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music theory




Music Chord Progressions



Have you ever wondered how certain musicians seem to do very well picking up new songs?  One might think or suggest that they have a great "ear" for music.  And well they might.  But for many popular songs - pop or rock, picking up a new song is often a combination of two things.  One of those is indeed sounding the song out, but the other is that many popular songs follow what we might call a chord progression - or at least close to a standard progression or pattern.

What is a Chord Progression?

A chord progression is made up of the several chords that might be used in a popular song and includes the order that they are played in.  We will show examples mostly in the key of C, but -please keep in mind that chord progressions can begin on any base note / chord of the chromatic scale.  The most common of all chord progressions is three chords - often called a "three chord progression".  See?  Not so hard.  The chord for that shown first in major chords are:

C,F,G    (C Major, F Major, and G major)

The base notes of the chords comprise the first note, fourth note and fifth note of the scales.  Often this simple three chord progression uses a dominant 7th chord for the third chord and would be therefore:

C,F,G7   (C Major, F Major, and G 7th)

Well, the original songwriters might think this too simplistic, but several popular songs can simply be played using three chords.  Some examples of that are "Twist and Shout", "Jamaica Farewell", "Do you Love Me?", "Ole Time Rock and Roll" and many others.

The Rock Key Twist

I have said that I would do this section in the key of C mainly for simplicity, but let us digress a bit for Rock music players.  The key of C as shown above is very popular for piano players and other keyboard players, since it has no or at least few sharps and flats.  However, to a guitar player, they are more comfortable often in keys that can bother a keyboard player - such as the key of E or the key of A.  Many, many rock songs are in the key of E or A.  The three chord progressions in those keys would be:

Key of E:  E,A,B  or E,A,B7   (E Major, A Major, B Major  or E Major, A Major, B 7th)

Key of A:  A,D,E or A,D,E7    (A Major, D Major, E Major  or A Major, D Major, E 7th)

More Complex Three Chord Patterns

It is also very possible that the song may have only three chords, but use a slightly different pattern for the chords in the song.  For example a very popular three chord pattern as below is used in a number of songs, and is often used by some bands right before their breaks:

C, C, F, C, F, G, C

In this case the F and the G played together near the end of that, are given about half of the time as the other chords.  And yes, if you are guessing that G 7th is sometimes used instead of G Major in that pattern, you would of course be right.  The pattern shown there is just simply an easy pattern for band members to follow and may easily be in an ad-lib session.


We have talked mainly here about chords - which would be the background and structure of the song.  The chords might be played by guitars, keyboard players, or made up of notes played by many orchestra instruments.  A good question now is, what would the notes that comprise the melody be?

The quick answer to that is that the notes of the melody will often - but not always - be the notes of the chords themselves.  When the melody note is not a note within the chord, it is sometimes called a "passing" note.  Therefore a musician trying to learn a song without sheet music would first try the notes within the chord itself.  For example, while C Major chord is playing, the notes within this chord are C, E, and G.  A musician would first try and listen with their ear to see if one of those three is the melody note.

Melody notes that are far from the chord itself and lasting long are unusual.  That is because the overall sound of that melody note when added to the chord may in fact sound displeasing, or at least different.

Refrains / Chorus

If the pop song that we are working on has a chorus or a refrain where the melody changes abruptly, there is also a common convention for that.  For the chord progression C, F and G, the main melody and verses will follow the C, F, G pattern - or at least loosely. When the chorus approaches, it often begins with the base note of the fourth note of the scale - F in this case.  One would expect the chorus to begin with an F major.  The whole structure for a three chord progression song with a different melody in its  chorus would be:

verses:  C, F, G  (several times)

chorus / refrain: F, C, F, G  (or something similar)

note also that both verses and choruses tend to end their progression using the chord made up of the fifth base note of the scale - G in this case.

Four Chord Progressions

There also are some popular four chord progressions.  The ones that come to my mind first, are the ones that really are the three chord progression shown above, but with a minor added right after the first chord.  Some popular ones:

C, Am, F, G  (C Major, A minor, F Major, G Major.  and of course G Major could be G 7th)

C, Em, F, G  (C Major, E minor, F Major, G Major.  and of course G Major could be G 7th)

For folk music enthusiasts, "Puff the Magic Dragon" seems to somewhat follow the last 4 chord progression.  Although the version of it that I know is in a different key, the key of G.  Transposing it would be:

G, Bm, C, D

Unusual Chord Progressions

Yes, there can be pop songs and chord progressions that are none of the above, and ones that may include many unique chords.  For this, try listening closely to chord sounds - you can often distinguish the chord type.  Now here, this next part gets very subjective, and your ear may in fact tell you other things that come to its mind rather than my opinion.  However a Major chord just simply sounds "right".  A minor chord, often sounds more "wistful" or "sad".  A 6th and a 9th tends to sound like a more complete, thorough, chord than a major.  And an augmented chord - sounds like an augmented (smiles).  Sustained chords - sus 4 and sus 2 just sound like passing chords - meaning they do not seem that stable by themselves.  Diminished chords seem "full" to "overflowing".  And not sure what to say about 7th chords, but they also sound somewhat distinct.


Again, learning a popular song can be a combination of two things, sounding it out and also looking for patterns.  Between a good use of those two, many of us can do well, even without sheet music, for at least some of the simpler songs.



Recommended eBook on One Person Band Music Making and Recording

One person band techniques book   Book: Becoming a One Person Band (click for info)
eBook Available from Google Play, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook

If you have some instrument skills, particularly with a keyboard instrument such as piano, organ, accordion, or keyboard itself or similar, you can do multiple track recording and create you own band recording of perhaps 4 or 8 or 16 or more pieces. This book focuses on music theory on help for determining what some of those other band parts might play, such as strings, bass or other instruments.

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