Popular Chord Progressions


4 Steps to Learning How to Play Any Song on the Piano

1. Determining the melody - Melodies determine what chords will be played. If you can use your ear to figure out what notes are being played in the melody, you are 1/4 on your way to learning a song! More resources on learning how to determine melodies

2.Harmonizing the melody - Once you have figured out the melody (using some of my techniques on the resource page), it is time to harmonize it. This is simply choosing various chords to accompany the melody. There are several techniques and tricks to doing this. More resources on learning how to harmonize melodies

3. Altering Chords - This is the best part! Now that you have strategically figured out the melody to a song and have harmonized it, altering your chords to produce certain sounds is the next step. If you were playing gospel music, you would alter your chords differently than if you were playing classical or country music. More resources on altering chords

4. Listening - After you have determined the melody, harmonized the melody, and altered some of your chords, there are various techniques you can use to make sure that your song sounds right. More resources on listening techniques

I personally recommend "The Secrets to Playing Piano By Ear" 300-pg Course and through my relationship with Jermaine (the author of this course), I've been able to get him to throw in a few bonus items (3 additional piano software programs). He has taught literally thousands of musicians how to play the piano by ear. If you understood just half of what he discussed above, you'll definitely benefit from his 300-pg course. Click here to learn the secrets to playing absolutely any song on the piano in virtually minutes! I highly recommend it.

The All-New Song Tutor: Internet-Powered Song Learning Software

Learning the 4 popular chord progressions in this lesson is a great way for the beginning keyboardist to get familiar with literally thousands of popular songs.

There are lots of small exceptions to the guidelines in this lesson but there is no way to list every variation of these fundamental chord progression here.

What I will be doing in this lesson is using the 80/20 rule that says that 20% of your work will yield 80% of your results.


I was playing a gig a week ago when a Guitarist asked if he could play one of his original songs. I said "sure" and asked if he wanted me to accompany him. His concern was that I had never heard the song and he began to play.

He was amazed that I was able to anticipate every chord change he made in the song!

The reason I could do this is that after 50 years of playing popular music as a profession, I have found that a good 80% of all popular chord progressions fall under one of 4 basic progression in this lesson.

If you run into an exception ( maybe a couple of chords are flipped or the progression starts in the middle) you begin to find that even the exceptions are pretty common.

I'll give you these progressions in Roman Numeral  format so they can be transposed to any key. The example chords will be for the key of C major. 

If you are not familiar with the Roman Numeral system you will find some help in my lesson on Diatonic Chords.

Popular Chord Progressions
The most common progression.

In my research and experience by far the most common chord progression is the I, IV, V progression.

In any key you play in the I, IV, and V (ex. C, F, and G ) chords are the primary chords and they will happen in some order in many popular songs from Rock to Country to just about any genre. 

So the first progression is any combination of these chords.

For Example "Imagine" by John Lennon starts off going from I to IV for the verses.

"The Gambler"  by Kenny Rodgers rocks back and forth from I to V. 

If you have ever been to a Jam Session I am sure you have encountered the I, IV, I, V, I or Blues progression.

Thinking about this progression is where you should start when trying to learn by ear any new song.

Popular Chord Progressions
The Pop Progression

This chord progression in my opinion and most likely in fact is the most used, some may say "over used" chord progression in popular music.

The progression is I, V, vi ,IV  ex. ( C, G, Am F ) Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" would be one example.

Before I sat down to write this I learned "Mighty To save" by Hillsong. Another example that takes full advantage of this progression. Its used so much I think God may have had something to do with it.

There is a common variation of this one that goes vi IV I V. It's exactly the same progression, but starting from the vi (Am) and going around the progression.

Take a comic relief break and watch the Axis of Awesome video to hear dozens more.


The chart below gives a few variations of this progression in a few of the most used keys in Popular Music.

The Jazz Progression


Almost every Jazz Standard is built around this progression.  ii V I (Dm G C)

"Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington or "Autumn Leaves" by everybody, are two examples. If you click on the links I have posted lessons on both with video tutorials.

A great little exercise for getting the ii-V-I progression into your fingers in all the keys is found in the lesson on common chord progressions.

The "Blue Moon" or 50's Progression

This chord progression and its variant were well used in the 1940's and 1950's for both ballad and uptempo songs. I vi ii V (C Am Dm G) - "Sherry" by The Four Seasons or "Fool on the Hill" by The Beatles.

I vi IV V (C Am F G) - "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen or "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson.  Dm and F share two of the same notes (F and A) making them common substitutions for one another.

Sometimes called the "50's" progression it was heard quite often in the 50's Do Whop era with songs like Blue Moon, You Send Me, Since I fell for you and many others.

Later on in the Sixties this piano chord progression gave way to hits like "All I Have to Do Is Dream", for The Everly Brothers, The Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me" and Boris Pickett's "Monster Mash".

Using this basic information on popular chord progressions I hope you will take the time to go through some songbooks and pick out a few just to see what basic category the chord progression falls into.

Remember there will always be variations but usually they just involve the addition of a single chord or a reordering of the chord sequence.

Remember that not everyone in your audience is a musician and that is precisely why these simple progression are common to most popular music.

Keeping it simple is a good formula for pop music and for life.

Contact me

If you have any questions, suggestions, or ideas for future lessons feel free to Contact Me.

Best Home Study for "Ear Players"

After checking out dozens of home study courses that teach you to play by ear and focus on chord progressions I am convinced that the folks at Hear and Play have the best, most well rounded program available for just about all styles of music from Gospel to Jazz. Read my review or visit Hear and Play for more information.

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