Piano Chord Progressions

Here are some fun ways to combine chords in common piano chord progressions to create well known accompaniment styles. You could also use the progressions as foundations for your own improvisation.

What Are Chord Progressions?

If you play a selection of chords in a certain order, it is called a chord progression. With different types of progressions you can play certain styles, as the blues, or “imitate” a typical style like the “50’s progression” below, for example.

Chords are written either as notes, or as letters and numbers. They can also be labeled with Roman numerals.

The Use Of Roman Numerals In Music

Do you know how the use of the Roman numerals for chords works? The Roman numerals represent each step in a scale, either major or minor.

Scale with roman numeral

From each step of the scale a triad or a basic chord in root position can be built:

Triads in a scal

The chord on the first step will then be called I, on the fourth IV, and the fifth V, and so on. The I, IV and V chords in any major or minor scale are the most important. They are the main chords of the scale.

Why not use regular Arabic numbers?

Since there are a lot of other numbers involved when playing chords, for example the "number label" for seventh chords (7); to avoid confusion roman numerals are used instead to represent steps on the scale, as well as the chord built on that step.

This also makes it easy to “translate” every piano chord progression to any scale you want. You just need to know the scale you want to use, and then find each chord from the steps in that particular scale.

And why not only use “regular” chord markings, like Gm7? (=G minor with a seventh)

Well, those tell you to play in a specific tonality- while the roman numerals make it easy to play chords from any scale.

Here is how to count in Latin:

I = 1, II= 2, III=3, IV= 4 (5-1), V= 5, VI= 6 (5+1), VII= 7 (5+2), VIII= 8 (5+3), IX= 9 (10-1), X = 10, etc.

Major And Minor Chords With Roman Numerals

  • Capital numbers: I II III IV V VI VII represent the chords in major.
  • Small letter numbers: i ii iii iv v vi vii represent the chords in minor.

Another number that might be added is V7, this means that the chord on the fifth step (V) of the scale is “colored” with a seventh.

All the major scales will have the following chords build on each step up:

I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii° and back to I (or VIII)

The little circle ° means that the chord is diminished. Translated to a C major scale the chords are:

C major scale with triad

C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – B dim, and back to C

Any natural minor scale will have these chords:

i - vii° - III - iv - v - VI - VII - (i)

Translated to an A minor scale the chords are:

A m scale with triads

Am – B dim. – C – Dm – Em – F – G - Am

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Common Piano Chord Progressions

Here are some really fun piano chord progressions to try out!

Play the chords in your right hand, the root of the chord in the left and hum or sing along!

1. Three chord progressions:

The three chord progression is the most common of all. With just three chords you can accompany almost any tune!

I – IV - V: Try them with P. Spector/J. Barry/Greenwich’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” for example.

I - IV - V - V: Try it with Ritchie Valens'"La Bamba".The Isley Brothers'"Twist and Shout", and The Beatles's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds".

I - I - IV - V: Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop", Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes".

I - IV - I - V: Solomon Linda's “The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

I - IV - V - IV: Chip Taylor/The Troggs' "Wild Thing".

2. Four chord progressions:

"La Folia": In D minor:

Dm A7 Dm C F C Dm A7 // Dm A7 Dm C F C Dm A7 Dm

In any tonality:

i - V7 - i – VII – III – VII – i - V7 – // i - V7 – i – VII – III – VII – i – V7 – i

3. 12 bar blues chord progression:

Make up your own blues from a blues scale, or try any early Rock n’ roll song, Like Carl Perkins’“Blue Suede Shoes”, for example.

I - I - I - I

IV - IV - I - I

V - IV - I - I

4. “50’s progression”:

I - vi - IV - V or I - vi - ii - V

It is used in: Paul Anka’s “Diana”, Rogers and Hart's "Blue Moon", Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul".

5. Pachelbel's canon:

Piano chord progressions like Pachelbel's famous canon, is actually a bass melody that is repeated over and over. Like the blues pattern you could improvise on this ostinato (a musical pattern that is repeated over and over).

I V vi iii IV I IV V

6. Circle of Fifths progression:

This pattern moves a bit around the Circle of Fifths in a “zigzag” pattern; a fourth up, a fifth down etc.

I - IV - vii° - iii - vi - ii - V – I

Or in minor as in the refrain from “Hello” by Lionel Richie;

iv – VII – III – VI – II – V –i – V – i

7. Scale progression:

We’ll work with a simple C major scale to make two lovely piano chord progressions.

With your left hand, go down the C major scale (2 octaves!). This fits: Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale". With your right, play these chords: (I is C, IV is F and V is G)

Right Hand Chords:

c-b-a-g-f-e-d-c-b-a-g-f-e-f-g-g (Left hand single notes)

Or Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man”: We could use roman numerals again, but this time I wanted to show you how it looks like with regular chord markings:

In C major:C Em/B Am C/G F C/E D7 G

For the regular chords without slash, your left hand simply plays the single notes of each chord base; C, F, A etc.

The “slash chords” you see here, lets say Em/B means that you play the chord, Em in your right hand but the left plays B !

So while your right hand plays the chords: C Em Am C F C D7 and G

Your left will “walk down”:c b a g f e d g

Nice, huh?

J. S Bach’s famous "Air on a G String" also has a very similar piano chord progression, as well as Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman" and Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry".

8. Minor chord progression:

"Spanish" cadence: i - VII - VI - V

Play with Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack".

Or as in The Animals' version of the traditional "The House of the Rising Sun": i - III -IV (or iv) - VI

I hope you had fun learning these piano chord progressions!

For more lessons about playing piano chords in many different styles, visit Piano for all!

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