The 10 Most Used Chord Progressions in Pop and Rock and Roll

The following is a list of ten of the most used chord progressions in music today. Some are classic and have been used hundreds of times sometimes in combination with each other or with slight alteration to make things a bit more interesting. If you learn these progressions and are able to pick them out of a song by ear, you should be able to play (or at least understand) nearly any song! To make it a little easier to play in any key, I made this PDF that lists all the chords you’ll need in all keys! I’ll be putting more resources including scales for guitar and bass, arrangements, chord charts, etc. here.

If you’re a songwriter, knowing these progressions will help you avoid writing the same song multiple times or copying your heroes’ music. These chord progressions are the musical archetypes.

For those of you that know music theory, I’m providing the roman numerals. For those of you that don’t, I’ll give you the progressions in the key of G in parenthesis.

Number one is the Don’t Stop Believing Progression, I – V – vi – IV (G – D – Em – C). The Axis of Awesome did a great bit about this one in which they play 40 songs in a row that all have the same progression including, No Woman No Cry, Let It Be, I’m Yours, etc… and over the past few years, that list has become a lot longer!

The second is the 50’s Progression, I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D). I call it this because it was hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s and is still used today. Notably used recently by Justin Bieber for “Baby” (Justin was like baby baby baby oh… what a pity) and Sean Kingston for “Beautiful Girls,” though Kingston really just ripped Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” off.

The third is the Canon, I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V (G – D – Em – Bm – C – G – C – D). It was the chord progression used by Pachelbel for his Canon in D (not G as above). The piece, forgotten soon after it was written (around 1694), was rediscovered in the early 20th century and has influenced a number of songwriters. It is, however, simply an extension of the basic I – IV – V – I progression that was used by nearly every composer for hundreds of years up to about 100 years ago.

The fourth is the Blues Progression, I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I (G – G – G – G – C – C – G – G – D – D – G – G). This is the way Chuck Berry played it in Johnny B Goode though the last 4 chords are often V – VI – I – V (D – C – G – D). There are 12 chords because it follows the standard 12-bar blues progression. In this progression it’s common to switch freely between major and minor. This progression has been used in thousands of songs outside of the blues from Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love to Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason and beyond.

The fifth is the Smoke on the Water Progression, ii – IV – V (am – C – D). It’s usually used as part of a larger progression and was used in Purple Haze, Iron Man, House of the Rising Sun, Stepping Stone, etc…

The sixth is the Good Love Progression, I – IV – V – IV (G – C – D – C). This was used in Wild Thing, La Bamba, and Good Love, etc.

The Seventh is the Sweet Home Progression… (god, how I hate Sweet Home Alabama!) V – IV – I (D – C – G). Can’t Explain, Sweet Child of Mine.

The Eighth is a rearrangement of the Don’t Stop Believing progression vi – IV – I – V (em – C – G – D). I’m not sure what to call this one. The song that always gets stuck in my head with this one is The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Snow, though I know Taylor Swift uses it in at least three songs (as well as most of the other progressions above…), Green Day used it in Holiday, and The Cranberries used it in Zombie, just to name a few.

The ninth is the stereotypical Descending Flamenco Progression  vi – V – IV – III (em – D – C – B (not Bm!)). This one has been used in songs from California Dreamin to Stray Cat Strut… I’m sure you can think of a few more! A variation on this is vi – V – VI – V (em – D – C – D) which arguably may be more popular today…

And the tenth that I see is the As My Guitar Gently Weeps Progression. This one straddles two keys and it’s basic representation is ii – I – V6 – bVII (- VI) (am – G – D/f# – F (- E)). It looks like a variation on the Descending Flamenco Progression and is presented with slight variations by everyone that uses it. The Beatles actually substituted an am7/G  for the G chord and left out the E. Chicago, in 25 or 6 to 4 focused on the root notes in the bass -> A – G – F# – F – E. Led Zepplin, Green Day, and Neil Young all offered their variations as well.

