Learning Popular Chord Progressions

As we were studying intervals you may have noticed a lot of song examples for each particular ascending or descending step quantities. After the intervals, we started stacking notes on top of each other to get chords. Once again, we realized there are only so many ways to stack these notes before we start repeating them. Our next step is to put these chords together in ways that appeal to our ears and moods. We are going to learn chord progressions. In some cases, they follow very similar rules, just as the first or root and fifth note fit well when played together so do the first and fifth chord. And like intervals and chords, it isn’t an incredible amount to have to remember either. 

After you have a confident grasp on chords you can start learning the handful of most popular chord progressions. It is almost a little disheartening, to find out music isn’t a great mystery, but a formula. Even in jazz where the joke is all about “playing the wrong notes” there is still often a chord order to follow (usually just spaced out among more key changes).

Chord progressions can’t be copyrighted. It is the melody of a song that often makes the hook and that is what can’t be legally copied. If all chord progressions are all so similar, then how do we make our music sound unique? There are many chord substitutions, extensions, arrangements, and all-around general effects used to make a song unique. 

Chord progressions are so common that one has been around for hundreds of years and we still use it! First, we will build some less complicated chord progressions and at the end show you this longer progression from almost 400 years ago that you will instantly recognize. 

Building Our First Progressions

We will start with the normal C major diatonic scale, remember diatonic means only notes in the scale can be used. The chords we will get from that major scale are;

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

Now if you are wondering why we have E minor instead of E major? That is because the notes making up E major do not all fit in the C major scale. The majors and minors exist in that order as they are the notes from the key. The same reason you see Bdim up there, B major and B minor do not fit the key of C. All major musical keys have these same major-minor orders, which is why the Nashville Numbering system was created. The number system was started by musicians in Nashville in the 1950’s to make it easier to play in various keys. It looks like this:

Learning Chord Progressions - Nashville Numbering System

Nashville Numbering System

This is so you can walk into a studio and say “this verse is a 1-4-5 in the key of C.” Right away every trained musician will know the chords are C-F-G, as we can see from the chart above. The number system can be written in Arabic or Roman numerals. If it is in Roman, major is denoted as uppercase I or V and minor as lowercase i or v. If in Arabic numerals we notate minor with a lowercase “m” next to the number. We, of course, can also build chord progressions on a minor scale, by simply starting on the 6 in the above chart we get the relative minor. So the relative minor chords to C major would be;

Am-Bdim-C-Dm-Em-F-G

Now one thing to be clear on the chord progressions we will be discussing, they don’t always go that way through the whole song. Yes, some songs are 1-4-5 the entire way through, some only for a verse or chorus. Often the bridge will be a different progression. The point being is you have to listen to the chord changes in the song to know, it just helps tremendously if your band knows the bulk of your song before any explanation.

Years ago they used to sell giant fakebooks of songs, very basic and short-sheet music that carried only the basic chord progressions of tunes. While this didn’t give you the entirety of the piece it allowed for any musician to be able to “fake” their way through playing. 

The Folk Progression I-V

Folk Chord Progression

As mentioned, the first or root chord and fifth chord go well together, so inherently well that they make a great two-chord progression. This I-V chord change is very popular in folk music, children’s songs, and traditional tunes where you see it throughout the whole tune. In pop and rock, you will see this two-chord change in verses. Often in rock, it will be played as I-V7, C-G7. The seventh note being the way to give a song a bluesy or rock vibe.

That is your first lesson in making a chord progression unique, by adding a chord extension. Play C-G repeatedly and the whole mood and feel of the song changes if it is C-G7. “Summer of 69” uses I-V7 and “Achy Breaky Heart” uses I-V in their initial verses. One is 80s arena rock and the other more country-pop, but the difference is nothing huge.

There are other two-chord progressions such as, I-IV which is common in reggae or rock. For reggae songs such as“Lively Up Yourself,” or in rock “Born in the USA,” and “Love Me Do.” Also, the I-ii is used in the initial verse of The Beatles song “Paperback Writer.” In the Isley Brothers “Shout” the verse switches back and forth from the I-vi (the major to minor and back gives that song kind of a whiplash back and forth).

