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All About Piano Chord Progressions

Charmaine Li  /  Chording / Aug 30

Chord progressions are the “backbone” of playing music on the piano. They lay the foundations for practically every song ever in the Western musical canon, from pop to classical, jazz to RnB. The cool thing about chord progressions is that you don’t necessarily need to know how to read music to use them, and just knowing a few chord progressions will unlock hundreds, even thousands of songs at your fingertips.

This article will explain in detail what chord progressions are, how to use them, and how to make your piano chord progressions more interesting.


Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1: PIANO CHORD PROGRESSIONS 101

Close-up angled photo of Roland keyboard keys.

1.1 What Is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is simply a sequence of chords played one after the other, that sound pleasant together.

Chord progressions drive a song’s narrative. Some progressions “lift” up the song by making you feel like you’re going somewhere. Other progressions “resolve” a song by making you feel like you’ve reached a song’s end.

In other words, chord progressions tell a song’s story.

Lisa playing piano happily with tilted head and "LOVE" heart t-shirt.
🔥🎹 HOT TIP! Chords form the backbone to piano music. If you’re new to chords, make sure to read our Chording 101 guide first. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about chords!

Of course, songs aren’t just chords played one after the other. What often happens is there’s a melody that uses notes from a chord progression, with some passing notes sprinkled in between.

Take Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” for example. Here’s the opening line. The chord progression is A > D > Bm. And you can see that most of the notes we’ve highlighted come from those chords.

Piano chord progression example: Mark-up of sheet music for "Someone You Loved" showing chords in each measure and which notes from the melody belong to each chord.

By playing the chords D, A, and Bm under this melody, we can also harmonize the melody.

In this song, D > A > Bm > G is the chord progression!

1.2 A Note About the Number System

Main article: The Nashville Number System for Piano: A Beginner’s Guide

If you really want to understand chord progressions, it helps to understand the number system we’ll be referencing throughout this article.

In the number system, we name chords after the scale degree they’re built on. For example, take C Major. The first degree of C Major is C, the second degree is D, and so on.

Keyboard diagram with notes of C major scale (CDEFGABC) labelled with numbers 12345671.

If we take a C Major scale and build a chord on C (C-E-G), that’s a “1 chord.”

If we build a chord on G (G-B-D), that’s a “5 chord” (G is the fifth note of the C Major scale).

Diatonic chords of C Major on treble clef staff with notes labelled for each triad and roman numeral for each chord: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio.

The number system is great for visualizing chord progressions because it doesn’t marry you to a specific key. Instead, the focus is on the movement between chords of a key.

When we use Roman numerals, the uppercase letters represent major triads and the lowercase letters represent minor ones. Interestingly, the ii chord in all major chords is always minor, as is the iii and vi!

1.3 Cadences

A cadence is a very simple chord progression that many music students learn first. Cadences are often used at the ends of phrases to either signal that we’re going somewhere further with the song, or we’ve reached the song’s (or section’s) end.

Imperfect, perfect, and plagal cadences on grand staff labelled I-V or C-G, V-I or G-C, and IV-I or F-C.

A perfect cadence like 1-5 is a progression from a 1 chord to a 5 chord. This progression creates a feeling of resolution, so perfect cadences are often used at the ends of songs.

An imperfect cadence like 5-1 does the  opposite: it creates an uplifting feeling like the music is heading in a new direction.

Plagal cadences (4-1) also sound complete but are less resolute than perfect cadences.

Now that we have a basic idea of how progressions work, let’s familiarize ourselves with a few basic ones.

CHAPTER 2: BASIC PIANO CHORD PROGRESSIONS

Close-up of digital piano keyboard.

2.1 The 1-5-6-4 Pop Progression

Main article: The 1-5-6-4 Chord Progression

The I-V-vi-IV progression is the most common progression you’ll ever use. Seriously, it can be found everywhere.

In C Major, the chords in this progression would be:

C > G > Am > F

Here’s what these chords look like on the staff and on the keyboard:

Piano chord progression C-G-Am-F on treble clef staff and keyboard diagrams with notes labelled.

In G Major, our chords would be:

G > D > Em > C

These chords are all basic beginner chords that everyone should learn first. Just remember that in whichever key you’re in, to include those black keys. So, in G Major, make sure you sharp all your Fs. In F Major, flat all your Bs.

Popular songs that use this progression include:

2.2 The 2-5-1 Jazz Progression

Main article: The 2-5-1 Progression (Jazz Piano 101)

The most common chord progression in jazz is the ii-V-I, by far. In A Major, the 2-5-1 chords would be:

Bm – E – A

But to make these chords sound “jazzier,” add a seventh. This just means adding a note to your triad to make it a four-chord stack instead of a three-chord stack.

Bm7 – E7 – A7

This progression in C Major would be:

ii7-V7-I7 piano chord progression in C Major on treble staff and highlighted and labelled keyboard diagrams. Chords are Dm7-G7-Cmaj7.

