There are only so many notes in music (twelve to be exact). And even fewer notes in the average scale (usually seven or less for mainstream music).
As a result, certain progressions of chords get used…a lot. But thankfully, many of those progressions are so iconic that their use can help your song more than hurt it.
In this quick guide, I have outlined the most popular chord progressions in mainstream Western music (pop, rock, rap, folk, indie, you name it). Use these tables as a tool for A/B testing progressions for a song you’re working on.
- What Are Chord Numerals in Music?
- The Most Common Chord Progressions
What Are Chord Numerals in Music?
Just a quick disclaimer before we start: you’ll need to understand Chord Numerals in order to maximize the potential of this guide.
In music, we use Roman Numerals to signify which chord is which in a progression regardless of the key you are in. All music keys have seven notes, so there are seven scale degrees; each of those scale degrees are represented by a numeral (I, II, II, IV, and so on). You figure out what chord it’s referring to by counting out the notes in the scale.
Here are a few quick notes on how to read these numerals properly:
- The tonic of your key is numeral one (I)
- You only count notes in the key when counting scale degrees
- If a numeral is uppercase (like IV) that means it’s a major chord
- If a numeral is lowercase (like vi) that means it’s a minor chord
- When you see a “o” at the end of a numeral, that means it’s a diminished chord
Roman Numerals Chord Chart
In each chord progression chart you find in this article, I have provided what the progression’s numerals convert to in the Key of C for easy reference. But I have also constructed a chart that shows what those numerals convert to in each key for ease of use:
The Most Common Chord Progressions
Also known as “the Pop-Punk chord progression” even those it’s used in literally every genre you can think of.
|Chord Numerals:||I – V – vi – IV|
|In the Key of C…||C – G – Am – F|
|Sounds like it’s…||Anthemic, catchy, familiar, boppish|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Feeling This” by Blink-182 |
“All Too Well” by Taylor Swift
“Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
“When I Come Around” by Green Day
The Lillith Fair Progression
This is essentially just the “four chords” progression but in the relative minor key. It was commonly used by female singer-songwriters who were frontrunning the Lillith Fair alternative pop/rock scene of the 1990s. Hence the name.
|Chord Numerals:||vi – IV – I – V|
|In the Key of C…||Am – F – C – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||Sad but catchy, oh my broken heart, a ballad|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Numb” by Linkin Park |
“Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry
“She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5
“Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia
The Rose-Colored Chords
This progression lacks any minor chords and tends to sound upbeat (though poignancy can definitely be added through a relative minor melody or verse progression, etc).
|Chord Numerals:||I – V – IV – V|
|In the Key of C…||C – G – F – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||Upbeat love, hopeful, buoyant|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“All the Small Things” by Blink-182 |
“Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden
“Crazy For This Girl” by Evan and Jaron
“Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle
The Photo Album Chords
|Chord Numerals:||I – V – IV|
|In the Key of C…||C – G – F|
|Sounds like it’s…||You’re going someplace even if you don’t know where, reminiscent, upbeat ballad. So named because all the popular examples I found have an air of nostalgia to them, like you’re looking back at them in a photo album.|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Drops of Jupiter” by Train |
“Semi Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind
“Friend of Mine” by Eve 6
“The Story of Us” by Taylor Swift
“How Bizarre” by OMC
The Goodbye Progression
I’ve named this progression as such because a lot of songs using it are about somebody leaving or the singer missing someone.
|Chord Numerals:||vi – V – IV – V|
|In the Key of C…||Am – G – F – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||A little sad or bittersweet, but also moving, like your lover is leaving and you have to let ‘em go|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye |
“All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan
“Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion
“Ready Or Not” by Bridgit Mendler
The Bette Davis Chords
You should know where the name comes from. If you don’t, where have you been?
|Chord Numerals:||IV – vi – V|
|In the Key of C…||F – Am – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||Wistful nostalgia, a restrained anthem.|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes |
“Red” by Taylor Swift
“Realize” by Colbie Caillat (in the Pre-Chorus)
The 50s Progression
A progression codified in popularity by many singles from 1950s America.
|Chord Numerals:||I – vi – IV – V|
|In the Key of C…||C – Am – F – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||Wistful or angsty without being totally depressive, if you play them in arpeggios you’ll get definitive 50s school dance vibes due to it’s frequent use in doo-wop hits like “Blue Moon”.|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen |
“Complicated” by Avril Lavigne
“The Reason” by Hoobastank
“Lucky” by Britney Spears
The Homebound Progression
|Chord Numerals:||I – IV – vi – V|
|In the Key of C…||C – F – Am – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||Taking you home, leading you somewhere, yearning for something more|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Cute Without the E (Cut From the Team)” by Taking Back Sunday |
“Unwell” by Matchbox 20
“Mr Brightside” by The Killers
“Youth” by Daughter
“Stay Stay Stay” by Taylor Swift
The Rites-of-Passage Progression
|Chord Numerals:||IV – I – V|
|In the Key of C…||F – C – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||Optimistic but longing, thirsty for experience, a summer anthem|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“National Anthem” by Lana Del Rey |
“Everywhere” by Michelle Branch
“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
“Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fergie
“My Happy Ending” by Avril Lavigne
The Last Call Chords
Perhaps this progression was most exemplified in a certain 1998 single about leaving the bar…
|Chord Numerals:||I – V – ii – IV|
|In the Key of C…||C – G – Dm – F|
|Sounds like it’s…||Resolute and reserved, a contemplative ballad or late night realization|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Closing Time” by Semisonic |
“Believe” by Cher
“At Your Funeral” by Saves The Day
“All Star” by Smash Mouth
“Never Be the Same” by Camila Cabello
The Circular Chords
Thus named because the progression easily leads you back to the first chord.
|Chord Numerals:||IV – V – vi – V|
|In the Key of C…||F – G – Am – G|
|Sounds like it’s…||Aching and unresolved, like you’re going in circles about something and you just can’t let it go yet.|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Hey Jealousy” by The Gin Blossoms |
“Never Meant” by American Football
“That’s What You Get” by Paramore
“Let Her Go” by Passenger (the Intro)
The Bedroom Pop Progression
While not a new progression of chords, it has proved successful for a variety of bedroom pop and alternative artists in recent years.
|Chord Numerals:||I – iii – vi – IV|
|In the Key of C…||C – Em – Am – F|
|Sounds like it’s…||Melancholy, youth and angst, a neo-sentimental ballad|
|Popular Songs with these Chords||“Heather” by Conan Gray |
“The One That Got Away” by Katy Perry
“Homesick” by Dua Lipa
“Afraid of Heights” by Wavves
“Traitor” by Olivia Rodrigo
“Just Add Water” by Cavetown
This list should not be considered exhaustive. These are merely the most likely chord series that you will find in mainstream music.
If you’re a songwriter looking to improve your craft, then allow me to recommend some other guides to read: