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!