Learn Thousands of Songs by Knowing These Top 4 Chord Progressions

An easy way to learn a lot of songs quickly.

Learn Thousands of Songs by Knowing These Top 4 Chord Progressions
79
This lesson is for beginning guitarists looking for an easy way to learn a lot of songs quickly. There are loads of exceptions to these guidelines, but we're not trying for a comprehensive collection of chord progressions here. Instead, we'll be using the 80/20 rule (the Pareto Principle - 20% of your work yields 80% of your results) and looking at the 4 most common chord progressions used in thousands of songs.

Once you have these basic progressions under your fingers, you'll find it simple to adapt them to one of the exceptions. Maybe a couple of the chords are flipped, or it starts in the middle.

Here's what we'll discuss:
  • The 4 chord progressions that will get you through thousands of songs;
  • I'll address common questions about this subject;
  • What to do with this information now that you have it;
  • The most common keys you should practice these progressions in;
  • Tips and ideas for songwriters.
I'll give you these progressions in Roman Numeral (or Nashville) format so they can be transposed to any key. The example chords will be for the key of C major.

The General Purpose Progression

In any key, the I, IV, and V chords (e.g. C, F, and G) are called the primary chords and they'll form the bulk of many progressions. So your first progression is any combination of those chords:

I IV - "Imagine" by John Lennon or "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees.

I V - "The Gambler" by Kenny Rodgers or "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" from "Cheers."

I IV V I - "Basket Case" by Green Day or "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt.

I V IV I - "All the Small Things" by Blink-182 or "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga.

I IV I V I - A basic 12-bar blues.

The Pop Progression

This next chord progression is the most overused in all of pop music as evidenced by Axis of Awesome's video "4 Chords."

I V Vi IV (C G Am F) - "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper, "Someone Like You" by Adele, and countless other songs.

There is a common variation of this one that goes vi IV I V. It's exactly the same progression, but starting from the vi (Am) and going around the progression - "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne, "Grenade" by Bruno Mars or "What If God Was One of Us?" by Joan Osbourne.

The Jazz Progression

A zillion jazz standards are built around this progression:

ii V I (Dm G C) - "Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington or "Autumn Leaves" by everybody.

It's also seen in the pop world in songs like "Boyfriend" by Justin Bieber and parts of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. Never again will you see those two artists mentioned in the same sentence.

The 1950's Progression

This chord progression and its variant were well used in the 1940s and 1950s for both ballad and uptempo songs.

I vi ii V (C Am Dm G) - "Sherry" by the Four Seasons or "Fool on the Hill" by the Beatles.

I vi IV V (C Am F G) - "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen or "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson.

The only difference between these two progressions is the Dm (in the first) and the F (in the second). Dm and F share two of the same notes (F and A) making them common substitutions for one another.

Common Questions

Now that we've very brazenly narrowed down the last 100 years of popular music to four chord progressions, let me answer a few of your questions to put this in perspective:

Why do these progressions get used so often over other possibilities?

Because they work. That's not to say that every song written with these chord progressions is going to be a hit. But popular songwriting is a delicate balance of doing something that can be considered new and fresh, but still retaining a comfortable sound that gives the passive listener something comfortable and familiar to grab on to to pull them into the song.

How can two songs using the same common chord progression sound so different?

The chords are only one part of what makes a song. We have lots of other tools at our disposal to create different sounds with the same old ingredients, such as:
  • Playing in different keys - i.e. F major instead of C major.
  • Arrangement - Which instruments are being used playing which notes of the chord on which parts and how are they mixed in the recording?
  • Chord extensions - Adding 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and other alterations to a chord can give it a drastically different sound even if the root relationships are the same.
  • Rhythm - Listeners latch onto rhythms before anything else. So by changing up the groove, you can make old stuff sound new again.
  • Melody - There are countless melodies that can be played over a given chord progression, all making the song into something new. Though you'll often find periods in musical history where even melodies and rhythms get recycled a lot. (Like now.)
  • Lyrics - Above all, what really makes a listener connect with and love a song is the lyrics.

What To Do With This Information Now

Now that you know these basic chord progressions, you've got a shortcut to learning hundreds of songs. Go find any three songs right now here on UG and see which of these progressions they use.

