, it will be notated using the corresponding letter for each key (again, a capital letter denotes a major chord and a lowercase letter denotes a minor chord).
Chord progressions are used for virtually every hit song that you hear on the radio. To recreate these well-loved tunes, you may need to sing and play piano simultaneously - read through 7 Tips For How To Sing And Play Piano At The Same Time to gain this useful skill.
Say you want to play a ii-V-I (2-5-1) progression in the key of C. Here is what you would do:
1. Take a look at the notes of C major. They are C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
2. Pick out the 2nd, 5th, and 1st notes in the scale. They are D, G, and C.
3. If any of the roman numerals are lowercase, turn the corresponding note into a minor note. In this case the ii which corresponds to the note D means that it transforms into Dm (D minor).
4. Done! You can now play the chords Dm, G, and C in that order to play a ii-V-I progression in the key of C. You've just discovered one of the "jazzy" sounding chord progressions. Try it out!
Piano Chord Progressions to Learn
Below, you’ll find five common piano chord progressions used in music, both today and throughout history. These chord progression represent just a small sample of the many, many progressions that are used by composers and songwriters.
- I – IV – V
I – IV – V is also called the one-four-five progression, or primary chords. This progression contains the three cords that are the most frequently found in music. These chords are used so frequently because their sound in combination is especially harmonious. This progression is rooted in the 1st, 4th, and 5th notes of a minor or major scale.
Musicians work in the harmonic minor scale to create this progression in a minor key. The harmonic minor scale different from the natural minor scale because it’s raised by one half step. The reason behind the need to use the harmonic scale is that chord V, a primary chord in a minor key, is actually a major chord and doesn’t belong to the natural minor scale.
The I–V–vi–IV progression is also called the “sensitive female chord progression”. It was given this name by Marc Hirsh, a Boston Globe columnist. Hirsh settled on this distinction because he noticed that several musicians in Lilith Fair, an all-female music festival that was a huge success in the 90s.
That being said, this progression isn’t exclusive to female musicians with an emotional tone. It can be found in several iconic songs, including “21 Guns” by Green Day, “Apologize” by OneRepublic, “Breakeven” by The Script, “Hey Soul Sister” by Train, “Hello” by Adele, “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga. This is just a limited selection of the countless collection of songs including the I-V-vi-IV progression.
The I-V-vi-IV chord progression is versatile and used across genres. However, it’s the most popular in pop and rock songs. It has a natural, catchy sound, which is why it’s been used so extensively in pop music.
- ii - V - I
This chord progression is also known as the “two five one” or “ii - V - I turnaround”. It’s a cadential 3-chord progression that musicians turn to often in songwriting. This progression is a primary fixture in most genres of music ranging from pop to country. That being said, it’s one of the main jazz piano chord progressions, namely because of the opportunities it presents for variations.
When a chord progression is cadential, it means that each individual chord can be distinctly heard. The progression has a finished, resolved, and complete sound, as opposed to progressions that have an open-ended sound.
Called the ”one six four five” progression, I-vi-IV-V is often used as the main progression throughout an entire song. It may be used to create the underlying theme and feeling of the whole composition. Popular in pop, rock, and R&B, I-vi-IV-V is a minor-sounding chord progression with a smooth, sentimental, beautiful sound.
Well-known examples of this piano chord progression are: “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, and “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King.
The i-VII-VI-VII is a version of the Andalusian cadence used in Flamenco music. It’s also frequently found in classical music from the Baroque era, as well as metal music from several decades. The i-VII-VI-VII progression can also be found in Michael Jackson’s iconic song, “Smooth Criminal”. Clearly, this chord progression is used in a diverse collection of musical genres.
The i-VII-VI-VII is a straightforward progression, making it a good option for beginner composers. There’s a lot of room for creativity when working with this common piano chord progression, making it a go-to among musicians and songwriters.
Here's a video with a few extra chord progressions you can learn:
Genre-Specific Piano Chord Progressions
Now that we’ve outlined the fundamental piano chord progressions, we can dig deeper into genre-specific piano chord progressions. Here, we’ll focus on three types of music and chord progressions that you can use to achieve the unique tonal quality of each. The genres we’re honing in on are gospel, jazz, and ballads.
Piano Chord Progressions for Gospel
Gospel music is the music of the Christian church. It’s sung in church services, religious ceremonies, and at various gatherings in the Christian community. While there are many subgenres within gospel music, including Gospel blues, contemporary Gospel, and urban gospel, the genre as a whole is characterized by prominent vocals and a profound, emotional tone.
This progression is commonly used out to close out gospel pieces. Called the “two five one”, this progression may make use of seventh chords, triads, or extended chords.
Called the “one six two five” progression, this piano chord progression is essential to gospel music because it may be performed as a turnaround progression, A turnaround progression is an effective way to wrap up a chorus or verse in gospel music.
This chord progression can also be used as a turnaround progression with a romantic tone. It adds character and emotion to gospel music.
Jazz Piano Chord Progressions
Jazz is a musical genre that hinges on a distinctive tone. Often, in jazz music, a seventh chord will be added to the chord progression to give it a jazzy, improvisational sound. This means that a fourth note is linked onto every chord. Doing this adds complexity to a piece and will spark the interest of your listeners.