These progressions are not the end of music. They’re used a lot but they’re not your only options! If you look on the ultimate guitar archive you’ll see them everywhere, but most songwriters use them in combination with other progressions or with variation, creating something new using old building blocks. Please don’t think of this list as a set of rules! Just information to enhance your own understanding of the way music works.

Check out my teaching website at Thorne’s Guitar

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Richard Wagner was a Dick

Richard Wagner  (1813 – 1883) was a dick. Yes, his name unfortunately has the wagnerdarkTnickname “Dick” in some cultures, but I’m not talking about that. There was a lot wrong with this asshole.

For starters, his music is exhaustingly long-winded. If you make it through all 15 hours of his Der Ring des Nibelungen, there are moments of brilliance, it’s true… but you need to suffer a lot of annoying crap before you get there.

I know, that’s my opinion. Taste is somewhat subjective. The real reason he’s a dick is because he was a fierce anti-semite. One of his contemporaries was Felix Mendelssohn. Felix was the most popular composer of the day – this burned Wagner up because he worked so hard on his ridiculously long pieces… No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t compete. What’s a filthy old anti-semite to do? Oh yeah, write a hit piece after Mendelssohn dies.

Felix Mendelssohn died in 1847, he was only 38. Rotten Wagner, three years after Mendelssohn’s death, published an anonymous piece entitled “Judaism in Music”  in which he asserted that Jews weren’t intelligent enough to create great music. The sad part was that many Germans believed it.

Why is it that bigots can’t win unless they play dirty tricks? Remember when you ever hear any of his music, and you’ll probably only ever hear this one, that it was written by an ignorant bigot.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770 – March 26, 1827) is one of history’s most beethoven_1brilliant musical geniuses.

He was born into a musical family in Bonn, Germany. His grandfather (also Ludwig) was a bass singer for the court of the Elector of Cologne and eventually became its music director. Beethoven’s father, Johann was a tenor for the same court and taught keyboard and violin to supplement his income. He never became music director, however, perhaps because he descended into alcoholism when his wife died.

Beethoven’s life was riddles with terrible events, lucky breaks, and fantastic achievements.

Terrible and semi-terrible events:

Beethoven’s talent was recognized early. His father billed him as a child prodigy for his first public performance. He said his son was 6 on the posters… but he was 7.

Beethoven’s musical training was intense, often reducing the young Beethoven to tears. One of his teachers, Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer, a family friend and insomniac would drag young Beethoven out of bed for midnight keyboard lessons. Beethoven’s own father would beat him if he didn’t perform well. If it happened today, Beethoven would have been placed in foster care while his father would have been thrown in jail.

Beethoven was supposed to study with Mozart, another musical genius, in Vienna when he was 16. He learned soon after arriving that his mother was sick and returned home, perhaps not even meeting Mozart. His mother died and his father hit the booze. Beethoven took care of his two younger brothers for the next 5 years.

In 1798 he claims to have fallen in a fit of rage only to find upon getting up that he couldn’t hear. His hearing came back some but he had problems with tinnitus and by 1814 his hearing was nearly entirely gone.

 

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All through his life he had serious issues with the class system of the time. He was a commoner and seemed to always fall in love with aristocrats. They never married “below” their class…

Mozart died in 1791, he would never study with him. His father died while he was studying with Haydn.

Beethoven Died on March 26th, 1827 – age 56. There are a number of possible causes though it seems likely that he was poisoned by his doctor with lead based treatments for something else.

Lucky Breaks:

His first three piano trios, written when he was 12, were dedicated to the Elector Maximilian Friedrich – a rich aristocrat. This same man subsidized Beethoven’s early education. It sometimes pays to kiss rich guys’ butts.

He was a friend of a number of aristocrats and royals because of his talent. Many of them patronized him over the years, and perhaps the most interesting thing in any of their biographies is that patronage.

