5 Most Common Chord Progressions Ever (Beginners, Learn These First...)
Top chord progressions for guitar players: list of the most used chord progressions to write songs with for pop, jazz, blues etc...
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Guitar player, listen up! We reveal the top 5 common chord progressions that are hands-down, the best chord progressions you really should know.
Learn songs quicker, write songs easier and brush up on some basic music theory by learning how to play the chord sequences songwriters use to create hit songs.
Before we dive into the list of common chord progressions, we'll answer a few beginner guitar player questions.
What is a Chord Progression?
A chord progression is simply a sequence of chords played in a certain order in a piece of music. Furthermore, some chords help move a song along, some add suspense, whilst one acts as the tonal center ‘home chord’.
There are many popular chord progressions that have been used time and time again to make 1000's of songs. And these common chord sequences sound good because they use the forces behind something called functional harmony.
What is Functional Harmony?
In a nutshell, functional harmony is the idea that chords (harmony) have a specific relationship to the tonal center of a piece of music (the first chord or note), as well as to each other.
Functional harmony also tells us that each chord helps to move a piece of music along, much like words do in a story book. Every chord provides either stability, anticipation or tension on their way back home to resolve to the tonic chord.
What is a Tonic?
The tonic is the first note (aka degree) in a major or minor scale which acts as the tonal centre of a piece of music. The tonic degree further builds the tonic triad (first chord) in a song which is regarded as the ‘home chord’ because it gives a sense of resolution to the music.
The tonic chord (harmony) or note (melody) is at rest and content with life. When you reach the tonic in a passage of music, there is no tension, no suspense...it feels like you’re back home.
The tonic of a key is the most important scale degree as it is where our ear longs to return back to.
Key Takeaway: The tonic is the same note as the name of the key signature. Put another way, if a song is ‘in D Major’, then the D note and the D Major chord are the tonic.
Top 5 Chord Progressions List
Now I’m going to show you some useful reference cheat sheets for the top five common chord progressions found across all musical styles. There are jazz chord progressions, pop chord progressions, blues chord progressions and major chord progressions.
Before we dive into the progressions, here’s a little reminder of the chord formulas for both major and natural minor keys:
Major: I= major, ii= min, iii= min, IV= major, V =major, vi=min, vii˚ =dim
Minor: i =minor, ii˚ =dim, III =major, iv =minor, v =minor, VI =major, VII =major
Chord Progression #1. I - IV - V | (1-4-5)
I just had to start you off with the 1-4-5 chord progression. There's no two ways about it, this iconic chord progression is the foundation of many styles of music, particularly classic rock ‘n’ roll, punk and rock. Synonymous with 12-bar blues, this progression sounds positive and upbeat thanks to the dominance of the three primary major chords.
The perfect cadence movement between the V-I chords adds to the popularity the flavour and mood this chord progression creates.
Below is a table showing you the chords found in the most used major keys on guitar, along with their relative minor key signatures that follow the I-IV-V progression.
Be sure you check out the handy practice tips towards the end of the post before you move on.
Pro Tip: If you're a beginner guitar player, take the time to work on getting your chord changes smooth and clean. This will help make your chord progressions sing. Be patient and stay focused, perfect chords only happen with consistent daily practice.
Chord Progression #2. I-V-vi-IV | (1-5-6-4)
The 1-5-6-4 progression is the staple of popular music. You don’t have to look far to find hundreds upon hundreds of hit songs in mainstream music that follow this four chord formula. The contrast between the chords is what makes the progression work so well across many genres.
This reference table below shows the chords in the enormously popular 1-5-6-4 chord progression for the first three key signatures: C major, G major, and D major.
The tonic (I) is highlighted in blue. The basic triads are shown along with the harmonically richer sounding seventh extensions. A handy tip is to start and end your chord progression on the tonic (I). This'll help achieve that tension/resolution sound when experimenting with writing songs on your guitar.
Chord Progression #3. vi–IV–I–V | (6-4-1-5)
The 6-4-1-5 progression is a slight tweak on the previous classic I-V-vi-IV sequence and is a favourite of songwriters thanks to it’s catchy, familiar sound. The harmonic movement sounds compelling, with each chord leading effortlessly into the next one. Starting on the relative minor iv chord helps create an emotive and emotional vibe.
The chord progression chart below shows the triad chords along with the alternative seventh chords in the first three major keys.
Add this progression to your weekly guitar practice schedule and you'll be improving your rhythm playing at breakneck speeds.
Try this: Swap out the seventh chords for some more sophisticated chord extensions. Try a C major 9th, Gmaj9th or an Em11th for starters.
Chord Progression #4. ii–V–I | (2-5-1)
Easily the most used chord progression when it comes to the jazz world, next up is the 2-5-1 chord progression.
The bread and butter of jazz music, the 2-5-1 progression dominates the genre largely because jazz harmony is based around the cycle of fourths. The II degree in the progression is a fourth away from the V, which is also a fourth away from the tonic (I).
The chord progression chart below shows examples again, in the first three major key signatures:
Chord Progression #5. I-vi-IV-V | (1-6-4-5)
You’re probably seeing by now that most of the common chord progressions musicians and songwriters use aren’t massively different in Western music. In the next 1-6-4-5 progression we once again see that pleasing perfect cadence at the end when the 5th degree resolves to the tonic (I).
The I-vi-IV-V chord progression is sometimes called “The 50’s Progression” because, yep you guessed it, it was popular in songs from the 1950’s-1960’s period.
The table below shows you the chords in the tried and tested 1-6-4-5 progression in three keys. Have a go at changing up the chord voicings from the regular shapes you’d default to playing when you practice this. Also, record yourself playing to keep an audio diary of your improvement.
1. Divide and conquer: To effectively use your practice time, make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew. As you can see, some key signatures look more complicated than others, with loads of sharp/flats. Start with the first two ‘easier’ keys of C major and G major. Both keys only have one sharp/flat note between them (F#).
2. Feel the rhythm: Try out different rhythms and strumming patterns and record yourself practicing the chord progressions.
3. Different tempos: Record down three different tempo backing tracks for each of the chord progressions. Try laid back (60bpm approx), moderate (90bpm approx) and faster (130bpm approx). Stick to slow speeds if you’re a total beginner, otherwise you’ll be all over the place.
4. Key change: Apply the chord progression formulas to different key signatures. Write them the chords out.