Jazz standards that use this progression include:

  • “Autumn Leaves” (Joseph Kosma)
  • “Summertime” (George Gershwin)

2.3 Piano Chord Progressions for Every Mood

Lesson: How to Write Sad, Hopeful, and Happy Chord Progressions

Progressions create narrative, and based on how you order them, the same handful of chords can create totally different atmospheres.

The Happy Progression (I-IV-V)

The I, the IV, and the V are pillar chords that appear in many pop songs. Played together, they also evoke a positive, happy mood. In C Major, the I-IV-V progression would be:

C > F > G

The I, the IV, and the V are pillar chords that appear in many pop songs. Played together, they also evoke a positive, happy mood. In C Major, the I-IV-V progression would be:

C > F > G

Try it out yourself!

Happy woman in colorful dress with hands on piano with tray of fruit and flowers on top.
Man leaning on top of upright piano with bored expression reaching down to play keys.

Sad Progressions

By starting on a minor chord, we trick the ear into thinking a minor chord is our “home base.” This means we don’t necessarily have to stick to all minor chords in a moody song.

For example, try this progression: vi-IV-I-V. In C Major, this would be:

Am – F – C – G

This is another good one: vi-iii-V-IV. In C Major:

Am – Em – G – F

Hopeful Progression (IV-V-vi-I)

This progression combines elements of the happy and sad progressions we’ve discussed above to create an uplifting, hopeful mood. In C Major, the chords would be:

F – G – Am – C

This progression can be found in many pop songs and is responsible for the EDM sound.

2.4 Minor Chord Progressions

Lesson: Creating Beautiful Minor Chord Progressions

Sometimes, you want to feel your feelings. Moody minor progressions can help you do that.

Here are three trusty minor progressions for beginners to try. Interesting note: you’re not limited to only minor chords for “darker” songs!

First, let’s try a minor progression that uses just minor chords:

vi – iii

In the key of C, this would be Am and Em. Try moving between these chords, then add a I or a V.

Next, try these progressions:

ii – I – V

IV – V – vi

You can find even more moody progression ideas here.

2.5 BONUS! The Pachelbel Progression Lives On

Lesson: Pop vs. Classical: You Love Classical Music (You Just Don’t Know It)

If you want a really good example of the power of chord progressions, look no further than 1680, when Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” was composed. 

This is the Canon’s progression:

I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V

…and it’s found everywhere. In fact, it’s basically a longer, more drawn-out version of the I-V-vi-IV progression.

You can hear the Pachelbel sound in songs like: 

  • “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis
  • “Memories” by Maroon 5
  • “Starships” by Nicki Minaj
  • “Basketcase” by Green Day
  • “Air on the G String” by J.S. Bach
  • “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum

You can learn more about Pachelbel’s progression in our lesson here.

The oldest known surviving manuscript of Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel.
The oldest known surviving manuscript of Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel.

CHAPTER 3: “PROGRESSING” TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Angled photo of hands playing red keyboard on table.

3.1 Using Chord Variations

When you first learn chord progressions, practice them using root position triads. This allows you to quickly visualize which numbered chord you’re moving to or from.

But doing everything in root position can get boring, so once you’ve mastered it, it’s time to try chord variations!

Slash Chords and Inversions

Lesson: What Are Slash Chords?

Slash chords and inversions slightly alter the sound of your chords without overwhelmingly changing their characteristics.

A slash chord looks like this. You play the letter to the left of the slash as a chord with your right hand, and the letter to the right of the slash as a bass note in your left hand. 

A way to think of the slash is “over.” So, in this example, we’re playing the D chord “over” F#.

Slash chord diagram with parts of chord symbol labelled. From left to right: G (right hand chord) "over" (represented by slash) B (left hand note) with keyboard diagram with notes highlighted in red and labelled.

An inversion is when the notes of a chord stack get re-stacked according to certain rules. 

Labelled diagrams of C major triad in root, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion triads on treble staff and keyboards highlighted in red.
  1. Root position is our default position. The chord neatly stacked in thirds.
  2. 1st inversion is when the bottom note (the root) gets flipped to the top.
  3. 2nd inversion is when the next bottom note (the third) gets flipped to the top.
  4. If this is a four-note chord, 3rd inversion is when the next bottom note (the fifth) gets flipped to the top.

You can learn more about chord inversions in detail here.

In a chord chart, chord inversions can be shown with a slash chord symbol too. So, C/E would mean a C Major chord played in first inversion because the E (the third) is at the bottom.

Sus Chords

Lesson: Sus Piano Chords 101

“Sus” stands for suspended. In a sus chord, you substitute the third (the middle note of a triad) with another note.

C chord, Csus2, and Csus4 on staff and labelled and highlighted keyboards in red.

A sus2 chord is when you substitute the third with the second note from the root.

