The Top 5 Most Popular Chord Progressions

By Jade Bultitude
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Chord progressions are the basis of almost all music and are what can turn a dull melody into something great! Western music, including classical, pop, rock, jazz, blues etc would not exist without chord progressions.

In this post we are going to dive straight into the most popular chord progressions. If you want some background skip down to our section on what a chord progression is and how do they work.

I-IV-V-I

The first progression we will look at is perhaps the strongest of them all as it uses all primary chords. Chord I is the tonic chord and the home note of whichever key you’re in, Chord IV is the subdominant chord and chord V is the dominant chord.

This progression involves a move away from the tonic to the subdominant, we create tension with the dominant chord and resolve back to the tonic.

You will see this chord progression in almost every piece of pop music, it is that common!

Here is the progression in the key of E major.

Chord I – E, G#, B

Chord IV – A, C#, E

Chord V – B, D#, F#

Chord I – E, G#, B

I, IV, V, I, chord progression in E major

The 12 bar blues

This is one of the most famous chord progressions in popular music. It is the fundamental of most jazz music!

This chord progression utilizes only the chords I, IV and V but in a very specific order!

I, I, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V, IV, I, V

12 bar blues chord progression

The combination of resolved and unresolved cadences is what makes this chord progression so special. This is not the only iteration of the 12 bar blues but it is certainly one of the most popular!

Here is how it would look in the key of E major.

E E E E

A A E E

B A E B

12 bar blues chord progression in the key of E

I-V-vi-IV

This progression is a little bit more flexible than your standard I-IV-V-I. With the introduction of the minor chord vi you add a lot more depth to your progression sound. This progression can really suit a lot of melodies due to it’s versatility.

For example in the key of C major, the chord progression would be as follows:

C major, G major, A minor, F major

I, V, vi, iV chord progression in C major

This progression can be seen in so many popular songs. Here is an example of this progression in the key of E major, it utilizes the following chords:

I – E major

V – B major

vi – C# minor

IV – A major

I, V, vi, IV chord progression in E major

Ear Training and Chords

To develop as a musician you’ll want to be able to recognise chords by ear. This is where ear training comes in. My recommendation for this is Tonegym as they have a comprehensive and fun program for training your ears! It’s what has gotten the best results with for my own students.

In the ‘tools’ section of their site, Tonegym even have a chord player that allows you to listen virtually any chord.

For an in-depth look at ear training, here’s my full review of Tonegym.

chordelius opt tonegym

ii-V-I

This is another very popular chord progression and can be heard a lot in jazz! Although you will see it in many other genres of music!

The chord ii is a great way to set up the tension of the chord V. The Chord V will then resolve to the chord I (the root).

Here is an example in E major:

Chord ii – F# minor

Chord V – B major

Chord I – E major

ii, V, I chord progression in E major

The Canon progression

You will hear this progression most obviously in Pachabel’s canon!

The progression goes like this: I- V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V

This is again very similar to the I – IV – V progression but just extended and has been utilized many times since its beginnings!

Here is an example of it in the key of E major:

Chord I – E major

Chord V – B major

Chord vi – C# minor

Chord iii – G# minor

Chord IV – A major

Chord I – E major

Chord IV – A major

Chord V – B major

canon chord progression in E major

A few more famous progressions

Of course these are not the only progressions available, there are many more that you can use. Below is a short list of some of the most common chord progressions, but notice, they are all variations of the I – IV – V cadence!

  • I – vi – IV – V
  • I – IV – V – IV
  • vi – IV – I – V
  • I – IV – ii – V
  • I – IV – I – V
  • I – ii – iii – IV – V
  • I – III – IV – iv
  • i – V – i – iv
  • vi – V – IV – III

What is a chord progression?

A chord progression is simply a sequence of chords put in a cyclical pattern. A chord progression can range from just two chords (like a cadence!) to many chords. However, the most common chord progressions use between three and five chords.

Chord progressions tend to use chords from one key (scale). When you use chords from the same key these are called diatonic chords. Chords can be built on every note in a scale. Take a look below at the C major scale/key and you can see a chord built on each note using the third above and the fifth above.

C major chord on each note of the scale

We then label these chords using Roman numerals with the first (tonic) chord being labelled I, second (supertonic) chord ii, third (mediant) chord iii, fourth (subdominant) chord IV, fifth (dominant) chord V, sixth (submediant)chord vi, seventh (leading note) chord viio.

C major chords labelled with roman numerals and with degree of scale name

Notice how some of the Roman numerals are in a capital form, this show us that the chord will be a major chord. And some of the Roman numerals are lower case, this shows that the chord will be a minor chord. In a diatonic scale, we will have three major chords, three minor chords and one diminished chord. This is extremely common in classical music theory and gives us a great labelling system when writing out our chord progressions. To find out more about chords then make sure to check out our blog on Roman numeral labelling.

What makes chord progressions sound good?

A chord progression is a sequence of chords heading to a resolution. As we saw, a chord progression is most usually written around a particular key or scale. The tonic of this scale is the home note of your piece. All chord progressions will aim for this home note to sound complete!

A chord progression will follow this general rule of stability – departure – tension – resolution – stability. The word stability simply refers to your home note (root note).

stability, departure, tension, resolve flow chart

A chord progression put simply, is a move away from the tonic or home note and then a gradual return back to the tonic/home note.

How do you know which chords will work well?

Some chords have a natural pull to others. If you take a look at the circle of fifths you will really see how all the different scales/keys are interlinked. By using leading notes we can also create a strong pull to the tonic as leading notes in particular want to resolve to the note above.

Here is an image to show which chords have a natural pull to others!

diagram showing chords that have a natural pull to others, roman numerals

How can songs sound different with the same chord progression?

Now you may be asking yourself, how can so many famous songs have exactly the same chord progressions? How do song writers and composer manage to make them sound so different?

The answer is in the melody, phrasing, lyrics, instrumentation, rhythm and tempos! The chord progression you use is not the only feature that can determine how a piece of music sounds.

Have a watch of Axis of Awesome showing you how 40 popular songs that sound very different actually use the exact same chord progression!

Melody, Phrasing and Lyrics

When listening to a piece of music, what is the most prominent aspect of any song? The vocal line of course! The way a melody line is written, how it is phrased and what the lyrics of the song are can hugely influence how a piece sounds even if the chord progression stays the same!

Instrumentation

There are many different instruments out there which all produce a different timbre. Timbre simply means the type of sound. Think about a string instrument and compare this to a trumpet! Two very different sounds but both very capable of playing the same notes, meaning that they could be playing over the same chord progression but the instruments used will hugely change the feeling of the piece or song.

Rhythm and tempo

The rhythm and tempo of the piece are also two features that can hugely influence there characteristic of a song or piece. If the melody is staccato, crisp, jumpy and generally using many short notes this is going to be in stark contrast to a melody that is smooth, legato, singing and makes use of many long notes! The tempo (speed) can also massively effect how a piece feels, a faster tempo could give a more frantic feel where a slower tempo could make a piece feel more relaxed. Equally these different options could all be played over the same chord progression.

As you can see there are many common progressions that you can use to build many different genres of music, popular songs, rock songs, blues music, classical music and more!

What’s Next…?

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AUTHOR
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations. She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.