How to Play the Most Commonly Used Chords in Piano Music (2024)

Introduction: How to Play the Most Commonly Used Chords in Piano Music

We hear chords in piano music all of the time without really thinking in detail about how they sound and connect with each other. We just somehow intuitively process the sounds to make sense. We can hear how certain chords create a sound of "beginning and ending" when played together and even when there is an ending missing as we're left with a feeling of "hanging in the air" instead of "landing back on the ground".

The connection that these chords have with each other is called a Progression. Chord progressions are simply groups of chords put together in a specific way to create a specific type of sound.

There are many many different chord progressions that we end up learning throughout our piano learning. However, there are some that are used over and over again; not only in many different pieces but also in the same piece! If you look at the image above, I have listed just a few examples of songs that are very popular that use this common 4-chord pattern.

The most commonly used 4 chords are what we are going to focus on and learn today. You will recognize the sound of these chords and the progression pattern, even if you are new to music theory and learning to play the piano.

Let's take a closer look now at those specific chords and what we call them.

Step 1: The 4 Most Commonly Used Chords Are...

The most commonly used chords (in any key) are the I (1), V (5), vi (6), IV (4).

First, it's important to know/remember that chords are notated in piano music by Roman Numerals. Large letter numerals are for Major chords and small letter numerals are for minor chords. (You can have both in one progression as you will see with this particular pattern).

We have 3 Major Chords in this pattern and 1 minor chord. Do you see which one is the minor chord? (look for the small letter roman numerals).

Chords are named for which tone of a scale they fall on. A "1" chord will start on the 1st tone of the scale; a 5 chord will start on the 5th tone of the scale; a 6 chord will start on the 6th tone of the scale and the 4 chord will start on the 4th tone of the scale.

With our example - C Major - the chords would be:

  • I = C: C,E, G (C is the 1st tone of C Major)
  • V = G: G, B, D (G is the 5th tone of C Major)
  • vi = A: a, c, e (A is the 6th tone of C Major, and remember this one is minor)
  • IV = F: F, A, C (F is the 4th tone of C Major)

Now that we understand the basic pattern in general terms, let's see what this looks like in a real piece of piano music. You'll probably know this song!

Step 2: Let's See These Chords in a Music Example

This song is actually titled "No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley, so please pardon the typo in the image...either way, most of us know this song and you can see this particular chord progression pattern very easily in the music. It's such a great song, too!

Image 2 shows the 2nd measure of this song and you can see the chords are actually written out by letter name, instead of roman numerals. This is another way that chords are noted in music but it's important to know them by the Roman Numerals as well.

This is a classic usage of the I, V, vi, IV pattern in the same key as our example...C Major. Notice the key signature tells us that we're in the key of C with no sharps or flats.

As I go through this example with you in the video portion of this lesson, you'll also see that this pattern is repeated many times throughout the song which again, is common for this and other chord progressions.

This specific chord progression can be played in any key. We have used C Major in this lesson because you only have to play white keys and it makes it easy to understand and play. When we get into other keys though, you just have to remember to play all of the chords in the original key and start on the tone of the scale that is also the name of the chord.

Let's now look at the best way to practice and learn this progression in other keys.

Step 3: How to Practice These Chords

There are a lot of keys that we need to learn to play this progression in, but if you start with these 4, you'll be in the best shape to learn the rest of them.

Once you have mastered the chords in C Major, move to G major next, then D major, next to A major and finally F major.

  • G major has 1 sharp - F#
  • D major has 2 sharps - F# & C#
  • A major has 3 sharps - F#, C#, & G#
  • F major has 1 flat - Bb

Remember that your chords are built by skipping a note each time...and if you need some help with the note names of the chords just refer to the image above that has each of them listed.

Take one of these different keys at a time and spend as much time as you need to to be comfortable playing the I, V, vi, IV progression in that key. Go back and review any keys that you previously learned and what you can do is play the chords in the different keys as a progression in itself just by going on to the next key right after you finish the previous one.

Now it's time to put all of this to work on our pianos together as we go through these chords and this song at the keyboard together.

Step 4: Come Practice With Me!

Hearing what this I, V, vi, IV progression sounds like on the piano will make you say, "oh, I know this!" That's because it really is one of the most commonly used patterns in all types of music, not just classical.

