How to build and play piano chord progressions? the definite guide.

piano chord progressions


Are you wondering what are piano chord progressions and if it is something useful for you?

Maybe.

Or maybe not.

Let me ask you a few questions:

– Are you composing music or willing to create your own music on the piano?

– Do you want to enjoy doing some improvisation?

– or to understand better how all these famous songs are made?


If you can answer yes to one of these questions, keep reading!



So you have heard of piano chord progressions.

But, you are not totally sure of what they are and how they could be useful.

It sounds a bit like these fancy music theory tricks, far away from your music.

Because the problem is that, right now, you want to compose a song or a piece of music. And you got stuck in front of your piano or your keyboard.

Something doesn’t come right.


You play a few chords, and by chance they start to sound good.

Or because you borrowed them from elsewhere (don’t hide, this is a good way to learn and to get started!).

But why does this sounds good?

And how can you go further?

You may have found the chorus, but which chords to use for the verse?

You try a few chords, but it is not that good.

Or you have this nice melody and you can’t find the chords which would “fit” to it.

So many questions in your mind.

You feel like you are surrounded by a dense fog.


I get you.

I felt the same not so long ago. Spending hours on my keyboard or my guitar.

Finding only pieces of songs and not really going further. Or playing the same series of chords over and over.

Not really creative in the end.

But I am there to help you find some clarity in all this.

And with me, the amazing world of piano chord progressions!

But first, be sure to understand what are chords and how to build them here.

NOTE: I know that you like (as I do myself) to skim on pages to see what is in there for you. But I encourage you for this particular one to read it all from the start. This way you will get the most of it and you won’t have to lose time to get back 10 times. Even if you are always welcome here!


What are chord progressions? and why you should care?

Chord progressions are a series of chords played in sequence.

Yep, no more than that.


Then, what’s the big deal about them?

First, they are the foundations of the majority of the music you listen to.

And probably of the music you want to play or create.

Second, there are many chord progressions and you can be overwhelmed.

Which ones “work”?

What are these odd notations?

Let’s clarify all this.


Understand the rules and notations of chords progressions

First, you need to understand the notation.

You may have already seen something like that:

I – V – vi – IV.

What is it?

These are Roman numerals:

1234567
IIIIIIIVVVIVII

And these numbers refer to a degree in the scale of the key you are playing.

Uh??

OK, let’s make it easy.

Let’s consider that you are writing or playing a song in the key of A major.

This means that the whole song revolve around the tonic A and usually ends with a A major chord.

It is like its center of gravity if you like.

Or if you don’t like astronomy, and you want to use fancy musical theory term, it is called the harmonic center.

Sooo.

Back to our example, the A major scale is:

A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#

Remember the structure of a major scale:

W-W-H-W-W-W

where W= a whole step = 2 keys interval and H= half-step = 1 key.

Indeed, from A to B, you have to count two keys. But from C# to D, only 1 key.

Now, what are the degrees of the A major scale:

ABC#DEF#G#
IIIIIIIVVVIVII

So our famous chord progression I – V – vi – IV is the following sequence of chords:

A – E – F# – D.

Right?

WRONG!

Well, not exactly.

Because there a little complexity to add.

Don’t worry, it is not too complicated and you will have all the solutions anyway!

When you build chords from a scale, you take the note of the corresponding degree and you build a triad (a 3-note chord).

By the way it is called scale harmonization.

Always good to know the names, right?

Harmonization is a very helpful tool for the composer.

It allows you to identify which chords sound good with the melody you have found for example.

Instead of spending days and weeks finding out by yourself, you can find quite fast all the “good” chords.

And then choose the chord progression that you like!

Great no?

I have been missing this tool for years!

Let’s get to it right now.


How to harmonize a major scale?

So, triads are formed by the root, a third and a fifth.

If you need to know more about intervals and chords, check our guide here!

But the trick is that the notes of the chords you build from the scale need to be all part of the scale itself.

So for the first degree I of the A major scale, you will have this triad:

Root: A

3rd: C#

5th: E

What chord is this?

There are 4 half-steps or keys between the A and the C#. Thus, the 3rd is a major 3rd and the triad is a A major.

Good, because it is a A major scale.

