Pop on your thinking cap as we take you through a bit of basic music theory and share some common chord progressions in C Major.
In many memorable songs, we are guilty of focusing on the melody, the hook, a great lyric, or the riff.
But none of that can be created without a chord progression as bedrock.
You can throw the same few chords together but the order you play them can change the song dramatically.
The chord progression is the foundation and so it is important to have a little understanding.
But theory can be a headache for beginners.
Sometimes it is easier when you are starting out to let some of it go over your head and learn a few solid progressions from popular music to get you going.
We have tried to take away some of the frustration and simplify things with some common, popular chord progressions.
C Major Chord Progression Theory Foreword
We have seven chords in each key, the tonic is the key we are in, in this case C.
C Major is a good key for learning chord progression theory because there are no sharps or flats to contend with.
All of the root notes for each chord are natural.
On a piano, this would be all white notes.
Aside from the tonic chord, we have the minor supertonic, the mediant which is also minor in a major key, the subdominant, the dominant, the submediant, and the leading tone.
Here they are laid out in the key of C Major;
1. I – IV – V – IV
In the key of C: C | F | G | F
The first progression we have chosen is I-IV-V-IV.
The first three measures are the most famous in the world.
When writing in a major key the I-IV-V is an ear-pleasing transition.
Known commonly as the 1-4-5 it makes up the majority of rock and blues to have crawled out of the 1950s.
This progression, however, returns to the fourth chord of the C Major scale known as the subdominant chord which in this case is F Major.
Returning to the subdominant makes it feel less complete like the bar hasn’t really ended and the song still has places to go.
The result is a back-and-forth motion.
It is used in tonnes of songs “Wild Thing” by The Troggs is a great example, as is Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up”.
Any song you write with this progression will have a familiarity that makes it a hit with the listener.
For many, it is considered a bit cliché but if it works it works.
The progression still has versatility; another example of it is Green Days’ “Minority” which has an upbeat punky vibe.
Love it or hate it, you will come across it often as a musician, it should be considered an essential chord progression.
2. I – V – IV – V
In the key of C: C | G | F | G
Another somewhat obvious progression is the I-V-IV-V which again has the same undulating back-and-forth vibes as the above.
It is a little brighter sounding than the first because it bounds between the root and fifth to chords we are very happy to hear in succession.
We have given you Blink-182’s punk classic “All The Small Things” as a demonstration of this one in action.
Of course, they play it pretty straight-laced and heavily with a bit of attitude.
But this one can be plucked quite beautifully.
Other songs that use the progression in a different key include; “There She Goes” by La’s “Waking Up in Vegas” by Katy Perry, “When You Say Nothing At All” by Ronan Keating, and “MMMBop” by Hanson.
So that should help clue you in about its potential in terms of genre.
It’s a gloriously happy progression ideal for bubblegum pop but still versatile as Blink-182 use proves.
3. I – IV – vi – V
In the key of C: C | F | Am | G
We are sticking with a progression that starts on the Tonic (first chord).
But it’s time to start looking at the introduction of minor chords within the progression.
Sliding that submediant Am into the mix gives things an altogether different feel.
It allows you to take the listener on a well-rounded journey.
Minor chords don’t always equal misery and in the case of this progression (I – IV – vi – V) you still have that friendly 1-4-5 territory that we all feel safe with.
So, the introduction of the minor is not too distressing.
It’s a popular twist on your average I – IV – V style “heard it before” chord progression and can be used to give a song a little more of an edge.
Pat Benatar does exactly this with the chorus of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”.
The A-minor change gives her somewhere interesting to go with the melody that a happier-sounding I-IV-V would not.
It is a good demonstration of how the vi chord when played with 4 beats to each bar still sounds pretty happy.
4. vi – IV – I – V
In the key of C: Am | F | C | G
So what if we move away from the tonic as a starting point?
Well starting on that minor submediant gives the song a much more apathetic vibe.
We still have the 1-4-5 in there, out of sequence but they are there.
Ending with the I to V is what is known as an imperfect cadence, this leaves the listener wanting to hear more as it feels unfinished.
You can use this sequence to create a sense of longing, it is highly emotive and great for songs that have conscious lyrics rather than nonsense.
A classic example would be “Numb” by Linkin Park which uses the chord progression more darkly.
But it is also fair to say it can be less desperate; other examples of its use include; Eagle-Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight”, “Cheap Thrills” by Sia, and even “Africa” by Toto puts this progression to use.
Compare Linkin Park and Eagle-Eye-Cherry side by side.
The latter gives the same chords a much less hopeless feel with their chosen rhythm and speed.
5. I – vi – IV – V
In the key of C: C | Am | F | G
No matter who you are, you are going to know this one.
Known as “The ’50s progression”, I–vi–IV–V is one of the most common progressions used in music full-stop.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to offer.
Countless songs have been written over this progression.
It is also known to many as the “Heart and Soul” chords or “Stand by Me” progression and inspired doo-wop progression too.
Our example music is “D’yer Mak’er” by Led Zeppelin.
It is one of their more relaxed upbeat, reggae-like tracks and we think it serves a good purpose in demonstrating.
It isn’t typical of the band’s usual progression choices.
The syncopated rhythm pattern makes it less like the umpteen rock and roll tracks that were built around this progression in the 50s era.