As I mentioned, you will find loads of songs outside of these three progressions. However, it's usually just one more basic chord thrown in or changing the order of the chords. By getting your basic progressions down cold, you'll already have the moves under your fingers.

Here are three I grabbed at random:
  • "Cemetery Gates" by Pantera - vi I V IV - a flip on the second "'50s Progression."
  • "...Like Clockwork" by Queens of the Stone Age - vi I V ii - a variation on the "Pop Progression."
  • "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons - ii IV I V - a flip and variation on the "Jazz Progression."

Which Keys Should You Practice These In?

The beauty of the Roman Numeral (or Nashville) system is that it's easy to transpose to whatever key you need. But again, in the interest of the 80/20 rule, focus on just the most common keys when practicing these progressions. Once you've got them down, the other keys (especially on guitar) will come very easily.

Practice in these 5 common and important keys: C, D, E, G, and A.

Tips And Ideas for Songwriters

As a songwriter, you have the choice of using these progressions or not. In my opinion, it comes down to where you want to challenge the listener. That often comes down to a balance between the lyrics and the music.

If you're writing lyrics that are going to be difficult for the listener to keep up with, but you need them to for the song to work, then maybe you want to use a simpler progression so they're not subconsciously trying to figure out what's going on musically at same time.

In a lot of my work, I write a ton of jokes and wordplay into the lyrics. Or maybe there's a really defined plot to the story you want them to follow along on. Or maybe you just have a really important message you want to get across. In those cases, I'll use a simpler chord progression that's easy to latch onto so the listener can focus on the lyrics instead.

If, however, you're writing a song where you want to music to take center stage, whether that be an instrumental piece or something with a lyric that's easy to comprehend, then you can go with a more challenging chord progression and musical arrangement.

Can you create a song with complex lyrics and complex music? Of course you can! You can do anything you want. See how your audience responds to it and go from there.

Now you've got the 4 most common chord progression, some sample song ideas, and the most common keys you should practice them in. When you have them down to the point where you're bored with them and desperately seeking out songs with more interesting progressions, congratulations! You're a better guitarist than when you started!

Also, there is one other concept that is really the best way to learn guitar and put me out of business.

