7 Familiar Chord Progressions

Mar 20, 2024

When you get down to it, chord progressions are like the scaffolding that holds up your songs and gives them their structure. Choosing the right chords and arranging them into progressions is one of the most important aspects of songwriting. However, creating new chord progressions is easier if you know some established, commonly used progressions.

Countless songs use the same few chord progressions. If you understand how they work, you’ll not only be able to play many songs, but you’ll also have a head start on creating your own chord progressions.

This week, we’re looking at seven of the most popular and common chord progressions in music! For the purposes of this article, we’ll sometimes use Roman numerals instead of letter names. If you need a refresher on how this works, check out this chord progression starter guide.

7 Common Chord Progressions


This progression is often called “the most popular progression.” And with good reason. It’s found in almost every genre imaginable and countless songs, from punk to country and everything in between. One of the reasons it’s so popular is that each new chord in the pattern feels like a new emotional statement. Once you recognize it, you’ll start to hear it everywhere, especially in popular music:

I, IV, and V

I, IV, and V are the basic chord progressions in Western music. These chords play an important part in literally every style of popular music going back decades.

This is because of functional harmony. I, IV, and V are the most basic forms of the primary chord categories in tonal music: tonic, pre-dominant, and dominant.

The idea is that moving from one to another and then back again creates a fluctuating sense of tension and release, giving this chord progression its feeling of forward momentum. Given the ubiquitous nature of songs that include these chords in their progression, it can be hard to land on a single example. But here’s a classic one to help make the point:


While some chord progressions are found in every genre, others are closely associated with a specific genre. For example, the ii-V-I progression is nearly all standard jazz songs’ main support structure. It’s so essential to the genre that it often appears as part of other jazz chord progressions.

Even if you’re not a jazz fan, understanding how this long-standing harmonic pattern works is important for your songwriting. Many modern genres borrow from and are influenced by jazz. Whether it’s R&B, hip-hop, or pop, understanding ii-V-I is critical.

Here’s a timeless example:

12-Bar Blues

Another chord progression closely associated with a particular genre is the 12-bar blues. As you might expect, this progression makes up the backbone of blues music. However, since blues is such an influential sound in modern music, it’s also found in many other genres. Moreover, even though the blues is known for being more melancholy, the 12-bar blues can be made to sound happy, depending on how you utilize it.

It’s one of the more versatile progressions, and as such, it’s an important tool in any songwriter’s toolbox.

Perhaps one of the best examples of how imaginative use of the 12-bar blues can work in different moods comes from Johnny Cash:


This chord progression can be found throughout music history, most closely associated with classic love songs and do-wop of the ’50s. This is thanks in large part to two aspects:

  • First, it shows off a smooth motion from the tonic to the sixth in the first half, which provides an excellent place for vocal melodies.
  • Secondly, each chord after the first two adds to and creates a compelling arc that brings it back to the tonic.

A great example of how this chord progression is wonderful for emotionally heavy songs can be heard in ballads like The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.”


The definition of “canon” is:

  1. A general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged.
  2. A collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.

For our purposes, the second definition is closer to what we want. This chord progression is called “canon” simply because it comes from one of the longest and most enduring progressions in classical music and beyond. The secret to its everlasting success is how it touches on so many chords in the key before returning to the tonic. It has a majestic yet influential sound that is extremely popular for formal occasions:

But it also works surprisingly well in many other contexts. Here’s another, perhaps surprising example:


We’re finishing up our list with something less of a chord progression and more of a harmonic technique usually found in rock and pop.

Harmonic action is important when propelling a song, but creating it doesn’t always take much. One way to keep a song moving forward is to simplify the harmony. This “progression” moves from the tonic to bVII and then back again. bVII is a “borrowed” chord from the natural minor scale, but it feels like it belongs here because it’s only one whole step away from the tonic. Moreover, because of its connection to the Mixolydian mode, it adds a bit of color to a progression. This is very common in rock, and once you hear it, you’ll understand:


Chord Progressions and Chemistry

Chord progressions are undoubtedly one of the most important concepts any songwriter needs to master. But, like with any other skill, it’s always best to start with the basics before you try to move forward. Let these seven familiar chord progressions be your starting point!

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