Chord progressions offer a view of music from a whole new perspective. Once you know some common variants, you’ll be able to create your own music, learn and sight-read written music more quickly, and have a greater understanding of music in general.
First, what are piano chord progressions? Chord progressions are simply a sequence of chords. (A chord is two or more notes played together). Chord progressions exist to develop the music in a harmonically meaningful way. Often you can hear a “harmonic story” in each chord progression which includes a beginning, middle, and end.
In order to notate and analyze chords, musicians use a system of Roman numerals. In each major key, there are seven unique chords, built off the notes of the scale. Each chord in the scale can be major, minor, diminished, or augmented.
Here are the notations for each chord in a major scale: I (major), ii (minor), iii (minor), IV (major), V (major), vi (minor), and vii° (diminished). As you can see, a capital Roman numeral indicates “major,” and a lowercase Roman numeral indicates “minor.”
7 Piano Chord Progressions Everyone Should Know
The chord progressions on the following list can be used in any of the 12 major keys. For simplicity’s sake, each chord progression below is shown both in Roman numerals and in the key of C Major, as an example. (The last progression on the list is an exception, which is in minor).
In each genre of music, there are specific chord progressions that are commonly used and well loved. Below, you’ll learn seven of the most common piano chord progressions from jazz, gospel, blues, and more!
1. The 12-bar Blues Chord Progression
This chord progression is incredibly simple because it uses just three chords – I, IV, and V – but it has infinite possibilities for melodic improvisation. When played over 12 bars, this progression becomes a “12-bar blues.”
Note: A bar of music is a way of notating a set amount of time, or a certain number of beats, in the music. In the 12-bar blues, each bar would have four beats or counts, and each chord would last one bar. This makes 12 bars in total – one for each chord.
You can experiment with improvising on top of this chord progression using the blues scale. When this chord progression is used in a blues song, it’s repeated many times throughout the song. You’ll find the 12-bar blues in songs like Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”
Without further ado, check out the progression in C Major below. This chord progression, like all chord progressions, can be played in a variety of timings. Here, the chord progression (I-IV-I-V-I) is extended so it can last for 12 bars.
C – C – C – C – F – F – C – C – G – G – C – C
I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I
If you’d like, you can also practice this in other keys by transposing it. To do this, choose your key (say, G Major), and then use the sequence of Roman numerals above to create the same chord progression using the scale of G Major.
If you need more help or want to check your transposition, you can type in the chord names (i.e. C, G, F) here and they will be transposed to the key of your choice.
2. The “Cadential” Chord Progression
No piano chord progression list would be complete without this one, since it defies genre and is an essential ending progression. This is called a “cadential” chord progression in music theory, and it’s particularly common in classical, church, and gospel settings.
The ii-V-I chord progression is complete on its own, but it can also be made into the longer progression I-vi-ii-V-I. You can hear this progression in many jazz standards, including Miles Davis’ “Tune Up” and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.”
Here’s what this progression would look like in C Major:
Dmin – G – C
ii – V – I
3. The Songwriting & All-purpose Chord Progression
This progression will likely sound familiar to you, as it’s extremely popular and has a dramatic sound – thanks to the minor vi chord. The progression lends itself very well to songwriting.
It can actually be altered by starting on any of the chords in the progression and then continuing in the same order (for example, V-vi-IV-I). Changing it in this way creates different tonal sentiments, from melancholy to drama.
Songs using this progression are numerous, including the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.”
Here it is in all four alterations:
C – G – Amin – F / G – Amin – F – C / Amin – F – C – G / F – C – G – Amin
I – V – vi – IV / V – vi – IV – I / vi – IV – I – V / IV – I – V – vi
4. The Classic 3-chord Progression
This is one of the most versatile piano chord progressions, yet also one of the simplest! It’s been widely used as the basis for many songs, especially in modern pop. It’s also a good one to practice improvisation, since the progression itself doesn’t take a lot of concentration.
You’ll recognize it in Richie Valen’s “La Bamba,” Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”
Here is the 3-chord progression in C Major, as an example:
C – F – G
I – IV – V
5. The Canon (AKA Pachelbel) Progression
This progression is named after Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, an idyllic work that has become very well known. It is a more extended version of the previous I-IV-V progression. Like the 12-bar blues, it can be repeated many times within a single song.
The Canon progression appears in many genres, particularly pop. You’ll hear it in Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” and Blues Traveler’s “Hook.”
The progression looks like this in C Major:
C – G – Amin – Emin – F – C – F – G
I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V
6. The 50s Progression
This progression is a throwback to the 50s, although it’s still in use today. It has several different catchy names that speak to its versatility including the “Heart and Soul” chords, the “doo wop progression,” and the “ice cream changes.”
You can hear it featured in songs like Ben E. King’s hit “Stand By Me,” Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia,” and Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.”
This chord progression makes the rounds in many genres, including pop, classical, reggae, and doo-wop.
C – Amin – F – G
I – vi – IV – V
7. Andalusian Cadence
Now that you know a number of basic piano chord progressions in major, here’s one that has a bit more flair thanks to its roots in Flamenco music. This progression is in minor, and it also uses chords that are lowered by a half step (♭ VII and ♭ VI).
You’ll hear the Andalusian cadence in Ace of Base’s “Cruel Summer,” Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack,” and Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
The Andalusian cadence looks like this in C Minor:
Cmin – B♭– A ♭– G
i – ♭ VII – ♭ VI – V
Chord progressions are fundamental to playing the piano proficiently and understanding music on a deeper level. To learn more about chord progressions and the theory behind them, piano lessons are a great solution.
A teacher can help demystify music theory, and give you personalized exercises to train your ear and fingers. Try an online piano class, or take one-on-one piano lessons with a professional instructor near you to learn more.