Common Chord Progressions

This lesson will introduce you to the most common chord progressions, so widely used that they can be found in virtually every piece of tonal music regardless of genre or era. Astonishingly, the following chord progressions are used as frequently in Renaissance and Baroque music of centuries past as they are in 21st-century popular music.

Learning to play common chord progressions comfortably in all keys is a precursor to learning to improvise, and doing so will also greatly accelerate your learning of nearly every piece you’ll ever play.

I’ll write all chords in the key of C for the sake of simplicity. All examples should be transposed into all keys. I’ll also write them in closed position, meaning that the notes within each chord are as close together as possible while still maintaining proper voice leading.

By far the most important chord progression is V-I. (Chords are labeled using Roman numerals, with capital letters indicating major chords and lowercase minor. V-I is pronounced “five one.”)

V tells us that the chord is built on the fifth scale degree, the fifth note of the scale. Similarly, I means that the second chord is built on the first scale degree.

The triad (three-note chord consisting of two thirds stacked atop one another) on scale degree 1 is also known as the tonic. The tonic triad is the single most important chord, as it is the home base of every key.

The major triad built on scale degree 5 (V) is called the dominant. The dominant triad leads to the tonic – hence the most common chord progression in music, V-I.

Here is V-I in the key of C major:

Often the V chord is extended by an additional minor third, making it a dominant seventh chord. V7-I (pronounced “five-seven one”) is a variant of the preceding chord progression. The additional third increases the intensity of the dominant, further heightening the expectation that it will return to the tonic.

Here is V7-I in C major:

The next most common chord progression is IV-I. The triad built on scale degree 4 is known as the subdominant. IV-I occurs very frequently in church as well as popular music:

At the end of a phrase, section or piece, IV-I is called a plagal cadence or “amen” cadence, the latter due to its frequent use in church music.

It’s possible to combine these chords, leading from IV to V to I:

Finally, we can add the seventh (meaning the seventh above the root of the chord) to the dominant to get IV-V7-I:

These are the most important and most common chord progressions, which all musicians should be able to play without hesitation in all keys. Practice them until you can play them in your sleep!

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