A “chord progression” simply means: a series of chords. Most tunes are harmonized with three or more chords, and the order of those chords is called the chord progression.
A verse or chorus of a song often starts out on the home chord (the I chord in the key), then moves through a series of other chords and finally ends up on the home chord again.
Many songs (as well as classical pieces) use the same sequences of chords, and in this article we’ll look at some of the most common ones.
A very basic progression is I – IV – V. If we’re playing in the key of C that would be C – F – G. After the V chord you would typically play the I chord again.
Often the IV chord in this sequence is replaced by the ii chord. That is a minor chord. The progression then becomes I – ii – V, or C – Dm – G in the key of C.
Again, this progression leads us back to the home chord, so the next chord after ii – V is most likely to be the I chord. This progression is therefore known as ii – V – I (or 2-5-1).
Remember that the V chord is often played as V7. That is how you can recognize this progression. If you see a minor chord followed by a dominant-7 chord, followed by a major chord: it’s a ii-V-I.
An extension of this progression is the 1-6-2-5 pattern. (For some reason this progression is often written using normal numbers instead of Roman numerals.)
In the key of C, it goes like this: C – Am – Dm – G7
One of the names these chords go by is the “Blue Moon progression”, but there is a huge number of other songs that use it too.
Go play it on the piano and then hum the verse of “Blue Moon” or “Heart and Soul”. Don’t tell me it doesn’t sound familiar.
It is really easy to compose your own tunes on top of these four chords, because it will make almost any melody sound good, but we’ll get into that in a later article.
If you already know about the Circle of Fifths, notice that these chord progressions, 2-5-1 and 1-6-2-5 (or rather 6-2-5-1), are simply trips around the circle. Movement in fifths gives the strongest type of sound that our ears like, so it is no wonder that these patterns are used so much.
Because Dm can substitute for F (see above), you can also play 1-6-2-5 as 1-6-4-5, and vice versa. It’s only a small variation in the sound.
What I want you to do now is go through your stack of sheet music or leadsheets (if you have them) and see if you can find these chord progressions in those songs. Even classical pieces will have them.
You can also find the chord sheets of many tunes online. Just go to Google and type in:
name of the song chords tabs
blue moon chords tabs
The words “chords” and “tabs” will tell Google to look for websites that have chord sheets. You might have to dig around for a while but usually you can find a chord sheet for most music.
Remember that you can spot a ii-V-I by looking at the type of chords: a minor chord followed by a dominant-7 chord, followed by a major chord. This is important, because sometimes — especially in Jazz tunes — you may find a ii-V-I that uses chords that are not in the key of the song.
For example: C Am F G7 Gm C7 F …
The first four chords are in the key of C, but Gm isn’t and neither is C7. What you see here is a ii-V-I, namely Gm-C7-F, that is used to modulate to another key. The F is now the new I chord. At some point the chords will modulate back to the original key, likely using another ii-V-I. That’s a typical thing for Jazz tunes.
So much for the theory. It’s good to learn these chord patterns (1-6-2-5 and 2-5-1) in every key, so go to your piano and play around with them.
Read more articles on Piano Clues: