What Are Common Chord Progressions?
We're going to talk about common chord patterns, specifically for guitarists. When I first learned about common chord patterns, it gave me a huge boost in my ability to learn songs faster. It really helped my songwriting abilities. These days I find this to be a great tool for students as well.
Common chord patterns are short chord progressions. Most of the time you’ll only use three or four chords. Being able to recognize these patterns will help you learn the songs much faster. You’re also practicing chord changes how they’re most often used.
A Little Music Theory
We’re going to start out with just a little bit of music theory: the Major Scale.
Let’s use the C Major scale, it’s the easiest one to memorize. Start at C, and work your way up the alphabet.
And then we’d start back with C and keep going. We can number each of those notes in relation to the scale (1 through 7).
- C is 1
- D is 2
- E is 3
- F is 4
- G is 5
- A is 6
- B is 7
This is how we talk about the notes. When we’re talking about chords in a scale, we change to roman numerals. These are incredibly common in music. Here’s what the chords would look like (and yes, each note also represents a chord in the key!):
- C is I
- D is ii
- E is iii
- F is IV
- G is V
- A is vi
- B is viiº
Are you wondering why some are lowercase and some are uppercase? The upper case are Major chords, and the lowercase are minor chords. The seventh chord is a little different, in that it’s a diminished chord. But we won’t worry about that right now.
To make any chord in the key, start on the note you want, we’ll say C. Every Major and minor chord has three notes. So we’ll need two more notes to make our chords.
Start with C and skip over one note to get the second note in your chord (skip over the D and you’ll land on the E), then skip over another note to get your third note in the chord (skip over the F and you’ll land on the G). With C, E, and G you have a C Major chord. For the D, you’d have D, G, and A for a D minor chord.
That’s all there is to it! These chords are called diatonic chords. That just means they’re made up strictly of notes in the scale and you haven’t borrowed from other scales.
Using our roman numerals, here is how every chord naturally falls:
- C (or I) - Major
- D (or ii) - minor
- E (or iii) - minor
- F (or IV) - Major
- G (or V) - Major
- A (or vi) - minor
- B (or viiº) - minor (diminished)
Diminished chords don’t show up much in popular music, so we’ll skip it for now. The chords were going to be dealing with are 1 through 6. And in the case of the key of C, that's going to be three major chords and 3 minor chords.
Many, many, many progressions are built with these six chords. You can pretty much choose any three or four of these chords and play them together. They’ll sound OK and make sense to your ears. They’re used to it.
When writing your progression, a good rule of thumb is to end it on the 4 (IV) or 5 (V) chord. The chords tend to pull to the root chord. They create enough tension that resolves on the root (I) chord. The 5 (V) chord especially pulls very strongly to the I chord.
You’ll see what I mean! I’m going to switch to mostly roman numerals now, with chords listed as examples to tie it together. That way, you can take these ideas into any key.
And I’ll use terminology like “that’s a I-IV-V pattern”. What I’m saying is that the progression uses the I chord, then the IV chord, then the V chord.
The most common chords used for popular music are the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord. If you want to extend that you can add the vi chord (more on that in a bit). Most of popular music will be built off these three or four chords.
Examples Of Common Chord Progressions
The I-IV-V Pattern
One of the most foundational progressions is the I-IV-V progression. Think about “The Car's My Best Friend's Girl”. It's the pattern used for “Good Riddance” by Green Day, “Stir It Up” by Bob Marley and many, many, many more.
The I-IV-V is a great place to start to practice your chords. You're going to see this pattern either for the whole song, parts of the song, or sometimes just in very small parts of a song. This progression is powerful because the V chord has this feeling of forward motion pulling you back to the I chord. It’s pulling you back “home” to the root.
Try playing C-F-G, then C-F-G. That G (the V chord) creates tension that is only satisfied by going back to the C. Pretty cool! Play that a few times to get used to the sound.
The I-IV-V-IV Pattern
Now try a I-IV-V-IV pattern. In the key of C that’s C-F-G-F. This is also used all over the place.
You can also mix these. Try playing a progression like this:
In C Major:
By now you see that either the IV or V chords are a great way to end a phrase. They pull you back to the I chord.
Adding The vi Chord
Like I mentioned earlier, you can open an even bigger universe of songs by adding the vi chord.
A very common progression in 50s music is a I-vii-IV-V. Think about “Unchained Melody” for a perfect example. In C Major, that’s C-Am-F-G.
A sound that we associate with tons and tons of popular music would be the I-V-vi-IV progression (C-G-Am-F in C Major). As an example, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” uses this. You’ll also see this in probably half of the pop punk songs out there.
One more common progression I want to cover is the vi-IV-I-V progression. This is also used in a lot of pop punk and pop songs. “Zombie” by The Cranberries is a good one that comes to mind. And again, you’ll see this in a lot of pop punk and hard rock songs.
Why You Should Learn Common Chord Patterns
You can start to see how just three or four chords make up a very big portion of popular music. Of course they’ll be used in different keys, with different rhythms and melodies.
By learning to play these you’ll start to be able to recognize them when you hear them in songs. This will help tremendously to develop your ear training. You’re also building the muscle memory in your hands for common chord changes.
If you have any questions or any comments, I'd love to hear from you. Go ahead and write something down in the comments below.
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