Chords are the backbone of pretty much every song that has ever been written. This is true no matter the genre of music or how complex the piece may be. For example, it’s not uncommon to find an old jazz standard that changes chords on almost every beat; at the same time, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows‘ by The Beatles is one single chord all the way through.
There are several combinations of chords found in numerous songs, and some are much more common than others. These combinations are called chord progressions, and they are an easy way to group together chords in a specific key.
So what does it take to create a chord progression, and how are they notated? It may sound like the answers would involve a lot of music theory (which, for some guitar players, strikes fear in their hearts at the simple mention of the term). Yes – there is some theory involved, but no – it’s really not all that complicated…
How to notate a chord progression
OK – so if a chord progression is just a bunch of chords thrown together, then what’s the big deal about knowing how to describe (or notate) them?
As your musical knowledge progresses, you may often run into situations where you are playing with other musicians, and they may say something like this:
“Hey – let’s jam out on a blues tune. Just a simple I-iV-V in C. Ready? Let’s rock!”
This is where you might freeze up. I-IV-V? What the heck is THAT supposed to mean?!?
It’s pretty simple really – a lot easier than you may think…
To keep things simple, we’ll be dealing with C Major’s key for all of our examples, but chord progressions can translate to any key (more on that later). If you take a look at the C Major scale, you’ll find 8 notes:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
There are basic chords that go along with this scale, and they are:
C Major, D Minor, E Minor, F Major, G Major, A Minor, B Diminished
FYI – How these chords are developed is a whole other topic that may be outside the scope of what we are looking at here – but it’s a topic that we will go over in future articles. We’ll just move on for the sake of simplicity.
The typical convention is to use Roman numerals to classify each chord that relates to the scale degree. That means the nomenclature for the chords in C Major is as follows:
C Major = I
D Minor = ii (minor chords are sometimes shown in lower case)
E Minor = iii
F Major = IV
G Major = V
A Minor = vi
B Diminished = vii
Keeping that in mind, the I-IV-V chord progression that we mentioned earlier consists of C Major, F Major, and G Major. And yes – for all of this ‘music theory’ type stuff, it really IS that easy!
Chord progression notation translates to any key.
One thing that’s really handy about chord progression notation is that it universally applies to any key. We mentioned the key of C above for the blues example…and while there are certainly blues tunes in the key of C, it’s much more common in the guitar world to have a blues be in the keys of E A.
What would the I-IV-V blues chord progression be for the key of E? Remember that chord progression notation works the same no matter what key you’re in, so you can follow the same train of thought. Below is the E Major scale:
E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D# – E
Using the handy notation, the I chord would be E Major, the IV chord would be A Major, and the V chord would be B Major. So there you go!
Here’s a little test for you (don’t worry – you won’t be graded on it!) What is the I-IV-V progression in the key of A Major? If you said A Major, D Major, and E Major, you’ve got the concept nailed!
Common chord progressions
While there are technically almost unlimited amounts of chord progressions that can be created, some are used much more than others. Certain progressions have a specific sound or feeling of resolution to them where you may find yourself being able to almost guess what chord may be coming next if you’re trying to figure out a song just by listening to it.
We’ll now take a few minutes and go through some of the more popular progressions. For each one, we’ll also give a few examples of popular songs that use them.
Yeah, we may have beaten this one to death so far, but with good reason – an I-IV-V may be close to the simplest and widest used chord progression in popular music. As we have said, it’s very common to the blues, although you’ll also find it used in countless songs in other genres. Have you ever heard the term ‘three-chord song’? Well…here you go!
Famous examples of the I-IV-V chord progression are:
Pride And Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughan
Red House – Jimi Hendrix
Crossroads – Cream
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynryd Skynyrd
Wild Thing – The Troggs
Leaving On A Jet Plane – John Denver
And the list (literally) goes on…and on…and on…
This chord progression throws in an extra chord, which helps create more dynamics and harmony within the song’s structure. Similar to the I-IV-V, you may be surprised at the number of songs that use it.
Songs that use this progression are found far and wide across pop music and comprise some of the most popular tunes you may have heard:
Africa – Toto
Beast Of Burden – The Rolling Stones
Hey Soul Sister – Train
I Want You To Want Me – Cheap Trick
Let It Be – The Beatles
Perfect – Ed Sheeran
If you’re a jazz enthusiast, then you may not be surprised that this is considered by many to be the most popular chord progression in the genre. Many jazz players have cut honed their chops on the countless standards that use it as the baseline for the song. It sometimes may be a little confusing to identify because jazz can, at times, be so harmonically complex – but the backbone is undoubtedly there.
Some of the jazz tunes that use an ii-V-I progression (in at least one portion of the song) are below; most are classic standards recorded by numerous artists over the years:
Chord progressions are simply a group of chords in a commonly used key in a particular order within a song. Countless ones can be used, but a select few are very common across several music genres. Notating them can be as simple as assigning a set of Roman numerals based on the scale degrees in the key you are working in.
Having an overall knowledge of how some of the most popular progressions work can help you to quickly learn a wide range of songs, so taking a few minutes to understand the concept is definitely time that will be well spent.
Discuss chord progressions in our guitar chat forum.