3.2 The RnB Passing Chord

Lesson: Get That Sweet R&B/Gospel Sound on the Piano

Using chord variations add pizzazz, but variations don’t change the overall structure of the progression. What if you want your song to be more unique, to stand out from the 1-5-6-4 crowd?

RnB musicians have a solution! Enter the RnB passing chord.

A passing chord is a transitional chord between two chords. The signature RnB sound comes from adding an extra chord between two that is a dominant 7th chord.

A dominant 7th chord is the chord built on the fifth note of a scale. However, we’re going to be working outside of key and using our starting chord as a base.

So, let’s take an example: say we’re moving from F to Dm.

Keyboard diagram with keys highlighted in red and notes labelled showing F-A-C chord with C being the 5th note from F. Arrow from C to a C7 (C-E-G-Bb) chord. Then Dm chord (DFA).

The fifth note from F is C — this will serve as our dominant 7th. We’ll build a chord on C: C7. C7 contains the notes C-E-G-Bb.

Why Bb? Because while our song may be in a different key, we’re working in the “key” of F for this transition, and F Major has one flat (B).

The distance between C and Bb is a Minor 7th interval. (The distance between C and B would be a Major 7th). This means the chord we play is a C7 chord, not a Cmaj7.

3.3 Revoicing I-IV-V as Minor Chords

Lesson: Secrets of the I-IV-V Chords

As you get comfortable with chord progressions, you’ll find that the I, the IV, and the V will become your best friends. These three chords form the pillars of many songs.

…And unfortunately, that can get boring!

One way to spiff up basic progressions is by introducing some minor chords into the mix. Switch out a major IV chord for a minor iv chord. Even just changing one chord can make a big difference.

To turn a major triad into a minor one, lower the third of the triad down one half-step.

C Major Triad

C Major triad (CEG) on staff and keyboard diagram with notes labelled and keys highlighted in red.

C Minor Triad

C Minor triad (CEbG) on staff and keyboard diagram with notes labelled and keys highlighted in red, flat on staff in red.

Learn more about re-voicing in Jordan’s lesson here.

3.4 Surprise Chords!

Lesson: Make Your Piano Chord Progressions More Exciting

Take your I-V-vi-IV progression in C Major: C > G > Am > F. Now try adding an E chord between the vi and the IV. Sounds neat, huh?

C > G > Am > E > F

The E chord gives the progression an extra “push.” It also surprises the listener because the E chord, which contains a G#, doesn’t naturally occur in C Major. (C Major has no sharps or flats).


Our E chord is built on the third note of the C Major scale. It’s a major III chord. To make major III chords in other keys, simply find the third note of that scale and build a major triad on it.

CHAPTER 4: SONGWRITING WITH CHORD PROGRESSIONS

Lisa smiling playing piano in black Pianote t-shirt, shot from a lower angle.

4.1 Solo Over Your Chord Progressions

Now let’s get to the fun stuff. You probably don’t want to play chords one after the other. You want to play a melody over them. Well, we have tools to help you do that!

What Notes Go With What Chords?

If you’re chording a song in C Major, any melody played with notes from the C Major scale will sound good with C Major chords.

It really is that simple!

If improvising feels scary at first, start small. Play a five-finger scale on top of a chord and then slowly branch out to other notes. Then, experiment with different rhythmic patterns and play several notes together.

Pentatonic Scales

Lesson: How to Solo and Improvise on ANY Chord Progression

First, if you haven’t already, learn the pentatonic scale. The major version of this scale is the 1-2-3-5-6 degrees of the major scale. In C Major, this will be the notes C-D-E-G-A.

C Major and A Minor pentatonic scale diagrams with notes on keyboard labelled and highlighted in red and numbers showing scale degree on the bottom.

In minor keys, the pentatonic scale uses the degrees 1-3-4-5-7.

4.2 Improvise With Different Mixtures of Chords

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with chord progressions, it’s time to challenge yourself.

One fun thing you can do is to pick a key and mix and match different diatonic chords of that key. In this video example, Lisa picks G Major, writes down all the chords in the G Major scale on sticky notes, and then stitches them together into a random order. What comes out sounds really cool!

🔥🎹 HOT TIP! Understanding diatonic chords will fast-track you to finding all the chords of a given song. Diatonic chords form the “palette” of colors you can use to paint your own song, too, so make sure you check out our lesson on how they work!

Keep experimenting with chord progressions. Eventually, you’ll figure out what you like. That’s your sound!

And if you’re out of ideas, just remember: try not to start on the I.

Lisa with flat mouth expression at the keyboard and words CHORD PROGRESSIONS: DON'T START ON THE ONE.

Chord progressions are what make songs…songs.

By understanding piano chord progressions, not only will you learn new songs faster, but you’ll have the ingredients to create your own song.

So, take these tools and get creative. If you want to learn more about chord progressions, search “chord progressions” on The Note to find numerous free lessons. Happy practicing!


Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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