While the progression has been used over and over again it hasn’t been done to death, just yet.
Other songs that use it include; “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias, “The KKK Took My Baby Away” by the Ramones, and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”.
6. I – V -vi – IV
In the key of C: C | G | Am | F
If you are paying attention and following our theory introduction, then you will notice that this one is a variation on the “Heart and Soul” 50s progression above.
The change of order provides less of a finish.
We don’t have I-V or V-I resolve that we crave that tells us we are at the end of the progression.
Ending on the IV gives it a cyclic feel, it is never-ending.
This makes it ideal for writing an earworm!
Bob Marley uses it for “No Woman, No Cry” without ever-changing chords elsewhere.
It makes it a tricky song to get out of your head because even if you internally hum the verse the chorus will creep back in and vice-versa!
The progression is often expanded upon with other chords, a famous example would be Pachabel’s Canon which does indeed go on and on cyclically.
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers add the ii into the mix in their 1991 hit “Under The Bridge”.
Although it isn’t in the key of C Major you should be able to hear what we mean they play I – V -vi -ii- IV.
This one is less commonly used than the iconic progression above but is still prevalent in many music genres.
The Beatles put it to good use in “Let it Be” and Adele uses it to compose many pop ballads such as “Someone Like You”
7. vi – IV – vi – IV
In the key of C: Am | F | Am | F
So what about making it more melancholy or introspective?
Well if we stick with the Am and ignore the tonic and dominant chords that our ears would like to hear present then we get a sadder vibe despite the major key.
This one is very simple; it is a two-chord progression; in truth, they change back and forth across 4 bars repetitively.
You probably couldn’t write an entire song with this but it serves well as a verse progression to set up for a great chorus later.
A good example of that is in “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
A-minor is known as the relative minor to C Major; each major key has a relative minor.
When you forgo playing the tonic you give the impression that you are playing in a minor key instead. The magic comes when you introduce the tonic further into the song.
Without the tonic, you have a minor progression that is much more solemn.
8. IV – iii – IV – iii
In the key of C: F | Em | F | Em
We have made no mention of the supertonic chord yet because it is atypical to use in popular music but it does get included from time to time, so here it is
David Bowie was always a musical innovator so it is hardly surprising he decided to use this unusual progression choice.
You can hear this ominous sway of chord changes in the verse sections of “Space Oddity”; it creates a soundscape with uncertainty perfect for the narrative of the hit.
You won’t often hear IV-iii used for long in any song, it has no resolve without adding other chords or going somewhere else entirely.
You could use it for a pre-chorus lead-up or a well-defined bridge.
It doesn’t always seem as unnerving as it did with Bowie’s song.
You can change the rhythm and play it with a groove.
Another contrasting example of the chord progression used can be heard in “Where’s Your Head At” by Basement Jaxx.
This one you’ll agree is dramatically different, it can also be used for folk, indie, R&B, funk, soul, and disco.
9. IV – I – V
In the key of C: F | C | G
So the infamous 1-4-5 we keep mentioning can be shook-up to create an imperfect cadence that has an almost apologetic feel to it.
Finishing with the dominant chord begs for the tonic to come and by using it over two entire bars you make them wait a little longer.
It’s great for creating an emotional verse to resolve later with a hook.
Although it isn’t in the key of C Major, we chose Vanessa Carlton’s one-hit-wonder track that dominated the charts back in the early 2000s.
It is a whole tone higher but you can hear how the progression sounds because it is used throughout.
You can also clearly hear that resolve when she finally returns to the tonic chord at the end of the line;
“If I could just see you, If I could just, hold, you-tonight.”
Finally giving us the tonic on the word tonight emphasizes the longing.
You can also hear this progression in a different key in LEN’s “Steal My Sunshine” among others.
10. ii – V – I– vi
In the key of C: Dm | G | C | Am
We are leaving you with this chord progression as the first three measures are an infamous turnaround progression.
You’ll find it is typically used to modulate and change the key or transition to another section.
The ii-V-I is synonymous with jazz music; it is often referred to as the jazz turnaround.
Don’t let the name fool you, it features throughout pop, rock, soul, Motown, and many more genres.
Think of the last line of “Make You Feel My Love”; the turnaround appears to lift us to those higher sections.
But we have chosen to add the vi chord at the end which gives it a wholesome bounce.
The best song to demonstrate it is “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.
Strictly speaking, they use the key of D Major, not C Major, and have some colorful variations on the chords sprinkling some delicious seventh and sixth notes on the top.
This is a must-have progression.
You can use it in conjunction with most of the progressions above to create an interesting song structure that revolves around the key of c major.
Chord Progressions in C – Final Thoughts
When you start to learn the ins and outs of chord progression theory, the key of C is a good starting place.
There are no sharps or flats to think about.
Learn to play the popular chord progressions we have laid out.
With the common C-Major progressions that we have highlighted above you will find you can play hundreds of songs – thousands if you stick a capo in the mix!
Then you can experiment with putting some of them together in your own way.
All of them are in the key of C Major so you can mix and match and see where the music takes you.
Understanding the connections, cadences, and theory behind the transition is ultimately going to help you progress far quicker and give you the tools to write your own songs should you wish.
We hope we have helped you take a step towards that with our explanations.
Some of it may well be information overload but until you are ready try mastering today’s short list of common chord progressions.
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