It also really helps to hear the minor chord that is in there, (the 6th chord) because it is such a different type of sound from the other Major chords. Once you can recognize that unique minor sound, you'll pick it out really quickly in the future when you're trying to figure out the chord patterns in your pieces.

I also go over chords in all of the other keys mentioned in the step that describes how to practice this pattern so you can see where they are on the piano and hear what they sound like.

You will be really proud of yourself after learning this progression because you'll be able to play so much more music and you'll have many more options as a composer or an improv performer. Start with these basics and the rest of your chord studies will be smoother and easier. Let's go practice!

How to Play the Most Commonly Used Chords in Piano Music (2024)


What are the 4 magic chords? ›

The famous four chords used in many pop song progressions are the I, V, vi and IV chords of a major key. The roman numerals represent the numbers of the major scale we begin a chord from (1, 5, 6, 4) so in C major this would be C, G, Amin, F or in G major it would be G, D, Emin, C.

What are the 4 chords used in most songs piano? ›

The Big Four Chords on Piano

That's because these four chords are the I, the V, the IV, and the vi (respectively) chords in C Major. This means they are built on the first, fifth, fourth, and sixth notes of the C major scale. These chords are essential to harmony.

What is the most used chord pattern? ›

The I-V-vi-IV progression is the most common chord progression you'll find. In C major, the chords you'll play are C-G-Am-F. These are the first four chords you should learn as a piano player because just like the I-V-vi-IV progression, they're everywhere in pop music.

What is the most popular chord pattern? ›

The I–V–vi–IV progression is a common chord progression popular across several genres of music. It uses the I, V, vi, and IV chords of a musical scale. For example, in the key of C major, this progression would be C–G–Am–F.

What is the easiest way to learn chords? ›

One of the best ways to learn chords is to start by memorizing the most common chords used in popular songs. The major and minor chords are usually the first ones that new guitarists learn, as they are used in a wide range of songs across genres.

How do you play chords effectively? ›

Here are five tips for better chord changes:
  1. Think Ahead. Know what chord comes next so you can prepare. ...
  2. Stay Close to the Fretboard. Don't lift your fingers high off the fretboard. ...
  3. Keep Moving. When playing live or with others, time doesn't stop. ...
  4. Use Pivot Fingers. ...
  5. Fingers Down at the Same Time.

What is the easiest chord to play on piano? ›

Some beginner-friendly chords that you should learn include: C major, D major, E major, F major, G major, A major, B major, C minor, D minor, E minor, F minor, G minor, and A minor. Learning these chords will help you play many songs.

What is the secret chord in music? ›

A simple take on it would be that David played a secret chord that 'goes like this': IV – V – vi – IV. But of course, that isn't just one chord, it's a chord progression.

What are the 3 power chords? ›

Power chords come in two varieties: Open-position: The following figure shows the most common open-position power chords — E5, A5, and D5. These chords are merely the two or three lowest notes of the simple open-position E, A, and D chords.

What are the 4 essential chords? ›

The chord progression consists of four basic chords:
  • C major (chord symbol "C")
  • G major (chord symbol "G")
  • A minor (chord symbol "Am")
  • F major (chord symbol "F")
Apr 14, 2023

How many piano chords exist? ›

Since there are 12 notes on the piano and 4 types of triads, there are exactly 48 different triads you must know. You can master all your triads by visiting our Piano Triads–Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented Chords.

How do you read piano notes? ›

Notes can sit on a line or in a space. The height of the note determines the pitch. A higher line means a higher pitch, so moving up the stave represents moving right along the keyboard. We add ledger lines above or below the staff if a note is higher or lower than the 5 staff lines.

What is the Ridley method piano? ›

Ridley's approach centers around breaking down the process of learning piano into 55 key steps, each as simple and time-consuming as brushing your teeth. He believes that by guiding students through these steps in the correct order, one can achieve inevitable success.

What are the 4 chords used in most songs? ›

They use the same four chords: I, IV, V, and vi, which are probably the most common chords in all of pop music. Because of this, they all sound somewhat similar; the difference is in the order of the chords.

What are the 12 major chords on the piano? ›

There are 12 unique major chords on the piano, one for each note: C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B♭, and B. Do major chords need to be played in their note order? No. It's helpful to learn chords in "root position".

What are the 3 most useful chords? ›

G, C and D are some of the most commonly used chords in popular music and are used in literally thousands of songs (we'll list some of the most well-known later). Also, they're not too difficult to learn and they sound really good together (hence their popularity).

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