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Top 10 Piano Chord Progressions (And How They Work)

Pianote  /  Chord Progressions  /  May 21, 2024

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

In this lesson, we’ll explain in detail how piano chord progressions work, how to use them, and how to take your progressions to the next level.

Some chord progressions have become mainstays in music. Here are ten popular chord progressions every musician should get familiar with. Click on the progression to jump to more details about it.

ProgressionNumber SystemChords in C Major
Pop ProgressionI-V-vi-IVC-G-Am-F
Pop Progression (Altered)vi-IV-I-VAm-F-C-G
Jazz Progressionii7-V7-I7Dm7-G7-Cmaj7
12 Bar BluesI-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I or VC-C-C-C-F-F-C-C-G-F-C-C or G
50s (Doo-Wop) ProgressionI-vi-IV-VC-Am-F-G
Andalusian CadenceMinor: i-VII-VI-V
Major: i-bVII-bVI-V
Minor: Am-G-F-E
Major: Cm-Bb-Ab-G
Modal ProgressionI-bVII-IVC-Bb-F
Root Movement HotlineI-IV-viio-iii-vi-ii-V-IC-F-Bdim-Em-Am-Dm-G-C
Pachelbel ProgressionI–V–vi–iii–IV–I–IV–VC-G-Am-Em-F-C-F-G
Royal Roads ProgressionIV-V-iii-viF-G-Em-Am

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WHAT ARE PIANO CHORD PROGRESSIONS?

What is a chord progression? In short, a chord progression is a sequence of chords played one after the other, that sound pleasant together. A chord progression is the harmonic foundation of a song.

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.

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. Here’s an example:

Recognize this piece? It’s Beethoven’s “Für Elise”! One of the most famous pieces for piano begins with a simple i-V-i progression.

Creating Chord Progressions: Diatonic Chords

The first thing to understand when learning how to create chord progressions is diatonic chords.

Diatonic chords are chords that occur naturally on the scale. So, if you play the C major scale and stack a triad on top of every note, you get diatonic chords!

Piano chord progressions: diatonic chords of C major in standard notation with roman numerals and note names.

Some chords will turn out major and some will turn out minor. We use uppercase numbers to represent major chords and lowercase numbers to represent minor chords.

> What Are Diatonic Chords?

The Primary Chords

Out of the seven diatonic chords, the most important are the I, IV, and V. These are your primary chords.

These chords are “primary” because you can harmonize any note in the C major scale with one of these chords. That’s because if you stack the chords altogether, they cover all seven notes of the scale!

Primary chords in primary colors: C major triad in red, F major triad in blue, G major triad in gold.

You can harmonize any song with just these chords. To learn more about that, check out our lesson on how to harmonize a melody.

The Minor vi

After the primary chords, the next chord to familiarize yourself with is the minor vi. This is the diatonic chord built on top of the sixth note of the scale. Thanks to its minor sound, it adds some much needed color to the primary chords. Think of it as green or orange!

In C major, the primary chords and minor vi are C, F, G, and Am. Tons of songs use just these four chords, making them the “big 4” chords that every pianist must know.

> The 4 Piano Chords That Unlock Hundreds of Songs

Now that you know the I, V, IV, and vi, you’re ready to learn about our first popular chord progression!

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THE CHORDS & SCALES BOOK

There are several chord progressions that you will run into again and again in music. Reusing these progressions doesn’t mean that music isn’t creative—some progressions just work super well! Remember, progressions are just a skeleton. There is so much we can do to a progression to make it our own.

The Pop Progression

Progression: I-V-vi-IV
Chords in C Major: C-G-Am-F

The I-V-vi-IV progression is the most common chord progression you’ll find. In C major, the chords you’ll play are C-G-Am-F. These are the first four chords you should learn as a piano player because just like the I-V-vi-IV progression, they’re everywhere in pop music.

