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.

Last updated on 6 June 2024

Note: You'll gain the most from this article if you have a basic knowledge of scales and major/minor chords.

The easiest way to stay motivated while learning piano is to play the music you love. For many of us, that means pop music, including music that was popular 20 — or even 70 — years ago, depending on your tastes. As different as these songs may sound, they often share a similar chord structure. Understanding that structure will not only help you learn songs more quickly and easily, but will also help you create or figure out new songs on your own. 

In this article we'll introduce chord notation, then identify the four most common pop chords. You'll learn how these chords fit into a chord progression and how the most common progressions sound, before finishing with two more chords to know when playing pop.

Chords 101

By now, you're likely familiar with the root note in a scale and how the notes of a scale are named in relation to that root note — for example, we looked at third and fifth notes in our article on major and minor chords, and at seventh notes in our article on seventh chords.

With chords, we layer two or three notes on top of the root note to create root chords. We also use a particular type of notation to describe chords.

The notation should be familiar: Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, etc). If you make a major chord starting on the root note, then that chord is called chord I. Each chord from now on is named in relation to chord I. So if you take the fifth note of the scale and make a major chord from that note, that chord is called chord V.

If you make a minor chord, you use lowercase Roman numerals. For example, a minor chord starting on the sixth note in the scale is called chord vi.

We'll use this notation from now on.

The four chords that shaped pop

It's incredible how much music you can make by playing a few chords in a specific order and changing the melody over the top. Sometimes you only need two (think of the verses of "Imagine" by John Lennon). An arrangement of chords is called a progression.

In pop music, a progression is usually made up of four chords. So what are the four chords most commonly used in pop? They are chord I, chord IV, chord V and chord vi. Following the same logic as before, if chord I is C major, then chord IV is a major chord on the fourth note of the scale: F major.

Those four chords — I, IV, V and vi — are the basis for countless pop hits.

Why do these chords show up so often in pop music?

These chords show up in pop music because they share common notes, which makes them sound good together. As an example, a C chord (C, E, G) shares a note with an F chord (F, A, C) as well as a G chord (G, B, D), and shares two notes with an A minor chord (A, C, E). The shared notes make these chords somewhat related, creating a "harmonic resonance" that's pleasing and natural to the ear.

Put next to chord I, the chords IV and V are the most pleasing to the human ear, so they naturally sound good together. Chord vi sits well in the mixture because of its special relationship with chord I: It's the "relative minor" (more on this in our "Major and Minor Chords" article). Chord vi also shares two notes with chord IV, so they too sound especially good together.

Combine this with the fact that we've been using these chords in progressions for hundreds of years, and what do you get? Four chords that just sound right — at least, to anyone familiar with music in the Western European tradition. Add a catchy melody and lyrics on top of that, and you've got the beginnings of a pop hit.

What songs can I play with these four chords?

Here are just a few examples of pop songs that you can play on piano with these four chords. By changing the order of the chords, we get different types of progressions that can be used in subtly different ways.

I-V-vi-IV: The Every Pop Song Ever Progression

You may have seen the video poking fun at how many songs use exactly the same progression. This is that progression. The four chords in this order have just the right combination of positivity and power, mixed with a touch of guilty-pleasure cheesiness.

"Take Me Home, Country Roads" — John Denver

The I-V-vi-IV chord progression in this nostalgic megahit's chorus creates a pleasing harmonic structure that strikes on an emotional level and nearly demands a sing-along. It also provides a sense of resolution and comfort — much like coming home.

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Take Me Home, Country Roads

John Denver


"Forever Young" — Alphaville

Like "Take Me Home, Country Roads," Alphaville's nostalgic classic possesses a timeless, anthem-like quality. The I-V-vi-IV progression weaves the song's powerful emotional core into a catchy, unforgettable chorus.

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Forever Young



vi-IV-I-V: The Sensitive Progression

This is the same set of chords as above, in the same order, but starting in a different place. Since it begins with the minor vi chord, it's regularly used for songs that are a little more “serious,” while still radio-friendly. Often, the first chord is played as a minor seventh chord, to soften the “sad” mood.

Learn more: Seventh Chords

"Skinny Love" — Birdy

Whether or not you rank this as giant a hit as the others, "Skinny Love" is a perfect piece of melancholy piano pop. It’s also one of the songs that turns the first vi chord into a minor seventh to take the “sad” edge off.

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Skinny Love



"All of Me" — John Legend

Simple and emotional, this song pulls at the heartstrings in the verses using only these four chords. Then — when it turns major in the chorus — it switches to the next progression in our list of favorites…

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All of Me

John Legend


I-vi-IV-V: The Soulful Progression

Also known as the '50s Progression for how often it was used in doo-wop hits of the '50s, this flows through the chords in a different order. The effect is something more soulful and heartfelt, lending itself perfectly to powerful love songs in any genre.

"Can't Help Falling in Love With You" — Elvis Presley

The verse of this classic love song follows the I-vi-IV-V progression, which infuses it with nostalgia and romance while adding emotional depth. Layer Elvis Presley's smooth vocals on top and it's obvious why this one's a wedding favorite.

Read: Wedding Music: The 8 Piano Songs You Need for a Perfect Day

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Can't Help Falling in Love (Wedding Version)

Elvis Presley, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Pachelbel


"Total Eclipse of the Heart" — Bonnie Tyler

Among the best ever '80s power ballads, this massive hit starts off with a sorrowful, minor-led verse before exploding into I-vi-IV-V for the chorus. Just in time for you to start belting out "I need you now tonight, and I need you more than ever."

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Total Eclipse of the Heart

Bonnie Tyler


What other chords often appear in pop music?

These final two chords may not always start out a pop progression, but they often end up somewhere in the mix. Both minor, they give harmonic variety and movement to a song.

Chord ii

To play a chord ii, build a chord with the second note of the scale as the root note. The resulting chord is a minor chord. For example, in the key of C major, chord ii is D minor.

Chord ii doesn't share any notes with the root chord, which gives it an "unfinished" feel. It's often used as a way to get to another chord — aka, as a passing chord — especially as part of an ii-V-I progression in jazz. Since we're talking about pop chords here, how about an example of piano pop with a jazzy flavor? 

"This Love" — Maroon 5

You can hear chord ii as the third chord in the verses and the second chord in the chorus of this song, moving us along nicely through this early 2000s hit.

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This Love

Maroon 5


Chord iii

To play a chord iii, build a minor triad with the third note of the scale as the root note. If we stick to the key of C major as before, chord iii is E minor.

Chord iii is like the friend you know who gets along with everyone. It sounds great before or after chord vi in a progression, since the two are a fifth apart. Plus, it shares two notes with both chord I and the chord V, so it feels natural next to them, too. 

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" — Tears for Fears

In Tears for Fears' synth-pop '80s hit "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," chord iii appears in the chorus, adding a dash of melancholy and introspection to the bubbly beat.

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Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Tears for Fears


Continue your musical journey — next steps and resources

The common pop chords and progressions we've explored herein just go to show that a well-structured harmony is truly timeless. Whether you're performing pop classics or composing new tunes, we hope this knowledge will help you play with the creativity and freedom that comes from a deeper understanding of music.

If you're wondering about what to do next, we recommend diving into the examples above and experimenting with these chords in your own playing. To keep learning about different types of chords, you can check out our chords library here in our magazine, and/or our Mastering Chords and Improvising with Chords courses in the flowkey app.

Happy playing!

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