59 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    TheNameOfNoone
    This is actually pretty good. Useful for us casual songwriters, because I usually experiment with chords until I find something that sounds okay, but this makes the work much easier. Edit: it's funny that this is "for beginners" and I still find it useful. I guess I'm not that much of a good guitarist then
    TheMetalMan94
    Honestly the advice at the end alone is worth the read for anyone. Also how it is shown that even the common progressions get used extraordinarily and vice-versa, really sticks it to those people who say an artist is crap because of the progression they use.
    Satrianifan281
    I play a lot of highly technical music and I found this really useful, especially with song writing.
    KerNeL_KLuTcH
    "It's also seen in the pop world in songs like "Boyfriend" by Justin Bieber and parts of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. Never again will you see those two artists mentioned in the same sentence." pahahahha
    guitar/bass95
    This is, in my opinion, a very useful article for casual guitarists to learn some basic guitar skills, this is a great help for people who want to jam popular songs, but also for people who want to write chords for their own lyrics. I prefer a more in-depth approach, but still for any beginner and especially for singers who want to back their songs with a guitar this is great.
    Vypor
    I really don't understand how chords are transposed to roman numerals and how your supposed to figure out which chords go where on any given progression. I've been playing for years, and have never understood this. While this seems like a good article, it says its for beginners and it takes for granted that the reader already understands how to read/transpose chords to roman numerals..
    GameSkate
    Grab some scale like C major. This scale contain notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B In roman numeration it's gonna be: I = C II = D III = E IV = F V = G VI = A VII = B Now you're making chords by picking any note as root note and then you skip to every third note like: I = C C(I), E(III), G(V), B(VII) Its Cmaj7, first (root) chord of C major scale. Then you have second chord - Dm7 D(II), F(IV), A(VI), C(I) And so on with rest of the notes. It's rather simple and you can apply this to any scale in any key.
    Austin_205
    II, III, VI, VII should be lower case because they are minor chords.
    NorCalLos
    He/she was referring to the notes in the scale, not the chords. I thought the same thing you did at first, but then I read the rest of the post ;o)So, the notes in the C Major scale are as posted by GameSkate, but the chords are: I: C ii: Dm iii: Em IV: F V: G vi: Am vii: B dim
    NorCalLos
    It's all about intervals. I'm sure you understand whole steps (two semi-tones/frets) and half-steps (one semi-tone/fret). In a major scale, the intervals are: I (tonic/root, e.g. C) II (whole step up from tonic, e.g. D) III (whole step up from II, e.g. E) IV (half-step up from III, e.g. F) V (whole step up from IV, e.g. G) VI (whole step up from V, e.g. A VII (whole step up from VI, e.g. B) Tonic/Root/Octave/Start again (half-step up from VII, e.g. C) So, if you just look at the intervals, it's Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half. Keep in mind, this is only the major scale. The I, IV, and V are major chords and the ii, iii, vi, vii are minor, which means the third note in the chord is three semi-tones/frets up from the root/tonic, as opposed to four semi-tones/two whole steps in a major chord. Hope that helps.
    DragonAvenger7
    I'm only my second week into guitar, so I'm right with you on this. Good thing GameSkate was nice enough to break it down for us.
    TheMetalMan94
    That is probably because reading notation, keys and transposition is entry level theory. Essentially the grammar and spelling of music.
    Reverend-Me
    Nice article, but some of the chord progression are wrong. The Gambler for instance has more than the I and V and Basket Case and All The Small Things aren't correct either. But in any case, nice article
    truepiece
    Don't forget the Aeolian IV - V - vi ( -> F, G, Am) which uses of course the above chords but relies on the minor key, and is used to death in every genre of music ever created.
    mansen
    I think that is only a variation of the "Pop Progression". Chords are the same (one left out) and eventually it is minor because you end on the Am instead of the C.
    Clarkinator
    When I was first learning, I bought one of those posters that has every guitar chord tabbed out. That is pretty useful as well, you can learn how to fret all the chord shapes and use it as a guide when strumming them. Just start mixing and matching...
    DragonAvenger7
    I have one of those posters and use it all the time. I can't grasp this terminology and numeral stuff, even with all these comments trying to explain it and break it down. I don't waste time with technicality I just learn the chords, practice scales, and build my familiarization with navigating my guitar. I don't need to know this technical mumbo.
    fatgleeson
    It is not until you learn the theory that you realise how incredibly useful it is. Theory plus intuitiveness is ALWAYS better than just intuitiveness
    mbself73
    Sometimes your intuition can dig you out of a hole your theory got you into, and sometimes your theory can do the same for a hole your intuition got you into. Theory can get you out of "monkey see monkey do" music and into "artist creates something new" music. Or at least "monkey understands what monkey does" status.
    Good Ol' Ramos
    This is the first time I've ever bookmarked anything on UG. Great stuff. I'll be coming back to this article at least a few times.
    peycarden
    I think the Roman numerals should have died out with the Romans as did Gladiators and fighting lions,if you refer to 12345678 as scale notes then you don't need Roman numerals anyway.
    FreeGoddess
    I think the reason for Roman numerals is because they can be represented as UPPER/lower case to indicate MAJOR/minor variations in keys/notes. Simple Arabic numbers don't offer this. :
    yakuza987
    I don't want to learn how to make the listener like my music. I want the listener to learn how to listen to music.
    MaggaraMarine