The Pop/Rock Progression I-IV-V

This is the big one, the “1-4-5” the progression of so many songs, of course often ending back on the I or root at the end of the line. Once in an interview, Paul McCartney claimed he and George Harrison took a bus across town to learn the B7 chord. They had no chord books at the time and the B7 was essential to play the rock n roll songs they loved which mostly consisted of E-A-B7 (the 1-4-5 with a 7th note on the fifth chord).

Many of the most well-known tunes follow this rock progression like “La Bamba,” “Twist and Shout,” and the chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone.” And this 1-4-5 isn’t just a staple of early rock, it is essential in country, pop, gospel, EDM, and much more. A large portion of the music is made up of this chord order or the variation below which is the blues progression.

Blues Progression I-IV-I-V-I

This is another common chord progression seen across many genres of music and is known as the blues progression. It will often be accompanied by sevenths, as they are essential in the blues and rock. Often you will see the I and IV repeated during a verse and then at the end the turnaround with the V to I, or usually V7 to the root. In the song “Kiss” Prince uses this basic progression but he switches up the basic notes of A-D-A-E-A. Instead, he uses power chords like A5 and sevenths like D7, and the little riff he plays right before the word ‘kiss’ is E9sus4.

That’s how he takes it from being a simple blues progression to something special and funky. Often you will hear a song and while it may seem new and fresh, it is just using these basic, yet essential chord progressions spiced up in a particular way. 

Don’t forget these major chord progressions can also be played in minor, it is just simply more common to be played in the ways shown above. Like most music rules once you learn the basics it is up to you to break those rules based on what you want to accomplish.

Doo Wop Progression I-vi-IV-V

So far, we have been dealing with three-chord progressions. You could stop right now and make a decent living off of the root, fourth, and fifth chords in various orders. Now we will throw a minor in, and the best minor in the major scale happens to be the relative minor or the #6 of the Nashville numbering system. The I-vi-IV-V progression is known as the doo wop progression or the 50’s progression because it was used in nearly every 50’s doo wop song. In the key of C the chords would be C-Am-F-G, don’t forget lower case Roman Numerals equal a minor. 

Some samples of this progression are “Blue Moon,” “Earth Angel,” “Beauty School Dropout,” “Monster Mash,” the chorus of ELO’s “Telephone Line,” and of course so many more. If you hear a song with a hint of a 50s vibe, it is likely this progression or a variation. 

Axis of Awesome I-V-vi-IV 

This chord progression has become so well-known because of the band known as the Axis of Awesome. This band has a popular YouTube video where they play a ton of songs all with the same four chords of I-V-vi-IV or C-G-Am-F. There are so many examples of this chord progression that it is kind of surprising. Nearly every artist uses this at one time or another, some repeatedly. You want to make a hit song? Start with this progression. “Let It Be,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” “When I Come Around,” “Poker Face,” and many more. If you look hard enough someone has likely made a spreadsheet as they are plentiful in this chord progression. 

Rock Ballad I-iii-IV-V

Rock Chord Progression

This is another staple of rock and pop songs if you needed a daily dose of essential chord progressions the rock ballad would be a part of it. In the key of C this would be C-Em-F-G, the Em in the chord order giving us the vibe that a story is about to be told! Songs that follow this progression are “Summer Song,” “Crocodile Rock,” the verse of “Ziggy Stardust” and so many more. If you look up a lot of these examples you will see they are often songs with a narrative. If you want to write an epic tune about your life, use this progression.

Classic Rock I-bVII-IV

This one is a little different compared to the others so far. We ignore the diminished at the seventh chord and instead to flatten it. So in the key of C we would have C-Bb-F, which is very common in songs like “You Got It,” and “More Than a Feeling.” This progression can also be used as I-bII-IV which would be C-Eb-F. By mixing the Bb or Eb into our songs we are just adding blues scale notes, which means it will be suited for a classic rock vibe. You will often see this classic rock chord progression in the key of E as E-D-A.

Pop Rock Lydian I-II-IV-!

