In today’s article, we are taking a look at some of the best piano chord progressions.
We are hoping to give just the right amount of theory so as not to go overheads or get scrolled over.
The piano is sometimes overlooked, often the discussion of chord progressions is among guitarists.
The beautiful instrument is most often associated with classical music and with sheet music, the chords are laid out and therefore less often talked about.
But modern pop and rock music rely heavily on the piano or keyboard.
So let’s look at some of the best piano chord progressions with examples.
Together we’ll pick apart what makes them popular and how we can spice things up or color our music with the more interesting options along the way.
Things to Know About Piano Chord Progressions
Progression options are finite, there are many hit songs masquerading over the same four chords or even the same three.
If you are new to music don’t get caught up learning a tonne of variations.
Stick with a few key progressions and then with those that have complimentary keys and crossovers you can start expanding your skills and working on your own flavor.
Chord progressions are written with roman numerals.
But are said with regular numbers so learning to read your numerals is an important first step.
You need a bit of music theory under your belt to know which is the first or third chord in the key that you are playing etc.
We recommend you know a variety of piano scales and modes, as well.
But we will assume you have a little knowledge, to begin with, and if not we hope our song example choices will at least audibly give you a clue to the sound and vibe that particular piano chord progression can provide.
Popular Piano Chord Progressions
1. I – vi – IV – V
The undeniable place to start is one of the most popular progressions of all time.
Made famous during the 1950s as a staple for rock and roll with an emotional edge (courtesy of the minor) the I – vi – IV – V progression is about as staple as it gets.
Yet, it provides a sounding board for endless melody lines over it.
Although it is rooted in that old-time rock and roll it retains a certain ageless quality.
You will find it heavily prevalent in the charts just about every week in one key or another.
The progression featured in “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers recorded in 1958 but also in modern tracks like “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis (2007).
Artists of all music genres from Elvis Presley and John Lennon to Coldplay and Taylor Swift have tailored it into their work over the years.
So you can see it’s versatile, to say the least!
There are also plenty of examples of 3-chord songs that skip the IV such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” and others that slip in chord variations such as making the minor a minor sixth for a sadder undertone.
2. V – ii – vi
We just gave Coldplay a mention, this chord progression features in their hit song “Clocks”.
While there are a few progressions that skip the I and plenty that start on the fifth, this one leaves an air of wonder about it by doing both.
Using the key of A♭ but never playing an A♭ chord, this progression uses the Mixolydian scale.
By excluding the root chord of the key you have an unresolved quality throughout.
It is pretty atypical for soft-rock but gives the track an “edge of euphoria” feel as it constantly builds but never amounts to anything.
It is also neither majorly major nor minor direction giving it plenty of melodic leverage.
You can also hear this chord progression sampled in the far more upbeat track “When Love Takes Over” by David Guetta ft. Kelly Rowland.
The two songs display the progression arpeggiated on a piano.
3. I – V – IV – I
We opened with the typical go-to pop rock progression, this one is essentially the happier version that excludes the minor.
With the root fourth and fifth it is a familiar simplified variation that is instantly relatable to the listener.
They know where it’s going to go and there are no unpleasant surprises lurking.
This one has been snapped up by the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles and is as prevalent in music today as ever before.
Sure there is a risk of your music sounding a little cliché but with variations and interesting melody lines and ornamentation, this one still has plenty to play around with.
It makes for a fantastic jumping-off point, you can take your chorus elsewhere if you want or use it as a chorus to make your hook more catchy.
It is a progression cemented into all of us in some way or another.
You also aren’t restricted to rock, it can be heard throughout multiple genres as diverse as punk, pop, and indie.
A great pop example to demonstrate the I-V-IV-I progression is “Everything I Do” by Bryan Adams.
You could shake things up by returning to the root I-V-IV-V like many other rockers instead. Think “Tangerine” by Led Zeppelin!
4. I – V – vi – IV
At the risk of sounding like a broken record I, IV, V, and vi are the most popular chords in pop music.
You can mix the order as you want and you are going to get a great pop progression with an instant appeal that pleases the listener.
This variation is iconic and so prevalent that the band The Axis of Awesome used it on stage to perform a now infamous medley of songs they titled the track “Four Chords”.
Their mix of 80+ includes the following songs to name but a few;
- “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey
- “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt
- “Where Is the Love” by The Black Eyed Peas
- “Forever Young” by Alphaville
- “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz
- “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (from The Lion King) by Elton John
- “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver
- “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5
- “Let It Be” by The Beatles
- “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley
- “2 Become 1” by Spice Girls
- “Take On Me” by A-ha
- “When I Come Around” by Green Day
- “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry
- “Africa” by Toto
- “If I Were A Boy” by Beyoncé
- “In My Head” by Jason Derulo
- “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins
- “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne
- “Self Esteem” by The Offspring
- “Apologize” by OneRepublic
- “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem Ft. Rihanna
- “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi
- “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga
- “Barbie Girl” by Aqua
- “Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
- “Kids” by MGMT
- “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli
- “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns
So you can see the diverse range of genres this happy, upbeat-sounding major progression can be used for!
5. I – IV – V – IV
This chord progression is another classic pop-rock example.
It requires only three chords and there are mountains of tracks that employ three chords in a four-bar progression typically returning to the root.
However, this one returns to the fourth chord, making every other bar the same chord.
This gives it a real back-and-forth feel making it great for setting up verses for songs with a storyline or artists who want more of a conversational feel.