Originating from “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin, I-vi-ii-V is a chord progression that you’ll recognize in countless jazz scores. It’s most often used as the final two bars of a chorus, segueing into the next section.
The two-five-one is one of the most commonly used tonal jazz progressions around. It’s widely used largely because it follows the theory of the diatonic function, in which each chord creates a different tone. II is considered pre-dominant, V is dominant, and I is tonic.
III-VI-II-V is a common turnaround progression in jazz. There are numerous variations of this progression and well-known examples of songs that include it are “My Funny Valentine” by Frank Sinatra and “Blue Skies” by Ella Fitzgerald.
Piano Chord Progressions for Ballads
Ballads are characteristically impassioned. Emotional piano chord progressions are used for this type of music and can make all the difference in a ballad that’s moving to the listener.
Found in rock and pop ballads such as “Diamonds” by Rihanna and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, this progression has an intense, dramatic sound. This progression is a flat six, flat seven, and one minor. The chords can change and order while maintaining an emotional chord progression sound.
A variant on the common piano chord progression, I-V-vi-IV, vi-IV-I-V has a deep, negative tone. It’s one of the most frequently used darkly beautiful piano chord progressions in music today. Popular examples of it include “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5, “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley, and “Let it Be” by The Beatles.
- I-V-VI- IV
I-V-VI- IV is the sensitive female chord progression that we discussed earlier. This piano chord progression builds drama and tension, making it a fitting choice for ballads.
When Do You Use Chord Progressions?
Chord progressions are used to create harmony in pieces of music. Progressions have a melodic sound that’s pleasing to your listener’s ears, making them a good place to start for beginner songwriters.
Using chord progressions prevents harsh or jarring sounds that can happen when musicians change from one chord to another. Effective chord progressions differentiate music that’s pleasing to the ear from music that’s unpleasant to listen to.
You may use chord progressions to shift the tonality of a piece and maintain its harmonic sound. Tonality, unsurprisingly, refers to the tone of a piece of music. The tone is determined by the key in which the song is played, as well as changes in notes, scale, or key.
Chord progressions are crucial for songwriters because they create a balanced, melodious sound. For a song to become popular, it should give the listener a feeling, whether it be optimistic and lighthearted or sentimental and serious.
Common piano chord progressions are a great place to start for inexperienced and beginner songwriters. Music written with compelling chord progressions are compatible to the ears and will make a song sound “finished” or “complete”.
The Impact of Major or Minor on a Chord Progression
As mentioned previously, chord progressions may be major or minor. This distinction makes an immense difference in the overall sound and tone of a progression, which can determine the underlying theme of a song.
The separation between major and minor can be found in the third note. The major third is a full note lower than the minor third, drastically altering the sound of a major piece compared to a minor piece.
Major chord progressions have a joyful, light, and cheery tone. “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan, and “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty are examples of popular songs in the major key. Contrastingly, minor chord progressions have an intense, emotional, and dark tonal quality. Popular examples of songs in this key include “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals, “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King, and “Purple Rain” by Prince. .
How to Create Your Own Progressions
When it comes to creating your own piano chord progressions, you have complete freedom and virtually limitless options. However, as a beginner, it’s wise to follow a few guidelines that will help you develop an effective, ear-pleasing progression.
- Study Chord Characteristics.
The first step in developing stellar chord progressions is to have a comprehensive understanding of the chords that you’re working with. As aforementioned, major and minor chords have enormously different impacts on musical tone. Major chords generally have a light, breezy sound, while minor chords have a deeper, more troubled sound. Consider coupling major and minor chords for an interesting, uncommon sound.
There’s a myriad of excellent online resources for beginning pianists to learn about chords. I recommend checking out How to Play Piano Chords - A Beginner’s Guide before diving into chord progression development. It will give you the background information that you need to create effective, great-sounding compositions.
Additionally, there are many piano chord progressions pdf resources online today that visually lay out common piano chord progressions and how they’ll change depending on what key they’re in. These visual tools may help you get started if you’re stuck in the music writing process.
- Turn to Your Favorite Music for Inspiration.
Chord progressions are repeated again and again (with variations, of course) across different genres of music. Using a chord progression from your favorite song as a starting point for your own music isn’t unethical - all music is derivative if you listen hard enough. So, if you’re stuck or need a promising place to begin, take a chord progression from a piece that you like with a similar tone to the one that you’re going for. Then, try switching in different cords or changing the order of the chords to create an original work.
- Use the Circle of Fifths.
The Circle of Fifths is a kind of chord progressions chart that is an extremely helpful tool in finding great chord progressions. This diagram displays the entire chromatic scale and its twelve tones, as well as the key signatures for each tone. The corresponding major and minor keys for each tone is also included in the circle diagram.
To use the Circle of Fifths as a guide in chord progression creation, start by combining chords that are next to each other in the circle. These chords will sound cohesive when played together and can serve as an effective place to start.
Chord progressions are the building blocks used in the conception of most musical compositions. Many of your favorite songs likely include one of the common chord progressions included in this article.
Beginning pianists and songwriters can use existing piano chord progressions to expand their skills and jumpstart the creative process.
With just a bit of practice, all musicians can develop original work that’s pleasing to the ear, thanks to chord progressions!