The following is a list of ten of the most used chord progressions in music today. Some are classic and have been used hundreds of times, sometimes in combination with each other or with slight alterations to make things a bit more interesting. If you learn these progressions and are able to pick them out of a song by ear, you should be able to play (or at least understand) nearly any song!
If you’re a songwriter, knowing these progressions will help you avoid writing the same song multiple times or copying your heroes’ music. These chord progressions are the musical archetypes of modern songwriting.
For those of you that know music theory, I’m providing the roman numerals. For those of you that don’t, I’ll give you the progressions in the key of G in parenthesis.
Number one is the Don’t Stop Believing Progression, I – V – vi – IV (G – D – Em – C). The Axis of Awesome did a great bit about this one in which they play 40 songs in a row that all have the same progression including, No Woman No Cry, Let It Be, I’m Yours, etc… and over the past few years, that list has become a lot longer!
The second is the 50’s Progression, I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D). I call it this because it was hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s and is still used today. Notably used recently by Justin Bieber for “Baby” (Justin was like baby baby baby oh… what a pity) and Sean Kingston for “Beautiful Girls,” though Kingston really just ripped off Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”.
The third is the Canon, I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V (G – D – Em – Bm – C – G – C – D). It was the chord progression used by Pachelbel for his “Canon in D” (not in G, as notated above). The piece, forgotten soon after it was written (around 1694), was rediscovered in the early 20th century and has influenced a number of songwriters. It is, however, simply an extension of the basic I – IV – V – I progression that was used by nearly every composer for hundreds of years up to about 100 years ago.
The fourth is the Blues Progression, I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I (G – G – G – G – C – C – G – G – D – D – G – G). This is the way Chuck Berry played it in “Johnny B Goode” though the last 4 chords are often V – VI – I – V (D – C – G – D). There are 12 chords because it follows the standard 12-bar blues progression. In this progression it’s common to switch freely between major and minor. This progression has been used in thousands of songs outside of the blues from Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” to Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” and beyond.
The Eighth is a rearrangement of the Don’t Stop Believing progression vi – IV – I – V (em – C – G – D). I’m not sure what to call this one. The song that always gets stuck in my head with this one is The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Snow,” though I know Taylor Swift uses it in at least three songs (as well as most of the other progressions above…), Green Day used it in “Holiday,” and The Cranberries used it in “Zombie,” just to name a few.
The ninth is the stereotypical Descending Flamenco Progression vi – V – IV – III (em – D – C – B (not Bm!)). This one has been used in songs from “California Dreamin’” to “Stray Cat Strut“… I’m sure you can think of a few more! A variation on this is vi – V – VI – V (em – D – C – D), which arguably may be more popular today…
And the tenth that I see is the While My Guitar Gently Weeps Progression. This one straddles two keys and it’s basic representation is ii – I – V6 – bVII (- VI) (am – G – D/f# – F (- E)). It looks like a variation on the Descending Flamenco Progression and is presented with slight variations by everyone that uses it. The Beatles actually substituted an am7/G for the G chord and left out the E. Chicago, in “25 or 6 to 4,” focused on the root notes in the bass -> A – G – F# – F – E. Green Day’s “Brain Stew” used a similar motif. Led Zeppelin and Neil Young have each offered their variations, as well.
These progressions are not the end of music. They’re used a lot but they’re not your only options! If you listen closely you’ll hear them everywhere, but most songwriters use them in combination with other progressions or with variations, creating something new using old building blocks. Please don’t think of this list as a set of rules! Just information to enhance your own understanding of the way music works.
It really isn’t that difficult to learn how to play music on the guitar. Songwriters these days don’t really use that many different chord progressions.
With these chord progressions you’ll be able to play enough songs to last you a lifetime. These progressions also show up occasionally in other genres of music, so keep an ear out for them in your journey as an aspiring musician.
Keep in mind a basic rule of harmony is:
In a major key, chords are always:
In a minor key, chords are always:
Remember, start off with the key of G, then transpose to A, C, D, and E. I’ve included a chart below to help you in memorizing the various degrees of each scale.