The Chord Progressions Every Pianist Should Know

Knowing a handful of commonly used chord progressions will improve your understanding of music and help you learn songs faster on the piano. Here’s how you can get started!

Serena Huang

Chord progressions are an essential part of music, working together with the rhythm and melody to set the mood of a song. Even before you learn to play piano with both hands, you can learn songs by playing the chord progression with one hand and singing the melody.

Although the total number of possible chord progressions is virtually infinite, learning a few of the most popular ones will open doors to playing a lot of different songs on the piano. This article will guide you through the basics of chord progressions and introduce you to five chord progressions that every pianist should know. 

By the end of this article, you’ll have everything you need to play these progressions and apply them to songs from the flowkey library!

What is a chord progression?

A chord progression is the sequence of chords that make up a piece of music. The pattern of chords gives a song a sense of cohesion and direction. You can think about it like the pattern on your favorite sweater — the different shapes and colors capture your interest, while the repetition creates a sense of unity. The different chords in a chord progression keep your ears engaged, while the repeated sequences create a sense of unity in a song. 

Some songs use different chord progressions in different parts (i.e., the verse, chorus and bridge) in order to change up the mood, while other songs are based around a single chord progression.

How to read chord progressions

The chords within a chord progression are often written using Roman numerals. Within any key, a chord built on the first note of the scale is a one chord (labeled I or i); a chord built on the second note of the scale is a two chord (labeled II or ii); and so on. Major chords are capitalized while minor chords are in lowercase. 

Below you'll find a breakdown of the Roman numeral labels and the notes of each chord in the key of C major. The C major chord would be I because C is the first note of the scale and the chord is major. The D minor chord would be ii because D is the second note of the scale and the chord is minor.

I — C major — C, E, G

ii — D minor — D, F, A

iii — E minor — E, G, B

IV — F major — F, A, C

V — G major — G, B, D

vi — A minor — A, C, E

viiº — B diminished — B, D, F

As you learn each chord progression, you can refer to this list to find the chords of the progression in C major. For a I – IV – V progression in the key of C major, you would play the chords C major, F major and then G major. 

You can play chord progressions in any key! Here's how

Using the Roman numeral system, you can figure out which chords are in each chord progression across different keys. Remember that the number tells you which note of the scale the chord is based on, and the letter's case tells you if it’s a major or minor chord.

So, in the key of G major, the G major chord is I. In the key of B♭ major, the B♭ major chord is I. Usually, the quality of each chord will stay the same in any major key — this means the I chord is always major, the ii chord is always minor, etc.

For a refresher on chords, you can check out our guide to understanding piano chords, or the Mastering Chords course in our app. You can try the first lesson for free.

5 essential chord progressions to get you started

Now that you understand the basics of chord progressions, you have everything you need to learn five of the most commonly used progressions out there. You can start by practicing each chord progression in C major, then trying them in some different keys. You'll find some song examples below, too — all of which are available to learn with flowkey.

I – IV – V

The I – IV – V chord progression is made up of the three simplest chords to recognize and play. The I, IV and V chords help to define the sound of a key: When you see or hear a chord progression with C major, F major, then G major, you can know for sure that the song is in the key of C major. I – IV – V (or I – IV – V – I) is used a lot in classical music, but it’s a basic progression that can work in any genre!

The I, IV and V chords are repeated throughout “La Bamba” in the signature rhythm of the song. Listen carefully to the accompaniment to hear the chord progression!

flowkey logo
moonligt sonata album cover

La Bamba

Mexican Traditional

sales.LearnSongAndMore

I – V – vi – IV

Nicknamed the Pop Progression and the Four Magic Chords, this chord progression is super catchy and can be found in countless top hits by artists ranging from the Beatles to Taylor Swift. Learning the  I – V – vi – IV chord progression will open the doors to playing a lot of popular music. For an in-depth tutorial on how to play this chord progression, you can read our article, “4 Easy Chords to Learn New Piano Songs Quickly.” 

This chord progression can be found in the chorus of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” and it may be one of the reasons why this song is about to get stuck in your head…

flowkey logo
moonligt sonata album cover

Forever Young

Alphaville

sales.LearnSongAndMore

vi – IV – I – V

The vi – IV – I – V progression also uses the Four Magic Chords, but in a different order. So, it’s sometimes referred to as the Altered Pop Progression. Since this progression starts on a minor chord rather than major, it can feel moodier — but no less catchy! — than the original Pop Progression.

Paired with melancholic lyrics and a relaxed tempo, you can really hear the moodiness of this chord progression in Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”

flowkey logo
moonligt sonata album cover

The Scientist

Coldplay

sales.LearnSongAndMore

I – vi – IV – V

With nicknames like the Doo-Wop Chord Progression and the ’50s Progression, you can guess the origins of the I – vi – IV – V progression. Although it’s associated with music of the '50s, it continues to be widely used in a range of genres, including rock, folk, and pop. 

The I – vi – IV – V chord progression generally has an uplifting mood, but in the example below, you'll see this isn't always the case…

flowkey logo
moonligt sonata album cover

Every Breath You Take

The Police

sales.LearnSongAndMore

ii – V – I

Known as the Jazz Progression, the ii – V – I chord progression is found in many jazz standards. This chord progression is often used for key changes, so be ready to play it in many different keys. 

The chords in this progression are usually seventh chords, which would look like this in C major: 

Dm7 (D, F, A, C) – G7 (G, B, D, F) – Cmaj7 (C, E, G, B)

If you’re looking for an example of a song containing the ii – V – I chord progression with seventh chords and key changes, you’ll find it all in “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma!

flowkey logo
moonligt sonata album cover

Autumn Leaves

Joseph Kosma

sales.LearnSongAndMore

Learn new songs with these chord progressions

After practicing each chord progression on its own, you can apply your new skills by playing songs that include these progressions! A great way to get started is by learning the example songs under each progression, which are all available in flowkey’s library. Bundling your musical journey with a reliable learning app like flowkey allows you to explore different chord progressions through engaging lessons. That way, you can discover the joy of playing music at your own pace.

Start learning today with no obligations

Create an account to enjoy a selection of free lessons and 8 free songs

Read next

Sixth Chords

Sixth chords are often used in music to add a feeling of hope and to make it feel richer and more engaging. Learn how to use sixth chords to enrich your own playing.

Ninth Chords

Ninth chords are a surefire way of making piano music feel rich and a little magical. If you love dreamy sounds, they can be a valuable part of your playing repertoire. Here's what you need to know.

Pop Chords

Understand the chords and progressions behind pop's greatest hits so you can play your favorite songs — and even compose your own — with ease.

Man playing chords on a keyboard

Major and Minor Chords

Learn all about major and minor chords, including how to play them and identify them in a piece of music.