    "Lyrics - Above all, what really makes a listener connect with and love a song is the lyrics." My @$$. I have never really been into lyrics and I know lots of people who are like me. I don't actively listen to them or sometimes I do but I don't really search their meaning that often. They are there so that you can sing with the song. Of course there are interesting lyrics too but I don't listen to songs just because of their lyrics. And also most lyrics you find in pop and rock songs are pretty meaningless. I have always primarily listened to the "music part". The overall sound of a song. And IMO music is a lot more powerful than lyrics. Best of Times by Dream Theater IMO is a really emotional song and not because of the lyrics. It would be touching even without the lyrics. I don't know why but it's just so powerful song (some may say it's cliche and that's what I first thought about it but now I have listened to it several times and it's one of the few songs that really touch me and get me emotional). About the topic: In some songs these common progressions work really well - so well that you don't even notice it (like Pantera - Cemetery Gates - I hadn't even thought about it until now). I think to write a good song with these chords you shouldn't first pick the chord progression. You should first listen to the sounds in your head. And if the melody happens to fit a simple four chord progression, then of course use it. But IMO most of the time in pop music people just choose a cliche chord progression and write a cliche melody over it and use cliche rhythms. It may appeal to somebody who doesn't know anything about theory but after hearing so many of that kind of songs I just get bored. You can use whatever progression and make it sound magical. But you can also make it sound really cliche. It's not all about the chords (as many people seem to think). Actually it's very little about the chords. As I said, any progression can sound magical or cliche, depending on how you use it. Chord progression itself doesn't make good or bad music.
    Clarkinator
    I think it depends on the song. I'll mainly focus on guitar since I play it.... but still. In "Wonderwall" by Oasis, its hard not to focus on the words since they are prominent and over just an acoustic guitar strumming chords. Now compare that to Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by Hendrix and its almost impossible not to focus on the guitar since Jimi just riffs the whole time, even while he sings.
    CydoniaKnight95
    I think what he meant was the average listener, particularly one without much knowledge of music theory. For your average (particularly pop) music listener, lyrics are primarily what makes him/her connect with and love a song
    MaggaraMarine
    Even when I didn't have any musical knowledge, I very seldom focused on lyrics. I listened to the music. And I don't only listen to the guitar part, I listen to the whole sound. Yeah, maybe the average pop music listener focuses more on lyrics because there are so many mainstream pop songs that sound pretty similar. They don't really have anything new to offer musically. Though neither do the lyrics that often - nothing bad with that though. Simple lyrics and melodies are catchy and easy to sing along with.
    riaki1998
    If this is for beginners I'm screwed lol. What is the thing about the roman numeral stuff and the different tunings? Do I have to alter my guitar or something? I only got my first electric one a couple of days ago. Also, what do the terms such as root, interval, semi-tone, major scale, tonic, octave mean on the guitar? Please help
    lofthobbitt63
    If you are that new to guitar just concentrate on learning a few chords (G, C, and D are useful). Get to feel good about your merging talent, then look for the next step (perhaps some more chords like A minor, E minor as thay can sound pretty good). You have a life time to deal with anything that looks like mumbojumbo! dont be put off, just play!!
    dhampton1
    he's right learn basic chords first and play, play, play then when your not playing search the internet about chord progressions when you have some free time and can educate yourslef on thoery ... roman numerials represent scale degrees as well as what type of chords such as major, minor, dominant etc ... the answer to your questions can be found in "searching" intervals and progressions ... I have one piece of advise look up consonance and dissonance tones when you get farther along ... jsut simply knowing what these terms are would cleared up years of hearing the terms tension and resolve !!! good luck keep playing !!!!!
    magicawn
    Many songs change progression in the chorus though. What are the most common chorus progressions?
    dhampton1
    Sorry ... i got distracted and didnt review the post for grammer and typos !! oophs !!
    tyrelpottenger
    So I notice these are all major progressions. Is there a minor equivalency?
    bluemeaniex
    Check out these 2 diagrams. They are drawn little backwards in that I feel the I (one or root chord)should sit on the left of the page, but they are great for giving you a 'place to go next' in any key. They are all generic major minor chords, other than the vii in major or ii in minor, and you can experiment with different chord extensions like 7's and 9's. Play with them for a while and see what results you can get. Major: http://www.angelfire.com/music/HarpOn/im... Minor: http://www.angelfire.com/music/HarpOn/im...
    dhanalinkin
    this is very interesting, i had a question, for example in coldplay's clocks song, they play the pattern I V II in D, and in the bridge I V II in F, so does that mean we have to follow this order of I V II but we can switch any scale.
    jacob.otero
    It's a play on relative majors/minors. If you're in the key of D minor, you can effectively use the scales of F major. Since the keys of D minor and F Major are identical. If you ever do any study on pentatonics this concept comes up a lot. So in your example, when you go to the relative major key in the bridge, you could use either D minor scales or F major scales.
    FlyingPirahna
    "I IV - "Imagine" by John Lennon or "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees." It's amazing what two different songwriters can do with the same progression.
    AlanHB
    The secret is that Neon Trees - Everybody Talks actually goes I - V - IV - V for the verses, and I - V - IV - I for ther first parts of the chorus'. In fact at no time in the song does it ever go I - IV.