Next degree of this scale: B.

Let’s build the corresponding triad:

Root: B

3rd: D

5th: F#

This time, there are 3 half-steps between the B and the D, which is a minor 3rd. Thus, this is a B minor chord.

And the Roman notation for this is ii not II because it is a minor chord.

So we have the first two degrees:

I (A major)

ii (B minor)

I think you get the point and really encourage you to build all the remaining degrees yourself.

A good exercise.

Do it now.

It takes 3 minutes and you will be good for all your life.

I will do it myself and let’s meet after that.

…..

Done?

OK, let’s see the solution:

The harmonization of the A major scale (and every major scale!) is:

I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii°

Oh, there was a trick here. Did you find it?

The seventh degree is a diminished chord: G#dim.

Because it is made of these notes:

Root:G#

3rd:B

5th:D

Which gives you a minor 3rd and diminished 5th.

Got it?

Good!

Back to our chord progression now.

It is I – V – vi – IV.

Which gives us the chords:

A – E – F#m – D.

The sixth degree is a minor chord.


OK, but now what if you wish to use a minor key?

Of course, you will need to harmonize the minor scale.

And the same system applies.

To save time, here is the harmonic minor scale:

I – ii° – III+ – iv – V – VI – vii°

As you can see, there are two diminished chords and an augmented chord on the degree III.

Alright.

Back to chord progressions

Now we know the chords corresponding to all the degrees of a scale.

This means that if you play a melody in a given key you can use all these chords.

And it will always fit.

Good!

Really good in fact.

I don’t know for you, but I always wondered how to find chords to go with a melody.

There is more to that but for now, it is already a good start.

But can we really use any of the degree randomly in a song?

Well, as I said, it will sound ok.

But maybe not really great.

Some chord progressions work better than others.

Why is that?

Good question.

I would say that the main point is the impression of movement created by the chord progression.

I am talking about emotional movement.

Every (good) song tells a story.

If there is little difference between the chords you play, then guess what, your story will be boring.

The same if they follow a very predictable sequence.

It will be okay-ish.

But boring.

That’s why some chord progression work better than others.

And why some pull out different emotions, different energy.

The famous 4-chord major progression I – V – vi – IV works so well in pop music because it brings energy and feels positive.

Something many people want to feel.

But there many other interesting options.

Let’s get to them!


The most common piano chord progressions


OK, let’s see now the most common chord progressions.

You can try them for your own music, or simply have fun playing with them.

Actually, doing so will certainly give you many ideas for your next songs!


THE chord progression: I – V – vi – IV

I already talked about this one and you will find it everywhere.

Because it is the most common chord progression in pop music and beyond.

Here it is:

I – V – vi – IV.

Hundreds and thousands of songs use this exact chord progression.

And I am not talking of unknown songs, I am talking about huge hits!

They are not all in the same key and not always starting from the root though.

It can be IV – I – V – vi for instance.

You want a few examples?

  • “Let It Be” – The Beatles:

This is the most famous example and if you just play these four chords, it immediately start to sound like this song.


  • “With or without you” – U2


  • “Someone like you” – Adele


  • “Perfect” – Ed Sheeran


  • “Love the way you lie” – Eminem/Rihanna


  • “Cheap thrills – Sia


  • “Apologize” – One Republic.


And really lots of others.

Check this list here with the keys and how it is used for each song.

So if you use this chord progression, it will immediately sound familiar.

Thus, it will sound good.

And people are much more likely to like your song than if you try something else.

Ready to jump on your keyboard to write the next hit?

Wait a minute, there is more for you.


This chord progression works amazingly well, and it has been like that for decades.

If you are doing pop music or pop-rock or other variations.

But what if you are doing blues or jazz?

Maybe not the best choice!

Let’s see better options.


Blues chord progressions

In Blues music, the most common chord progression is:

I – IV – V.

Only three chords.

Can’t be simpler.

Well ok you can use only two chords, but can it be really called a “progression”?

Anyways.

The way this chord progression is mostly used is in the classic 12-bar blues:

I – I – I – I

IV – IV

I – I

V – V

I – I

An example?

Check this improvisation based on the 12-bar blues structure:


Jazz chord progressions

In Jazz music, things are usually more complex.