Songs that use the I-V-vi-IV progression include:

Let It Be
The Beatles

Song Tutorial

Flashlight
Jessie J

Can’t Help Falling In Love
Elvis Presley

Song Tutorial

> Full Lesson: The 1-5-6-4 Chord Progression

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Altered Pop Progression

Progression: vi-IV-I-V
Chords in C Major: Am-F-C-G

This is a “sub-progression” of the I-V-vi-IV because it’s the same chords, just played in a different order and creating a moodier sound. Songs that use the vi-IV-I-V progression include:

Faded
Alan Walker

Song Tutorial

The Scientist
Coldplay

Song Tutorial

River Flows In You
Yiruma

Song Tutorial

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The Jazz Progression

Progression: ii7-V7-I7
Chords in C Major: Dm7-G7-Cmaj7

The ii7-V7-I7 progression is the building block of jazz music. In jazz piano improvisation, this progression are often used as chord substitutions for some quick reharmonizing magic.

Typically in jazz, we play these chords as 7th chords. In C major, that’s Dm7-G7-Cmaj7. That’s a minor 7th chord, a dominant 7th chord, and a major 7th chord. If you want to become a jazz pianist, it’s best to know this progression in all twelve keys. That way, you can add them spontaneously while improvising.

Songs that use the ii7-V7-I7 progression include:

Sunday Morning
Maroon 5

Song Tutorial

Autumn Leaves
Joseph Kosma

Summertime
George Gershwin

> Full Lesson: The 2-5-1 Chord Progression: Beginner’s Guide. Also, check out these three popular jazz progressions.

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The 12-Bar Blues

Progression: I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I or V
Chords in C Major: C-C-C-C-F-F-C-C-G-F-C-C or G

The 12-bar blues is a conventional song structure. While it may be tweaked here and there, the basic structure is fairly consistent across different songs. This makes it an ideal structure for bands to improvise within! For example, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly calls the blues and his backing band can play “Johnny B. Goode” without ever hearing the song! Here are some examples of the blues structure:

Johnny B. Goode
Chuck Berry

Hound Dog
Leiber & Stoller

Tutti Frutti
Little Richard

> Full Lesson: How to Play Blues Piano: Beginner’s Guide

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The Doo-Wop Progression

Progression: I-vi-IV-V
Chords in C Major: C-Am-F-G

The I-vi-IV-V is also called the “50s” progression because it was popular in 50s songs like “Earth Angel” and “Unchained Melody.” The Doo-Wop has an uplifting mood thanks to those IV and V chords at the end. Popular songs that use this progression include:

Perfect
Ed Sheeran

Song Tutorial

I Will Always Love You
Dolly Parton / Whitney Houston

Baby
Justin Bieber

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The Andalusian Cadence

Minor Progression: i-VII-VI-V
Minor Chords in A Minor: Am-G-F-E

Major Progression: i-bVII-bVI-V
Major Chords in C Major: Cm-Bb-Ab-G

The Andalusian Cadence is named after the Andalusia region in Spain, where it was used in flamenco music. In A minor, this dramatic minor progression contains the following chords: Am-G-F-E. Notice that we raise the seventh note (G to G#) on the E chord. This raised seventh adds that distinct Spanish flavor.

We can also frame this progression as i-bVII-bVI-V in a major key. In C major, that would be: Cm-Bb-Ab-G.

Songs that use this progression include:

Hit the Road Jack
Ray Charles

Happy Together
The Turtles

Everybody Wants to Be a Cat
From The Aristocats

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The Modal Progression

Progression: I-bVII-IV
Chords in C Major: C-Bb-F

This progression is based on the C Mixolydian mode. We can think of it as “borrowing” F major’s key signature, which gives us that bVII chord. This neat-sounding progression creates that big, anthemic sound classic rock is known for. Listen for it in the na-na-na section of “Hey Jude.” Songs that use the modal progression include:

Hey Jude
The Beatles

Song Tutorial

Sweet Child O’ Mine
Guns N’ Roses

Riff Tutorial

Royals
Lorde

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The Root Movement Hotline

This chord progression is important to know if you’re interested in playing gospel music. Erskine Hawkins calls it the Root Movement Hotline because you can think of it as a phone number you want to keep in your back pocket.

The basic movement is 1-4-7-3-6-2-5-1. However, we can alter each chord like this to sound more “gospel-y”:

Root movement hotline in standard notation with chord symbols and Roman numerals.

> Full Lesson: The Gospel Piano Chord Progression You Need to Know

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The Pachelbel Progression

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. You can hear the Pachelbel sound in:

Basketcase
Green Day

Don’t Look Back In Anger
Oasis

Memories
Maroon 5

Here’s a classic comedy sketch about the universality of this progression:

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

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The Royal Roads Progression

Progression: IV-V-iii-vi
Chords in C Major: F-G-Em-Am

If you’ve ever wondered why some anime opening themes and video game soundtracks sound so similar, you’re on to something. The IV-V-ii-vi chord progression is widely used in Japanese pop music and is called the ōdo shinkō or “Royal Roads” progression. Despite having two minor chords, this progression is quite cheerful and dreamy.

Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” is often cited as an example of this progression, but as our friend David Bennett explains here, the IV in the famous rickroll song is actually a ii7. They sound very similar though!

Other songs you might recognize with this progression include:

It’s Gonna Be Me
NSYNC

Yura Yura
Hearts Grow (Naruto)

Lenna’s Theme
Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy V)

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PROGRESSING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

You’ll likely start with practicing piano chord progressions in their most basic root position form, but this can quickly get boring. In this section, we’ll introduce some simple techniques to level up your playing.

Altering Chords

An easy way to make things sound more interesting is by slightly altering the sound of chords. We can do this with slash chords, inversions, suspended chords, and by revoicing.

Slash Chords and Inversions

When we say “the Am chord is built on the sixth note of the C major scale,” that might sound like you have to play A as the lowest note. But this isn’t true! You can play chords in various inversions to create slightly different sounds.

On a chord chart, this might be notated as C/E. The letter on the left indicates the chord you play, and the letter on the right indicates the note in the bass. You can also think of it as “play C over E.”

Slash chords are useful for adding color to an otherwise basic chord progression. They’re also perfect for walking bass lines.

> What Are Slash Chords?

Sus Chords

Another way to alter chords is by replacing them with suspended chords. Sus chords substitute the third of a chord with another note: a sus2 substitutes with a major 2nd while a sus4 substitutes with a perfect 4th. By removing the third, the listener is no longer certain whether a chord is major or minor (because it’s neither!). This gives suspended chords an ambiguous, intriguing sound.

Revoicing

Finally, we can simply switch out a major chord for a minor chord. It’s as easy as lowering the third of a major triad down a half-step. Even a tiny change can make a big difference!

You can also borrow chords from the relative minor. So, if you’re in C major, try dropping in a diatonic chord from C minor and see what happens!

Passing Chords

Using passing chords is a more advanced technique to make your piano chord progressions sound even more sophisticated. A passing chord is simply a transition chord between two chords of a progression.

Secondary Dominants

This technique is what gives RnB and gospel music their distinct sound and involves temporarily moving out of the current key between two chords. To do this, look at the chord you’re moving towards (Am in our example) and find the V7 of that key (A minor). You should get E7. You may see this concept notated as V7/vi. This can be read as “V7 of the vi.”

Passing 2-5-1s

Similarly, we can insert whole chord progressions into existing chord progressions! A common way to do this is by tossing in a quick 2-5-1.

Once again, think of the chord you’re approaching as the “target” key. Then, find the ii and V chords of that key and play them in the lead-up. Watch a demonstration of this on “Happy Birthday” here.

Original “Happy Birthday” Progression

First line of Happy Birthday in standard notation with C-G-G-C chord symbols and I-V-V-I Roman numerals.

“Happy Birthday” Progression With Added 2-5-1

First line of Happy Birthday in standard notation with C-G-Dm-G-C chord symbols and I-V-ii-V-I Roman numerals.

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SONGWRITING WITH PIANO CHORD PROGRESSIONS

Now let’s get to the fun stuff! Here are some quick tips on using chord progressions creatively.

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. Soon, you’ll be able to solo and improvise over any progression!

Mixing Chords to Create Mood

Progressions create narrative, and based on how you order them, the same chords can create different atmospheres. Try these:

  • “Happy” progression: I-IV-V
  • “Sad” progression: vi-iii-V-IV
  • “Hopeful” progression: IV-V-vi-I
  • “Dramatic” progression: vi-IV-I-V

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

Key Takeaway: Experiment!

When it comes to piano chord progressions, there is no right or wrong. Pick a key, identify your diatonic chords, and mix and match them to create a chord progression of your own. Then, toss in some chord alterations and passing chords to spice things up.

And if you’re out of ideas…try not to start on the I 🤷

Woman with short platinum hair making face at camera with text: CHORD PROGRESSIONS, DON'T START ON THE ONE.

Have fun and happy practicing!

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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. Learn more about Charmaine here.

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