He studied with Haydn from 1792 to 1794 in Vienna. Haydn wrote 106 symphonies, some of which are great. Beethoven wrote 9, all of which are great.

Fantastic Achievements:

Beethoven had numerous hurdles to jump throughout his life. There were years at a time in which he wrote very little and years in which he wrote his greatest works.

Beethoven was seen as the successor of Mozart as the world’s musical genius.

Among Beethoven’s works are 9 Symphonies,  12 concertos,  35 piano sonatas (he was a piano virtuoso), 16 string quartets, one opera, and hundreds of other works.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is perhaps the most recognizable piece of music ever written.

The Moonlight Sonata. Perfect.

Most people have heard Fur Elise but few know it’s Beethoven’s work.

Though he was a commoner within the class system of the day, he grew so popular that he was exempted from the rules of conduct that commoners were expected to follow!

 

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Music Theory Is Your Prison

If you let it be.

There are some huge misunderstandings about music theory. The two that go hand in hand at the top of the list are 1) music theory is a set of rules that we need to follow and, as a result, 2) music theory kills creativity. If you ever believed either of these two ideas, thenrameau_greuseyou need to radically change your relationship with music theory. The truth is that music theory can be one of your greatest tools as a musician, but first, you need to understand what it really is.

It’s called music theory. Not laws, not rules, but theory. The purpose of music theory has historically been to document what composers have done. This is why music theory is not necessarily solid and has changed dramatically over the years – as composers stretch beyond what has been done, the scope of music theory also grows, and many times, old ideas are discarded.

Music theory should serve you and not the other way around. As I mentioned above, theory could be one of the best tools a musician has – it can help us to understand what we’re paying more fully, and, as songwriters, help us to understand what’s been written before, what’s worked and not worked in the past to help us avoid continually reinventing the wheel!

Is music theory your prison? Try thinking of music theory as guidelines of ideas that have worked in the past. If the guidelines don’t fit what you have in mind, try something new and maybe someday someone will write a theory book about it!

The Many Benefits of Learning Music

Learning music leads to greater intellectual, social, creative, and personal development (Hallam, 2010; Kaschub et al, 2009). In many of these studies, as Miendlarzewska and Trost (2014) point out, there is only correlational evidence to support claims about the benefits of music lessons. There may be other factors that cause the positive results.

This is true. But the fact is that whether the benefits can be attributed directly to playing and learning music or not, the process still facilitates these benefits! Besides this, the end result is a skill that you can have fun with and potentially share with others.

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Among the benefits of learning and playing music are:

  • Heightened scores on standardized tests (Schellenberg, 2004)
  • Increased IQ (ibid)
  • Enhanced creativity (Kaschub, et al, 2009)
  • Increased ability in language learning – native and foreign (Hallam, 2010)
  • Sharpened critical thinking skill (Topoğlu, 2014)
  • Increased social capital and strengthened community (Wright, 2012)

 

So what are you waiting for!

 

References:

Hallam, S. (January 01, 2010). The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Journal of Music Education, 28, 3, 269-289.

Kaschub, M., Smith, J., & MENC, the National Association for Music Education (U.S.). (2009). Minds on music: Composition for creative and critical thinking. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Miendlarzewska, E. A., & Trost, W. J. (January 01, 2014). How musical training affects cognitive development: Rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Schellenberg, E. G. (January 01, 2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15, 8, 511-4.

Topoğlu, O. (February 21, 2014). Critical Thinking and Music Education. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 116, 2252-2256.

Wright, R. (January 01, 2012). Music education and social transformation: building social capital through music.(new approaches to music education: transatlantic musings)(Essay). Canadian Music Educator, 53, 3.)

Universal Responses to Music – We Are All Pavlov’s Dog

In a study by Hauke Egermann, et al. (January 2015), it was found that humans seem to have a universal physiological response to sound – specifically music in this study. The tests were performed with forty Congolese Pygmies and forty Canadians. In all subjects, there were similar physiological response to musical examples, even when the music was very familiar to one group and not the other!