In this progression, we take the normal 2nd minor and make it a major. So in the key of C we would have C-D-F-G. If you play that progression you will immediately notice it sounds like “Eight Days a Week.” Only in the Lydian scale do the notes see and C and D appear together, which is where it gets its name. You’ve also heard this chord progression in the songs “Love Me Tender,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Sensitive Female Progression vi-IV-!-V

The name of this progression doesn’t sound the nicest, but it does happen to describe most of the songs that come from this chord order. Often used by Jewel, Sara McLachlan, Avril Lavigne, Rhianna, and many more. It is was probably originally best known for the song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Air).” If you are looking to write a song that is on the sensitive and emotional side, then try the chords Am-F-C-G. Of course, it can be used outside if a sensitive setting but considering it starts with a minor it will always have a tone of seriousness to it.

Jazz Standards I-vi-ii-V

Jazz Chord Progression

Many of the jazz standards of the 30’s and 40’s used this chord progression, however with the usual complicated chords of jazz standards. You’ve heard this in songs like “Heart and Soul” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This progression was so overused it led to chord substitutions from composers to try and spice it up as much as possible. This has led to the modern-day method of taking the same old progression and doing anything to pull something unique out of it. Our modern overused progression is probably the Axis of Awesome chords mentioned above.

Jazz Progression ii-V-!

Jazz has its own specific chord progressions and this one here is by far the most popular. Usually, the first chord sequence learned for any new jazz student. You may also recognize these chords as turnaround chords, played at the end of the song to bring it all back around to the beginning. If jazz is your thing getting to know these chord changes in and out and all the variations is essential. This can also be used in pop and rock music like songs “It Never Rains in Southern California.”

Flamenco Progression i-VII-VI-V

As it says this is a progression commonly used in flamenco music. In the key of Am just play Am-G-F-E, and you will hear the flamenco flare that it has. Probably the best-known song for this progression is the instrumental “Walk Don’t Run.” It’s also found in songs with a focus on rock and swing like “Hit the Road Jack” and “Sultans of Swing.”

Ascending Augmented I-I+-I6-I7

With songs like “Accentuate the Positive,” “The Greatest Love of All,” and “Love Will Keep Us Together” you get the ascending augmented chord sequence. It all stays on the same root chord as this; C-Caug-C6-C7 and slowly ascending extended C major chords (remember C+ and Caug are both the same chord). This gives the song the vibe that something is building, and it is huge (often love or optimism).

La Folia i-V7-i-VII III-VII-i-V7-i

What we have listed so far does not cover every chord progression out there, but it does account for most. In many cases, anything different is simply a variation of what we have already shown. This brings us to our last example; la folia. Folia has been around since the 17th century and used by many composers. It’s a little daunting above so here is the chord progression in Am;

Am-E7-Am-G C-G-Am-E7-Am

Now after playing that, it is very clear you have it heard it before, it is the quintessential medieval scale. If you have any plans to be playing a Renaissance Fair, it is essential to learn la folia and all of its variations. 

Spicing It Up

If you are a songwriter and you feel like what you are writing has been done before. It is a common problem in the music world. Cultures are finicky and like specific music scales and rhythms and that is simply that. You never want to be too cutting edge as you want to play what people like to hear. Of course, knowing your chord progressions is not only necessary for songwriters but average musicians need to learn also. If you have ever noticed how some band members seem to know every song, this is how. You learn the doo wop progression above, and you can fake your way through a lot of rhythm and blues music. 

If you are writing your own music the key is to make changes whenever you can to make your song feel different. You can borrow, modulate, and substitute other chords. Borrowing is where you use a chord that is not diatonic, sort of like in the pop Lydian progression above. You can also modulate where you start in the key of C and switch to another key. This can be a close key like C# or perhaps a key from another chord in your progression. Substitution is also another great way to spice up your chord progressions. Instead of using a vi try substituting an ii or iii minor chord. 

Conclusion

Don’t let this be your final word on chord progressions as you can always learn more and better ways to change what you have. Especially if your goal is songwriting this is an important aspect to study. If you know what feeling of song you want, you will have an idea of which chord progressions to begin playing. It is also simply great knowledge to have as a musician.

When you train your ears to recognize intervals, chords, and chord progressions you realize western music is not very complicated. You can listen to songs and immediately catch how it is similar to other songs. It’s like knowing a secret code. Next time you turn on the radio or your streaming service see if you can identify any popular chord progressions!

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