If you need to learn one chord progression, it’s the 1564 chord progression.
This is, by far, the most popular chord progression in pop music. You’ll find it everywhere. And if you know how it works, you can unlock hundreds, if not thousands of songs. In any key!
In this lesson, we’ll run through what the 1564 progression is, why it’s important, how to use it, and which songs you can immediately start playing with this progression.
There will be some theory, but not too much!
The 1564 chord progression is a very popular pop progression that moves through the I, V, vi, and IV chords of a key.
A chord progression is a series of chords that move a song forward. It is the basic harmonic structure of a song. Progressions build tension and then resolve it.
Some progressions are more popular than others. They underlie many songs, even if those songs sound totally different from each other. For example, the 251 (ii-V-I) progression is popular with jazz music.
The 1564 progression traces its lineage all the way back to the Baroque period. In fact, it’s essentially a simplified version of the progression in Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”:
Lots of songs use the 1564 progression. Songs like:
Go here to see and hear this in action.
Understanding how chords work will give you a BIG leg up in learning how to play the piano. Knowing just a handful of chords will unlock hundreds, if not thousands of pop songs. To get started today, check out our free Chord Hacks course, or read How to Play Piano Chords.
The number system is why we talk about progressions like “1564” and “251.”
In this system, each chord gets a number. The “one chord” is a chord built on the first note of the scale. So, if we’re in D Major, our “one chord” is D-F#-A. Which is the triad built on the first note of the D Major scale.
Here is the D Major chord in root position with notes and suggested fingering. F is sharped because D Major has two sharps: F# and C#.
Roman numerals are sometimes used in place of Arabic numbers because you can capitalize them to show a major chord and lowercase them to show a minor chord. In Roman numerals, the 1564 chord progression becomes:
The V chord is built on the fifth note of the D Major scale: A. So, a triad built on A would be A-C#-E.
Here is the A Major chord in root position with notes and fingering.
Our vi chord will be a minor chord! This is because if you build a chord on the sixth note of the D Major scale (B), the result is a minor chord: B-D-F#.
Here is the B Minor chord in root position with notes and fingering.
Finally, our IV chord is built on the fourth note of the D Major scale: G. This gives us a G chord: G-B-D.
Here is the G Major chord in root position with notes and fingering.
Chords like these, which are built on the notes of a scale, are called diatonic chords. Knowing the diatonic chords of a scale is useful because they tell you what chords within a key sound good together.
If you’re new to chording, practice playing with the triad chord shapes. And instead of playing the four chords over and over, zero down on the transition between two chords. Practice moving between them and master that before moving on to the next transition.
If you know inversions, there are also “shortcuts” you can take between chords. Shortcuts happen when two chords one after the other share notes in common, making transitioning easier. Here are some examples:
I-V: Go from the root position of the I chord to the 1st inversion of the V chord. In D Major, this would be D-F#-A to C#-E-A.
V-vi: Because these two chords don’t share any notes in common, we suggest you go from 1st inversion of the V chord to the root position of the vi chord. In D Major, it looks like this:
vi-IV: Finally, go from root position of the vi chord to 1st inversion of the IV chord with just the flick of a pinky. Like so:
If you’d like a deeper dive, take a look at our chord shortcuts lesson to learn more about transitions.
Tons of songs use the 1564 chord progression. And you can get a head start on some with these tutorials and tips:
Once you master the I-V-vi-IV progression, see if you can recognize other common progressions hiding in your pop music. It’s pretty neat to observe how certain progressions consistently evoke a certain mood.
The vi-IV-I-V progression was nicknamed the “sensitive female chord progression” by Marc Hirsch of the Boston Globe because it’s associated with woman singer-songwriters like Sarah MacLachlan, Joan Osborne, and Beyoncé among others. It’s an emotional progression perfect for moody ballads. Of course, male songwriters use it too, such as Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”
Nicknamed the “Doo-Wop” progression for its prevalence in 50s-era music, this progression follows a I-vi-IV-V pattern. If this sounds especially familiar to you piano players, it’s the progression hiding behind “Heart and Soul.”
As you can see, similar chord progressions are all around us. Understanding how they work will help you listen to music more mindfully and learn new songs faster.
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