What makes this study so interesting is the fact that members of each group, when questioned about how the music made them feel, reported different emotional responses, despite having the same physiological response. “This crowd-789652_640suggests that subjective emotional ratings might have been more subject to cultural influences than physiological responses to the stimuli.”

The complexity of intellect and emotion attached to the physiological response to music is amazing. Like Pavlov’s dog we feel sadness when a certain music is played, not because, as was believed in the past, the music itself is sad. The physiological response has been paired with other information which is triggered when the music plays.

The ideas in this study, I believe, can be applied beyond music. For instance, everything we experience with any of our senses can produce a physiological response and attached to that is a body of emotional and intellectual information that defies mere explanation. How can understanding these responses help us to better facilitate learning, more easily solve our most important social issues, and better understand ourselves?

Top Six Songwriting Methods That Could Make You Rich

prisonerBruno2There are songwriters who believe that everything they do needs to be fresh and new – I’m one of them. But the sad truth about songwriting is that the fresh and new usually doesn’t sell! Acts that we think of as “ground-breaking” have usually borrowed quite a bit from the artists that came before them who were actually fresh and new – the waters have already been tested and they’re now safe…

What you are about to read is a list of some of the most common songwriting techniques that the big players in the industry use to construct their songs. Bear in mind that the title says “could.” There is still quite a bit more that goes into success. Looking good or interesting helps considering the mind-numbing shallowness of most the world. Having connections in the industry is a big plus – without contacts your chances of being struck by lightning are greater than your chances of being discovered! An intense amount of energy combined with a solid work ethic are essential for indie/DIY artists, and certainly help the well-connected. If you have any combination of these things, you have a pretty good shot. Now you need the last part – your songs!

1) Technique number one is the one that can get you into the most trouble – it’s Theft! Yes… some people, like Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, think this is a legitimate songwriting technique. They took an old song and wrote their own words to it. This, however, will almost always end badly!

2) I call technique number two Slight Alterations. This is just one step above theft. In this technique the songwriter takes a hit and changes some element. Two examples jump immediately to mind. First, check out Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive” and compare to New Order’s “Blue Monday.” She kept the chords and melodies the same but altered the instruments and words. The second example is Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” as compared to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  In this example, Smith slowed the tempo, changed the instruments and words, but still had to pay Petty money for copyright infringement despite the fact that he arguably created something new and many feel, better!

3) The third technique is Deconstruction/Reconstruction. This is reportedly what Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger does. OK Go! seems to have done this obviously with “Here it Goes Again” from Billy Joel’s “Still Rock and Roll to Me” because the chord progressions and song structure are almost identical!

In this third technique, the songwriter takes an already existing hit song, takes it apart, analyzing chords, rhythms, melodies, textures, and makes a blueprint based on the song, from which a new song could be built. Artists that use this technique pay close attention to the details, and though they sometimes alter the song quite a bit, they try to capture the recipe that made the original song a success.

It’s difficult to find a direct example of this method, but if you want to learn more about it, I describe the method in greater detail here!

Unlike the first two techniques, and despite my disdain for some of the artists who claim to use this one, I don’t believe this technique is that bad and could actually yield some original stuff.

4) I like to call the fourth technique Frankenmusic. This technique is also just a step above outright theft. It is the borrowing of parts from many different songs, and like Frankenstein’s monster, the new is created when these different parts are put together. Kid Rock recently borrowed (stole?) the riffs from Warren Zevon’s “Warewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to make his terrible song “All Summer Long.”

An example of this at a micro-level is Bruno Mar’s “Uptown Funk.” These guys did a great job at finding many of the influences that led to the travesty, and huge hit that Uptown Funk has become. Bruno and Mark Ronson didn’t just pull two or three different parts together, they took riffs, melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions from dozens of songs, and like building with musical legos, they put a new song together that sounds completely familiar, though it’s tough to put your finger on why. The lyrics are often built in the same way from cliches.

