Your Guide to Piano Chord Progressions

All music is based on chord progressions. Even single lines of music on their own imply their underlying chord progressions based on the order of the notes in the melody.

Learning to play basic chord progressions on the piano is reasonably easy to do. It allows you to accompany yourself as you sing, or other musicians you might be playing with. It is also a great tool when writing your own music.

So read on as we look at the most common chord progression and how to play them on the piano. You may also want to check out about the piano keys.

What Is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is simply a sequence of chords played one after another.

You could play any number of random chords in a row and this would be a chord progression. But in this article, we will be looking at chord progressions that are deliberately ordered to be pleasing to the ear. Indeed, the chord progressions that we will discuss later occur again and again in both popular and classical music.

In order to learn these chord progressions, we first need to understand the conventions for reading and writing these chords.

How Are Chord Progressions Written?

The system of writing down chords and chord progressions is a clever one.

Since music can be written in a wide variety of different keys, it doesn’t make sense just to write the name of each chord in a row. This would mean that the same progressions in different keys would have to be written differently every time.

Instead, the notation we will use in this article is a system of Roman numerals [1]. Each Roman numeral represents the position of that chord in whichever key is being played. So the numeral I represents the chord of the first note of the scale. The numeral IV represents the chord based on the fourth note of the scale, and so on.

The full list of chords is written as follows: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii. As you will notice, some chords are written in uppercase and some in lowercase. Uppercase represents major chords and lower case represents minor chords.

If we were playing in the key of C major, the I chord would be the major chord based on the first note of the C major scale: the chord of C major. The ii chord would be the minor chord based on the second note of the C major scale: D minor. The V chord would be the major chord based on the fifth note of the C major scale: G major.

In a different key, such as E major, the I chord would represent a completely different chord: E major.

What Are the Most Common Chord Progressions?

Since the number of chords is limited, the number of combinations that sound pleasing to the ear is also limited. You will find that many chord progressions can be heard time and again throughout the history of music.

I-IV-V-I

This is one of the simplest but most effective chord progressions.

This is because it contains the three most important chords of any key. These are the tonic, the subdominant and the dominant. When you play them in order, you will hear that they seem to want to follow on from each other. This progression was used often by Baroque composers such as Bach and Handel to instantly define the key that their piece would be in [2].

In the key of C major, the progression would be: C major-F major-G major-C major.

I-IV-V-vi-IV-V-I

This is an extension of the previous chord progression, with a little twist.

In the previous chord progression, the chords seemed to want to follow each other. After the V chord, you ear expects to hear the I chord to finish the progression. By instead playing a vi chord, your attention is caught by the unexpected chord. This is called an interrupted cadence, as the normal pattern you would expect is interrupted.

I-V-vi-IV-I

This simple chord progression is used in an incredible number of different songs.

Huge pop songs such as “Let It Be,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “No Woman No Cry,” “If I Were A Boy,” “Poker Face,” “Party In The USA,” “Save Tonight,” “The Edge of Glory” and “Under The Bridge” all make use of this one simple chord progression.

Which means that if you can master this chord progression, you are already well on your way to being able to play a huge range of popular songs.

I-vi-IV-V-I

This chord progression makes use of the same 4 chords as the previous progression but in a slightly different order.

This progression was hugely popular during the 50s and 60s featuring in hundreds of songs from those decades including classics such as “Stand By Me” and “Unchained Melody.” And it can still be heard in current music, in hits such as “Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Messin’ Around” by Pitbull.

How to Make Chord Progressions Easier to Play

On the piano, you can make playing chord progressions simpler by giving your fingers less work to do.

In C major, the chords of the I-IV-V-I progression are C major, F major, G major, and C major. If you play these chords in their root positions, you would play C-E-G, F-A-C, G-B-D, C-E-G. The requires moving your whole hand up the keyboard between the first and second chords, with none of the notes being repeated from one chord to the next.

But by making use of inversions, you can reduce the amount of work that your fingers need to do. Try this instead: C-E-G, C-F-A, D-G-B, C-E-G. You will find that your fingers need to move much less and it makes the progression more natural to play.

Where to Go Next with Chord Progressions

Once you have mastered these simple chord progressions, you might want to start introducing some more complex chords into the mix.

We have a whole range of articles that can teach you how to play a variety of different chords, including major, minor and seventh chords. There are also plenty of other great articles to help you take your piano playing to the next level.

Whatever you decide to try next, we wish you the best of luck in your piano playing journey.

Let us show you the piano keyboard layout here.

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