But not for chord progressions.

You will find the same I – IV – V as in the blues.

And one of the most used in jazz standard is this one:

ii – V – I.

It is also named “cadential” and you can find it in classical music or gospel music.

Here is a tutorial on the cadence:


Canon chord progression

Originally found in the famous classical piece Canon in D from Pachelbel, it is also used in pop music.

Here it goes:

I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V

It is not that complicated and bring an interesting nostalgic ambiance.

Watch here how to play it on the piano:


Circular chord progressions

I find them funny (hey everybody has fun with what he wants, no judgment please!).

The principle is, as the name says, to start and finish on the same chord.

For example:

I – IV – V – I.

Which is a simple extension of the I – IV – V we saw earlier.

And since the I is repeated, it gives it some momentum. Something happy, dancy I shall say.

And what about this one:

I – IV – viio – iii – vi – ii – V – I.

How playful is it!

Don’t you want to move gently you body on that one?


A few minor chord progressions


Now you may need to write songs in a minor key to express other emotions, like sadness.

We have seen the harmonization of the minor scale before.

Actually I only gave you the harmonic minor which is the most used.

I don’t want to complicate things here, but just be aware that there are other harmonization, such as the minor natural.

As a reminder, here is the harmonic minor:

I – ii° – III+ – iv – V – VI – vii°


OK, what are the most common minor chord progressions?

Actually, you can use the same as the major ones. Just be careful of using the correct chords.

For example, if we take the very common major chord progression: I – V – IV.

The corresponding minor progression is: i – V – iv.

Two other common minor chord progressions are:

i – ii° – V – i

and the “ballad” progression:

i – VI – III – VII


How to play chord progressions?


We have seen different typical chord progressions now.

And you know that you can find more and build your own.

But don’t forget that even with a single simple progression, there are many many ways to play it. And not only by changing the key.

You can use all the other dimensions of music: repetitions, amplitude, rhythm, intensity, sounds.

You can also use broken chord to add more rhythm.

Plenty of options to explore.

My exercise for you is to pick a simple chord progression and to find at least 10 different ways to play it.

Try this now on your piano.


Even if you consider only one of the dimensions I mentioned, the repetition.

You can play the progression inside different patterns, such as the 12-bar blues.

Here is the beauty of music.

Take 3 numbers and turn them in an infinity of subtle variations depending on your mood, of what you want to express.


Another tip: practice your expressiveness with very simple limited set of chords.

It is much more efficient than using very complex patterns.

See for example the variations on blues players on the same chords for several minutes.

Often with a very limited number of notes.


The magic trick of chord inversions

I wanted to share with you a little but important trick.

When you play a chord progression, you will likely start to move your hands a lot to reach the different degrees of the scale.

But you can avoid this by using chord inversions.

Just to remind you, a chord inversion is when you use another note than the root as the lowest note of the chord.

For example the C/E triad inversion is played: E G C instead of the regular C chord : C E G.

How can it help play progressions?

Here is an example using the I – V – vi – IV on this video in the key of C.

As you see, you barely have to move your hands.

It needs a bit of practice for your fingers but it is worth the effort.


Tell your story

Don’t forget that you probably want to tell a story with your music.

Chord progressions are thus a tool for you to depict a particular ambiance, a flow of energy, of emotions.

Your song will convey much better your story if you choose wisely the chord progressions you play.


Chord progression charts

To help you have in mind the major chord progressions I mentioned in this article, I made the chart below.

You can print it out and hang it on the wall in front of your piano.

Enjoy!


Major piano chord progressions chart


CONCLUSION

Piano chord progressions have no more secrets for you now!

We have seen why they are so helpful for your compositions.

And what are the rules to build them.

Plus a few tips and tricks to play them and use them in your music.

Of course, there is more than that in music theory.

But to my opinion, this is one of the main tool you will need.

It will bring you to the next level in music.

And it is not that complicated.

At least I hope that I helped you to gain some clarity!

If you want to get inspired, check these famous piano songs here.

And the piano versions of these famous movie soundtracks.

Don’t forget to check the chord progression chart above before you go.

If you are ready to write a song, please check out our guide here.

Please leave a comment below. Let’s start  the discussion!

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