You can hear it clearly in the verses of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and Green Day’s “Minority”.
You can add flavor to it as Sir Elton John does in his gentle ballad “Your Song”.
He incorporates slash chords that keep the bass (left hand) still while changing the right-hand chords with the progression.
Giving it an evocative sound that ultimately makes it more emotional and melancholic.
In terms of progression novelty, it isn’t high up there but you again have free-reign melodic novelty playing with diatonic or moving bass notes opening chords up with the seventh.
6. I – ii – iii – ii – I – V
Okay, so what about songs with far more than three chords in their turnaround?
Expanding the chords used whether it is over four bars or eight gives the song a slightly more epic feel.
During the prog-rock era, it was common to stash a few more chords into the sequence and take the listener on a bit of a journey.
The I-ii – iii – ii – I – V progression makes for an amazing intro progression or a way to mark the climb into an iconic chorus section.
The first three chords are a chromatic climb and just when you think it is going to continue lifting it creeps back down, takes a newfound direction, and returns you safely home to the root.
This gives it a lot of motion and is what makes that distinct power-ballad stamp.
It has its limitations, you wouldn’t pop it into a punk track but it has potential for modern pop ballads, movie soundtracks, and prog-rock revival.
Try listening to the intro section of “Come Sail Away” by Styx, which uses the phrasing for a monumental lead-up before it breaks into a heavier traditional 3-chord song.
7. I – iii – vi – IV
This next one is a nice twist on a familiar progression.
The minor third provides more lift than expected because it is immediately followed by a chord that is a tone higher than you were expecting.
It has that same emotional pop feel but its unique touch.
It is becoming increasingly popular and is a go-to ballad progression in modern music.
A clear example is “Someone Like You” by Adele which colors the iii with a different bass note giving it more weight and adding gravity to the heavy heartbreaking lyrics.
She also opts to pitch it an octave lower instead of progressing upwards again making it more miserable.
It is a very melancholy transition from the I to the iii, it is a great progression to experiment with, if you want to inject a little happiness you can change the IV to the V and see where it takes you.
Maybe even experiment with inserting a brief stepdown between the sixth and fifth to the fourth?
8. I – iii – IV – V – IV
Using the sequence we just examined you can ditch the minor iv chord and add some character dancing upwards surpassing the fifth and landing on the sixth which gives it a very uplifting transition.
David Bowie’s much-loved “Changes” puts the formula to good use.
Although it is fair to note that the Hunky Dory hit is chock-full of tantalizing progressions and changes that underline the subject matter and title of the song!
Forget the epic riff that it opens with and focus on the lackadaisical piano accompaniment that dances beneath the opening verse.
It demonstrates this chord progression and the vibe it’s capable of creating perfectly.
If you want to play around with this one try changing the iii to a minor 7.
Now, this progression is another way to look at and explore the I–V–vi–IV which as we mentioned above the band The Axis of Awesome managed to medley eighty songs with!
It depends on which key you are in as to how we roman-numeral(ize) and envision the progression, they are different if approached differently as you can play with different scales.
It is one of the most natural progressions out there, it does all the work and carries the song, it’s a very popular option for many songwriters.
You can’t help but find it catchy.
Here are some songs that utilize it well;
- “Immortals” by Fall Out Boy
- “In My Head” by Jason Derulo
- “I Was Here” by Beyoncé
- “Just a Dream” by Nelly
- “Ghost” by Justin Bieber
- “Faded” by Alan Walker
There are hundreds more and while they might not be your particular taste you can’t deny the majority are earworms.
Don’t shy away from tried and tested chord progressions, you can add character if you explore different scales and modes within the keys.
This one is typically referred to as ‘THE’ Jazz turnaround.
It is a turnaround for changing key, it is very resolved sounding and gives the ears a pleasant finality.
But it can be utilized with other chord progressions above if you want to modulate.
It gives your song a tonne of movement and opens up your options if you want a more defined verse and chorus section.
For that reason, we are leaving you with this progression included, although you couldn’t write an entire song solely using the turnaround.
It is heavily used as its nickname hints in jazz standards you can hear it in “Take Five” by Brubeck, “Giant Steps” by Coltrane, and “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington.
But it is also used effectively in rock and pop.
Many songs have employed a jazzy 2-5-1 turnaround to modulate songs.
The Beatles relied on it in a few of their song modulations “Love From Me to You”.
In the bridge section, it changes to the F major key and again uses the 2-5-1 to raise back up to the chorus chord progression.
You can also hear between the verse and chorus of “If I Fell” and “You Never Give Me Your Money” which also feature the handy key-shifting progression too.
Some other songs include; “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” which modulates for its middle eight section with the II-V-I and even modern hits like “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5.
Best Piano Chord Progressions – Final Thoughts
There are all sorts of cool chord progressions for piano out there.
Of course, some resonate better with people because they provide the right finishing cadence.
Resolving to the one will often make people more content and is key for happy upbeat pop.
Yes, there are rules but music is creativity so feel to break them sometimes!
Having a decent idea of the theory behind it allows piano players to sneak in a colorful variation and change things up a little.
Mastering your instrument one chord change at a time and developing your trademark tone!
Your average chord progression ideas are non-complex but expanding upon them tweaking and adding a personal stamp is key to expressing yourself as an artist.
So explore variations of the chord progressions for piano playing that we have laid out above.
Listen to plenty of music, in a variety of genres.
Identify the chord changes that excite and inspire you to find out what they are, and where you can weave them into your work.
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