Unlike the barbaric technique used by Kid Rock, Bruno and Mark Ronson are master thieves, stealing little bits from here and there and putting them together in such a way that they most likely won’t get sued.

5) The fifth technique is Stylistic Imitation. This is what Bruno Mars did with “Locked Out of Heaven” which he proudly admits sounds like a Police song. Using this technique, the songwriter needs to listen to a lot of music from a particular artist and get to know their style – growing up listening to an artist makes it all the easier. Once the sound of the artist has been absorbed, a new song is created from elements of the original artist. This is different from all the rest of the techniques so far because the result could very well be a brand new song – musically original – in the style of another artist. Listening to Locked Out of Heaven, it sounds like Bruno wrote an original Police song, not a Bruno Mars song.

6) The last technique I’ll mention here is the Art of Simplicity. It seems too easy. Play two or three chords and sing a few notes from the pentatonic scale, and you could have a hit. Most people, especially non-musicians, like to avoid challenge when it comes to listening to music. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a perfect example. Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” is another. There are thousands more… seriously, just pick two chords and fool around. You’ll be surprised what you can write!

This just scratches the surface. There are many more techniques to use, including revisiting the standards like the blues, old time rock and roll or country, or even dipping into classical music. I have a list of the top ten chord progressions in pop and rock. Any of these chord progressions are fair game and are immediately familiar.

The best technique, in my opinion, is to write music you want to hear, really follow your heart. This is what art is all about, after all. You could be a brilliant songwriter using the techniques listed above, but you might never be an artist.

How to Write a Song Using the Deconstruction/Reconstruction Method

Using Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a test song, let’s look at the song structure, instrumentation, and chords – take it apart as briefly as we can and build a new song.

First, the structure is simple – (Intro) – Verse – Prechorus – Chorus – Break. Repeat this three times with a solo thrown in over a chorus before the third verse.

It’s deceptively simple – the whole song, besides the break, has the same four chords (F – Bb – Ab – Db), but they’re played differently in each section. The intro is a chorus that starts with solo guitar. The drums pound their way in and bring us to a chorus-like intensity. This is followed by the verse which is bass and simple drums with two notes played on guitar at the beginning of each phrase. The prechorus is the same as the verse with the two notes repeated in quarter notes throughout – the words change to “hello hello hello how low” and there is a build up to the explosive chorus. In the chorus, the drums increase intensity and complexity again, the guitar plays loud, distorted power chords, and the voice becomes more gravelly and sings up the octave. Then the break brings us back to the next verse with a rising and falling line in the bass (F – Gb – C – Bb – Ab). The guitar plays F – Gb – F – Bb – Ab in power chords.

The melody is the stickiest part, and many artists don’t bother putting it in the blueprint aside from perhaps basic shape and feel. For instance, in Smells Like Teen Spirit Kurt sings a melody that starts in a comfortable range in the verse, steps down in the prechorus, and ends with the highest parts in the chorus. This is actually not that unusual.

The shape of the melody in the verse is as follows: three steps up and a jump down (load up on guns) – back up to the highest note from which we take three steps down (bri-ing your friends) – up one step followed by three more steps down (it’s fun to lose) – finally two more steps up, followed by three steps down (and to-o pretend). This repeats. The verse has two jumps – from the third to the fourth note and from the fourth to the fifth. Interestingly, the third and fifth notes are the same note, and it’s as if that fourth note didn’t belong. However, it’s the fourth note that makes that melody interesting and memorable!

What we have just done is create a blueprint. In an extended blueprint you would look at all the shapes of all the melodies too, but this part is already too long! Now you take the blueprint and build a new song, using all the elements, changing up the chords and maybe instruments – for instance, start with bass instead of guitar, play the chords in reverse order and turn the melody upside down, change the rhythm up a little. But follow the guidelines in the blueprint and you might have a hit!

I’ll be posting a video example of the working of this song soon!