Many things in life have a pattern. In music, we refer to those patterns as chord progressions. They are simply a sequence of chords that tends to repeat throughout the song.
Have you ever noticed how easy it can be to learn a new song you hear on the radio? Sometimes it only takes hearing it a couple of times. Do you find yourself singing the lyrics right away, or do you hum along with the melody? It’s the melody, of course.
When you break down the essential “formula” of a song’s construction, you will see the chord pattern or patterns emerge. The most basic chord progression happens to be the most popular. Musicians commonly refer to it to as the 1-4-5 progression. Whatever key you are in, that’s the first chord. Let’s choose the key of C for this example. As the 1-4-5 designation suggests, you start with your tonic chord, C; move to the subdominant chord, F; and then switch to the dominant chord, G. Also popular is the 1-5-4 progression.
Both the progressions above are known as three-chord songs. Because of the simplicity of writing a three-chord song, they are the most common in practically every modern genre, notably rock, pop, blues and country. When playing freeform (you know, jamming), three-chord progressions are easy to improvise because they are so easy to play.
Needless to say, with so many notes and chord possibilities, it’s not always easy to know which chord follows what. Beginners and pros alike sometimes use a chord progression chart. This reference guide shows every tonic chord and then every chord in that scale. It also indicates each chord’s number. How do you read such a complicated sounding thing?
Imagine you are on stage with a band for the first time. The lead guitarist turns to you and says, “We’re playing a 1-5-4 in the key of G sharp.” WHOA! That’s not a key YOU play in very often. So you glance at the chord progression chart and look down the left column to find your tonic, G sharp. Then you look across the top to see what the 5 and 4 would be. Instantly you see they are C sharp and D sharp.
You’re well on your way to understanding chord progressions and how they affect your music. Keep reading; there’s so much more to discover!