5 Chord Progressions Every Songwriter Needs to Know

5 Chord Progressions Every Songwriter Needs to KnowChord progressions are the structural foundations of the songs we know and love. Put simply, a chord progression is a series of repeating chords, for example, C / F / G over and over.

Some songs have one chord progression for the entire song. Others have separate progressions for the verse and chorus, while more complex songs may contain four or five different progressions throughout.

Every songwriter should have an understanding of common chord progressions, not only for understanding songwriting and song structure, but for improvising with a band as well. If a group of people get together to play, several commonly known chord progressions provide a framework for everyone to play to, be it a 12 bar blues progression, rhythm changes, or the chord progression to any popular song. In this article, we will look at five of the most common chord progression in major keys.

Chord Numbering System

For simplicity, we will look at the progressions discussed in the key of C . It is helpful to look at the chords in terms of numbers, either in Nashville style or as roman numerals. This lets you see the chords in their relative positions, allowing you to easily transpose, as well as understand how each fits into the scale. Below are the notes and natural chords of the keys of C, with their chords listed in both Nashville numbers and roman numerals.

Make sure to follow along on your piano or guitar!

Major Scale: The Building Blocks

Notes of the C Major Scale

Notes on the C Scale

Chords in C Major

Chord Scale Nashville Roman Numeral

Keep in mind that in Nashville numbers, the 1, 4, and 5 chords are presumed to be major and the 2, 3, and 6 are minor. In roman numerals, the major chords are listed in upper case, while the minor chords are written in lower case.

Progression 1 (I – IV – V – IV)

This simple progression, consists of the major chords (1, 4, and 5) of a major scale. You can hear this progression in songs such as

  • “La Bamba,”
  • “Twist and Shout,”
  • “The Joker” by Steve Miller,
  • “Wild Thing,”
  • “Good Lovin’,” by The Young Rascals, and
  • Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself.”

The basic progression goes like this

I – IV – V – IV

Listen to this progression in the key of C using C / F / G / F chord progression

Progression 2 (12 Bar Blues)

The twelve bar blues is a not only a common chord progression for songs, it’s also perhaps the most commonly used progression for jamming. You might hear someone call out, “12 bar blues in A,” and then all the musicians lock in and improvise over the pattern. Its commonality means it’s important to understand. In fact, all musicians should know how to play and play over a twelve bar blues pattern.

Although there are many variants and embellishments, the basic twelve bar progression goes like this:

I – I – I – I –  IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – V

Listen to this progression in the key of C using C / C / C / C / F / F / C / C / G / G / C / G chord progression

While its roots are in the blues, this progression is also common in pop, rock, country, and American jazz standards. You can hear it in

  • “Red House,”
  • “Johnny B. Goode,”
  • the standard “Kansas City,”
  • “Peach” by Prince, and
  • Hank Williams country classic, “Move It on Over.”

Progression 3 (I – V – vi – IV)

The viral video from Australian comedy group, Axis of Awesome illustrates this chord progression better any other example I can think of. In this video, which to date has over 46 million views, the group goes through forty popular songs which use this progression. Examples include

  • Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,”
  • Black Eyed Peas “Where is the Love,”
  • “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train,
  • and Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,”

The basic progression goes like this

I – V – vi – IV

Listen to this progression in the key of C using C / G / Am / F chord progression

Progression 4 (I – vi – ii – V)

This progression is often called the “I’ve Got Rhythm” or “Rhythm Changes” progression due to the fact that it’s based on the George and Ira Gershwin classic, “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Much like the 12 bar blues, this is a common progression for improvising. A group of musicians might say “Let’s jam on rhythm changes in C” and everyone jumps in. Because of this, it’s an important progression to know. While its roots are in jazz, it is also the chord progression to

  • “At Last” by Etta James,
  • “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen.
  • George and Ira Gershwin classic, “I’ve Got Rhythm.

The basic progression goes like this

I – vi – ii – V

Listen to this progression in the key of C using C / Am / Dm / G chord progression

Progression 5 (I – vi – IV – V)

This common progression is a variation on rhythm changes, with the ii chord changed to a IV. It is often called the 50’s progression since it was prevalent in 50’s and early 60’s era hits such as

  • “Blue Moon,”
  • “Stand By Me,”
  • “All I Have to Do is Dream,”
  • “Earth Angel,” and
  • “Duke of Earl.”

You can also hear it in more modern songs such as

  • “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John,
  • Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,”
  • “D’Yer Maker” by Led Zeppelin,
  • “Every Breath You Take” by the Police,
  • “True Blue” by Madonna,
  • “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston.

The basic progression goes like this

I – vi – IV – V

Listen to this progression in the key of C using C / Am / F / G chord progression

There are more than 5 Chord Progressions

This is just a sample of the multitude of chord progression that can be used in songwriting.  If you are just starting out on need inspiration the 5 chord progressions will hopefully jump start your next songwriting project.

Additional Resources

Create Chord Progression App

The Create Chord Progression tool is designed to help you create chord progression that work. This is an interactive tool that is simple and easy to use. Go >>>

Daily Chord Progression

This page will create random chord progression for you.  Go>>>

Chord Progression for Songwriters

Create Chord Progressions for your songs. Diagrams and charts to help you build on the Harmonic Scale. Go>>>

, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Catz Audio a pro audio magazine focused on providing music producers with the latest pro audio news, reviews, interviews, and guides.
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    Another problem inherent in choosing form by the ‘automatic’ or ‘intuitive’ approach is the songwriting equivalent of painting yourself into a corner. By the time you have completed the exposition of the ‘story’ in your song, you may have a five minute song that you really wanted to be three minutes. Many times, when this occurs it’s because of the form you chose in the beginning. You’re now faced with a rewrite that might include a restructuring of the whole song.