What are the most common chord progressions? Learn about three of the most common chord progressions used in popular music.
Learning Popular Chord Progressions
There may be an endless number of possible chord progressions, but some are used more frequently than others within popular music. Knowing how to build chord progressions and understanding how they interact with each other is essential when learning basic music theory. Read on to learn about a few common chord progressions that can bring new life to your next song, regardless of the genre.
What are Chord Progressions?
A chord progression is a series of chords that provide the foundation for a song. It supports both the melody and the rhythm. Chord progressions usually repeat throughout a song, often never changing. However, it’s also common to have a progression that changes between sections of a song to add variety and interest.
The most important part of any chord progression is not the specific chords, but rather the harmonic function of the chords. These functions are all related to the tonic of the key, which is defined by one of the 12 notes. The 12 notes on the piano keyboard represent the 12 possible keys. Based on this, artists can apply chord progressions to all 12 keys.
Also, each of the 12 keys contains seven notes in an octave which can each serve as the root of a triad, the most common chord. Each note within any scale can form a specific chord. Therefore, you can build a chord progression based on the position of notes in a particular scale. These chords are then assigned a Roman numeral to indicate both the scale degree and the harmonic function of the chord. These chords have the labels I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii. Uppercase Roman numerals represent major chords, while lowercase numerals represent minor chords. See the image below:
Common Chord Progressions
Read on to learn about three of the most common chord progressions used in popular music. There is also a brief explanation of why each progression is used so often and examples of popular songs that use them.
1. I – V / V – I Chord Progressions
This common chord progression is the simplest in western music because it only uses two chords. Artists keep using it because it allows for a lot of freedom when creating melody and harmony.
The “I” refers to the first chord of the major scale, known as the “tonic.” The “V” refers to the fifth chord of the major scale, known as the “dominant.” These two chords are also closely related based on the overtone series, which defines the circle of fifths.
For example, when you play a “C” on the piano, you’re not only hearing a pure “C” tone. If you did, it would sound like a robotic frequency rather than a musical note. The strongest audible frequency is the “C” or “the fundamental.” However, there are also overtones that give the note its musical quality. The most prevalent overtone is an octave above the fundamental, followed by the fifth. The spectrum analyzer below shows the overtones of a “C” note:
Essentially, the fifth or dominant of any major key links to the tonic, whether it be through chords or singular notes. For instance, when you build a triad from the tonic of the major scale, it includes the dominant. As an example, the key of “C” has the notes C-E-G. “C” is the tonic and “G” is the dominant.
You can also build a triad from the dominant of the major scale. In the key of “C” that would be the notes G-B-D. Continue this pattern further by using the second and third notes of the dominant chord to build the seventh chord of the scale, which would be B-D-F. The seventh chord is the tense, diminished chord that leads back to the tonic, offering release.
Why This Chord Progression is Popular
The dominant is the bridge between tension and release in major keys. This is why a song can alternate between the tonic and dominant chords over and over. With the right melodies, counter-melodies, and harmonies, the song will never get boring regardless of genre. As long as you stay within the key, you can write almost anything over this progression.
Songs That Use I – V/V – I Chord Progressions
Sublime – “What I Got”
Bob Marley – “Lively Up Yourself”
The Beatles – “I’ve Got A Feeling”
2. Twelve Bar Blues I – IV – I – V – IV – I Chord Progressions
Once you’re familiar with the tonic and dominant, it’s time to integrate the third major chord in a major key: the subdominant.
The subdominant is the chord built on the fourth degree of the major scale. For example, a chord built on the fourth degree in the key of “C” has the notes F-A-C. Also, the subdominant introduces tension that can be released by either adding the dominant or tonic notes.
The chord built on the fourth degree of the major scale is known as the subdominant for two reasons. First, it is one scale degree below the dominant, which is the fifth degree. Second, the interval between the tonic and the subdominant is the same as the interval between the dominant and the tonic. Both are a perfect fourth apart.
The most common chord progression that uses the I, IV, and IV is the twelve-bar blues. As the name indicates, this chord progression consists of 12 bars. The first four bars are all tonic (I-I-I-I). The second four bars consist of the subdominant and tonic (IV-IV-I-I). And the third four bars place the subdominant between the dominant and tonic (V-IV-I-I).
Why This Chord Progression is Popular
Theoretically, the subdominant serves as a precursor to the tension of the dominant because it shares a specific relationship with both the tonic and the dominant.
For example, in the key of “C,” the subdominant triad has the notes F-A-C. So, the subdominant triad includes the tonic note while the second two notes are just one step away from the other two notes in the C major tonic triad, which is “E” and “G.” This relationship makes the chord ideal for both moving away from the tonic and going back to the tonic.
Also, note that the subdominant triad (F-A-C) doesn’t share any notes with the dominant triad (G-B-D). However, each note is a step away. This relationship creates a solid sense of forward motion as the function of the chord shifts from subdominant to dominant.
Shifts like this can be very effective and emotional in music. This is why these three chords are so common together. They are also all major chords, so a melody based on the major scale will almost always sound good.
Note: Beyond the 12-bar blues, there are also dozens of other songs that use the I, IV, and V chords. Their harmonic relationship allows you to arrange them in almost any way.
Songs That Use Twelve-Bar Blues Chord Progression
The White Stripes – “Ball and Biscuit”
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Red Right Hand”
Led Zeppelin – “Rock and Roll”
3. I – V – vi – IV Chord Progressions
Now that you’re familiar with three common major chords in a major key, it’s time to make things interesting by adding a minor chord to your progression. Here, we will add the “vi” chord, known as the submediant.
In the key of “C,” the submediant chord would be the A minor triad, which has the notes A-C-E. This chord introduces a more dissonant, minor sound into the chord progression. It also shares an interesting relationship with the dominant. For instance, its lack of common notes makes it perfect for redirecting the tension to the minor sound. It can also serve as a pivot back to either the subdominant or tonic because of its shared notes with those two chords.
Why This Chord Progression is Popular
This common chord progression also uses four chords. Four is the most common number in music. For example, most modern songs have four beats in a measure. Those measures are then arranged into phrases that consist of 8,16, or 32 bars (numbers all divisible by four). Therefore, a song naturally flows better when there are four chords in the progression. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rock song, an EDM track or a Latin tune because they all have an overarching mathematical similarity.
Moreover, the harmonic relationships between these chords make this common chord progression perfect for writing poignant, catchy pop tunes. For example, dozens of famous songs across various genres and time periods use this chord progression. Everyone from the Beatles to Lady Gaga to Journey to MGMT have used this common chord progression.
Check out this video from Axis of Awesome playing various pop songs using the same four chords:
Songs That Use the I – V – vi – IV Chord Progression
Jason Mraz – “I’m Yours”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Otherside”
A Ha – “Take on Me”
These common chord progressions can serve as the building blocks for any song from any genre. Countless artists use them time and time again because they work. Not only by themselves but for further experimentation.
Remember, there are only 12 notes in the entire worldwide musical canon. Think about the relationships shared between the notes in the progressions listed above. Then try applying them to different notes. You may be surprised by what you discover.