Pop Chords

 We explain the theory behind the chords that formed the basis of pop hits.

Last updated on 25 May 2023

You'll gain the most from this article if you have a basic knowledge of scales and major/minor chords. Take a look at our article here for a guide to major/minor chords.

The easiest way to stay motivated while learning piano is to play the music you love. For many of us, that's pop music—even if it was popular 50 years ago. In this article, we'll go over the chords that have formed the basis of pop hits.

We'll introduce chord notation and identify the 4 most common pop piano chords. You'll learn how these chords fit into a "progression" and how the most common progressions sound, before finishing with 2 more piano chords to know when playing pop.

Introducing chord notation

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 3rd and 5th notes in our article on major and minor chords, and at 7th notes in our article on 7th chords.

With chords, rather than root notes, we have 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 we make a minor chord, then we use lower case 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 order and changing the melody over the top. Sometimes you only need two (think "Imagine" by John Lennon). This arrangement of chords is called a "progression."

In pop music, a progression is usually built from four chords. So what are the four chords most commonly used in pop? They are chord I, chord V, and chord vi and chord IV. 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?

Without getting too scientific, it's about harmonic resonance. 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 iv sits well in the mixture because of its special relationship with chord I: it is the "relative minor" (more on this in our Major/Minor chords article). Chord iv also shares two notes with chord IV, so they too sound especially good together.

Combine that with the fact that we have been using them in progressions since the Baroque era and what do you get? Four chords that just sound right to our Western ears. All you need is the right melody and lyrics on top and you have 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 progression 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.

U2 - With or Without You

This massive hit is the perfect example of how an entire song can be built on this progression repeated over and over and over...

Jason Mraz - I'm Yours

Sugar sweetness all the way through? A singalong song that doesn't take itself too seriously? That's what this progression does best. 

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.

Ben E. King - Stand by Me

This timeless masterpiece uses the progression so beautifully that the chord changes are also known as "The Stand by Me Changes" among many musicians. Note: the version in flowkey is by Florence and the Machine for the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack.

Bonnie Tyler - Total Eclipse of the Heart

Among the best ever '80s power-ballads, this massive hit starts off with a sorrowful, minor-led verse then explodes 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."

What other chords often appear in pop music?

These final two chords are rarely used at the start of pop progressions, but if you will often find them in there somewhere. Both minor, they give harmonic variety and movement to a song.

Chord ii

To play chord ii, you take the second note of the scale and make a minor chord from that note. If we stick to a root key of C major as before, chord ii is D minor.

Chord ii doesn't share any notes with the root chord, giving it an "unfinished" feel. It's often used as a passing chord, especially in jazz as part of a ii-V-I progression. We're talking about pop chords here, so how about an example of piano pop with a jazzy flavor: 

Maroon 5 - This Love

You can hear chord ii as the third chord in the verses and the second chord in the chorus. It moves us along nicely through this early-'00 hit.

Chord iii

To play chord iii, you take the third note of the scale and make a minor triad from that note. If we stick to a root key of C major as before, chord iii is E minor.

Chord iii is like the friend you know who gets on well 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. This example of chord iii in action might be classed more as piano rock than pop, but we can make an exception:

Queen - We Are The Champions

Trust Mr Mercury to know exactly how to make the most of the iii chord. It's in the verse directly after chord vi with an added 7th. But the main event is in the chorus. Chord iii is the second chord in the progression, leading us through the huge singalong.

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