Popular Chord Progressions

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.

© Copyright piano-lessons-for-life.com

Solo Build It!

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.
Custom Search

I need your help!

If you enjoyed this article please click the Facebook Like button and help me continue to provide these free lessons.

Thank You!!

Sign up for Free Lesson Alerts from Personal Piano Professor!

Enter Your E-mail Address
Enter Your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Free Piano Lessons.