“That song sounds so familiar, I’m trying to think what it reminds me of….”
Chances are it’s another song with the same chord progression. There are certain progressions that have been used over and over again in popular music. In this post, we will look at a few examples of the most common chord progressions and the corresponding lessons from the Common Chord Progressions course in Melodics for Keys.
What is a chord progression?
A chord progression is the sequence that chords are played in. Sometimes pop songs will use only one chord progression that repeats for the entire song. This can be as simple as three or four chords. The chords to many of the most popular songs of all time are no more complex than the examples in the Common Chord Progressions course.
Throughout the history of Pop music, a number of especially popular and common chord progressions have appeared, and even if you might not have realised it yet, you probably know dozens of songs that use the same sequence of chords.
Each of these progressions has a name written in Roman numerals. A brief explanation about what these mean is provided at the bottom of this post. This is not essential knowledge but rather included for those who are interested in reading further.
1. I IV V IV from the lesson Celebration Time
Listen to the preview from the Melodics lesson Celebration Time. Sound familiar? This chord progression has strong associations with positive, high energy music.
There are endless examples of this chord progression stretching right back into classical music, but its usage in Pop music is heavily rooted in Blues and Rock & Roll. Listen to this classic example: Wild Thing by The Troggs.
In the lesson Celebration Time, this progression is in the key of C, so the chords are:
C Major F Major G Major F Major
I IV V IV
2. i VII VI VII from the lesson Reflections
Another immensely popular chord progression, but this time in a minor key. This automatically brings about associations with heavier or deeper themes. On that note, listen to Rolling in the Deep by Adele and compare it with the lesson Reflections.
The lesson Reflections is in the key of A minor, therefore the chords are:
A Minor G Major F Major G Major
i VII VI VII
Here are a few examples of the same chord progression in other eras and styles:
All Along the Watchtower played by Jimi Hendrix
3. I V iv IV from the lesson Always & Forever
Perhaps the quintessential Pop music chord progression, this chord progression belongs to so many different sentiments, but at its core lies the same four chords. This famous video from comedy group Axis of Awesome addresses how broadly this progression is used:
In the lesson Always & Forever, we return to the key of C Major, meaning that the chords are:
C Major G Major A Minor F Major
I V vi IV
By now you are probably noticing that the same chords are recurring in slightly different orders for each chord progression. If you try playing one chord over and over, you’ll notice that it doesn’t seem to express much. Yet the motion created when we arrange a few chords creates a whole range of possibilities.
It could be said that this progression has strong associations with sentimentality, and here are a few examples that reflect that. See if you can think of others.
4. VI VII i from the lesson Running Through Shadows
When dealing with themes that are more intense, melancholic or brooding, a classic technique is to use a chord progression that ‘rises’ into a minor chord. This gives a feeling of resolution, but the resolution is serious and intense.
The lesson here is riffing on a classic example of this progression, Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush.
In the lesson, we are in the key of A Minor again. The chords are:
F Major G Major A Minor (A Minor)
VI VII i (i)
There are numerous other examples of this chord progression, sometimes with the last chord substituted for another VI or VII chord. Here are some other examples:
5. i VI III VII from the lesson Familiar Faces
This chord progression is essentially the mirror of chord progression 2 (Reflections), with the crucial difference being that it is in a minor key. This means that although it has a ‘happy’ moment when it reaches the third chord, it continues to resolve back to a more melancholic home chord.
A classic example of this chord progression is the song Zombie by the Cranberries, in which the chord progression repeats without variation underneath the whole song.
In the lesson Familiar Faces, we are in the key of A Minor, so the chords are:
A Minor F Major C Major G Major
i VI III V
Another classic example of this chord progression can be found in the chorus of the song Hello by Adele.
And here are a few others:
6. i i/#VII i/VII i/#VI from the lesson Treading On Heels
The final chord progression in this course is a little different to the others. It is not often used as a chord progression to underpin an entire song, but rather as a short section to end or resolve others.
This chord progression and its many variants are a significant feature in Jazz and are heavily utilised in the music of the Beatles. Listen to the first four chords of the song Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty and compare it to the lesson.
You might have noticed that the name of the chord progression is much more confusing than the others too. Worry not! Further information on this can be found at the end of this post.
In Treading on Heels, we are in the key of C Minor and use these chords.
C Minor C Minor/B C Minor/Bb C Minor/A
i i/#VII i/VII i/#VI
Notice that every chord is actually a variant of C Minor, only the note written after the ‘/’ is changing.
Here are a few more examples, some using slightly different variations, and usually only in certain sections of the song. Challenge your ears and see if you can figure out where this progression appears in each song.
Further information regarding the use of Roman numerals
The numerals correspond to the root note of the chord in relation to the key. For example, in the key of C, we would have:
C D E F G A B
I ii iii IV V vi vii
If the numeral is upper case (I) it is a major chord, if it’s lower case (i) then it is minor. So the chords for C Major are:
C Major D Minor E Minor F Major G Major A Minor B Mino
I ii iii IV V vi vii
Applying this system to the key of A Minor, we have:
A Minor B Minor C Major D Minor E Minor F Major G Majo
i ii III iv v VI VII
Notice that the chords are identical in C Major and A Minor but appear in a different order and have different numerals. This is because these two keys use the exact same notes but have a different home chord. They are known as relative keys.
The reason we name the progressions as with roman numerals is because even if a song was in G Major, it could be using the exact same chord progression as a key in C Major. Here is an example:
I IV V IV
In C: C Major F Major G Major F Major
In G: G Major C Major D Major C Major
This means that if we know the numeral names, we could play the same chord progression in any key, and you’ll find that many of the songs in this post aren’t just in C Major or A Minor, yet the sound of the progression is the same.
In regard to the last lesson, we have some chords that use a ‘/’. In theory, this is simple; if a chord has a ‘/’ in it, the numeral on the left is the chord played and the numeral on the right is the root note played underneath it. We call these slash chords or compound chords. When the notes played underneath do not come from the key of the song, we can alter the numeral with a sharp (#) or flat (b) symbol.
So if we have:
A Minor A Minor/G A Minor/F
i i/VII i/VI
Then adding an extra passing note before the G would give us:
A Minor A Minor/G# A Minor/G A Minor/F
i i/#VII i/VII i/VI
If you are interested in learning more about music theory, a good place to start is the Melodics Music Theory course.