9 Best Piano Chord Progressions [With Examples]

Best Piano Chord Progressions [With Examples]

The piano is a beautiful instrument. It sounds great on its own, and it sounds great in orchestras and bands too.

Guitar sometimes gets all the attention in mainstream music, but the truth is, as you’re about to see, pop and rock music simply wouldn’t be what it is today without the piano.

In this guide, we’ll be looking specifically at some of the best piano chord progressions you can find, along with examples for each!

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I – vi – ii – V

Example: G | Em | Am | D

There’s little denying that Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the all-time best “rock opera” songs containing piano. Certainly, the song wouldn’t be what it is without all the other instruments, but the piano plays an integral role, especially in the early part of the song.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of those songs that “uses all the chords,” which is only a slight exaggeration. So, singling out any one chord progression in the song and calling it the “definitive” progression of the song would be a thing of futility.

Still, the I – vi – ii – V chord progression is an important one, and a highly versatile one at that. You can hear it in the first parts of the “verses,” (“Mama, just killed a man…”).

What’s fascinating about this chord progression is that you can basically substitute the ii with the IV (in the key of G, the IV would be C). The ii or Am is a little less common, so it makes for a nice “color” chord in context. And like the IV, it naturally wants to lead into the V.

The chord progression sounds like it would work nicely in a 50s Doo-wop, or perhaps a ballad. But there are other ways of using it, as “Bohemian Rhapsody” proves.

V – ii – vi

Example: Eb | Bbm | Fm

There are chord progressions that start on the V chord. There are progressions that are missing the I chord. There aren’t too many popular progressions that meet both conditions, but the V – ii – vi chord progression does.

And this is one of those progressions that doesn’t have heavy leanings in the major or minor direction. It’s more “mysterious,” if you will. It has kind of wide-eyed helicopter adventure through the mountains kind of vibe (of course, that will depend on how you play it).

So, what’s an example you would have heard? Well, this is, in fact, the chord progression that dominates most of Coldplay’s hit song, “Clocks.”

This would not be a typical chord progression for a pop or rock song. But it seems to work nicely for soft rock, easy listening, or adult contemporary, as Coldplay demonstrates. There’s plenty of leverage there, and you can almost imagine Sting or Seal making something of it too.

I – V – IV – I

Example: C | G | F | C

With I, IV, and V (along with vi) being the most used chords in pop music, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that many of the progressions presented here are some variation on this one. These chords do sounds good together, though, and no matter how cliché, there are always ways of making them sound new and fresh if you’re willing to put in the work.

When it comes to some of the best piano chord progressions of all time, you certainly can’t ignore the legendary Billy Joel. And one song that he will forever be associated with is “Piano Man.”

The I – V – IV – I chord progression appears in the first line of the verse (“It’s nine o’ clock on a Saturday…”):

You can pretty much take this chord progression wherever you want. It’s transferable to different genres, and it can serve as a great jumping off point into other chordal territory (it works especially great for this purpose). It works in pop, rock, punk rock (if sped up), and even country or singer-songwriter. There aren’t too many popular musical genres where it wouldn’t be effective.

I – V – vi – IV

Example: E | B | C#m | A

Remember what I said earlier? I, IV, V, and vi are the most popular chords in pop music. Put them in any order, and you’re sure to have a solid chord progression on your hands, with a bit of instant appeal.

This progression, though, is iconic. It was used in American rock band Journey’s biggest, timeless hit. By now, you know exactly what I’m talking about – the motivational singalong anthem, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Have a listen to the verse section:

In “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Journey rotates in the iii in place of the vi every second line, and that gives the chord progression a little more flavor.

That said, this is one of those progressions that will translate well to most popular genres – pop, rock, punk rock, singer-songwriter, folk, and more.

This is a major progression through and through, which means it has a happy, upbeat sound. It has a slight bit of suspense because of how the chords are ordered, but for the most part, it’s a safe bet in happier sounding tunes.

I – IV – V – IV

Example: Eb | Ab | Bb | Ab

This chord progression is the very essence of songs like The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” Green Day’s “Minority,” and many others. Without a doubt, it’s a classic, and if you aren’t already familiar with it, you need to add it to your musical vocabulary immediately. You’re going to see it come up time and again in various songs.

But as applied to piano in the world of pop and rock, there’s another legend we can’t possibly ignore, and that would be Elton John. He has hits and classics too numerous to mention, but this chord progression was used specifically in the intro / interlude of “Your Song.” Have a listen.

Now, John plays the progression with a bit of flavor. What else would you expect from the master? He plays each chord as a slash chord, like so:

Eb – Ab/Eb – Bb/Eb – Ab/Eb

And that’s an excellent way to put a spin on an otherwise conventional chord progression. I always like to find ways of doing this myself and tend to lean heavily on maj7, slash, and sus chords.

With “Your Song” being a gentle ballad, John was obviously going for more of an emotive, melancholy vibe, and playing the chord progression as slash chords (changing the chords in the right hand and keeping the bass in the left hand) offers that effect.

You can do this with melodies and leads too, i.e., have a repeating phrase in the right hand while the bass cycles through different notes. It’s a simple trick, but the result is usually that the repeating phrase against different harmony notes creates a very evocative soundscape.

I – ii – iii – ii – I – V

Example: C | Dm | Em | Dm | C | G

How do you start out a prog rock epic? Certainly, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with opting for a more conventional chord progression, but what’s the fun in that, especially when you could open your tune with the I – ii – iii – ii – I – V progression?

I don’t think that was necessarily the thought process behind Styx’ intro to “Come Sail Away,” but it is fun how it sets up the song as a ballad that slowly builds into a three-chord singalong rocker.

The movement from I to ii to iii is quite smooth. And that shouldn’t come as any surprise, given that the chords are so close to each other. I would watch out for the transition back to the ii from the iii, though, as this can sound a little dull. But as with all chord progressions, it’s all in how you play it. There’s always a way to make it work!

This would be an unlikely chord progression for a punk rock song, but for ballads, singer-songwriter material, even for pop, it has quite a bit of potential, and you could certainly take advantage of it in your own songwriting.

Piano in rock and pop

I – iii – vi – V

Example: E | G#m | C#m | B

This chord progression looks a little familiar at this point in this guide, doesn’t it? It’s basically a hop and a skip away from “Don’t Stop Believin’,” but wouldn’t you know it, you probably know this piano chord progression best from a certain 1992 power ballad, that somehow managed to squeeze its way through a hallway of grunge rockers to become a lasting hit.

You will have heard it in none other than Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain.”

This chord progression appears in the intro of “November Rain,” though it goes back and forth between this progression and a I – vi – V – V progression, like this:

E | G#m | C#m | B

E | C#m | B | B

Anyway, the I – iii – vi – V progression has a slight melancholy sound to it, especially when transitioning from the I to the iii. The shift from vi to V, though, seems to alter mood again to a sense of surety. In that sense, it might take something to own this progression and use it effectively.

That said, if sped up, it could work in a punk rock song, even if a little unlikely. And it could be quite effective in pop and rock too.

Spend some time with it, and see where it goes, because you just never know what you might come up with in the process of experimentation.

I – iii – IV – V – IV

Example: C | Em7 | F | G | F

English avant-garde glam rock artist David Bowie is widely recognized for having influenced countless modern-day counterparts, from Radiohead and My Chemical Romance to The Smiths and Nine Inch Nails.

What isn’t always recognized is Bowie’s ability to assemble amazing musicians to work and collaborate with. Bowie himself could play, no doubt, having written and performed most of the instrumentation on Iggy Pop’s 1977 debut album The Idiot as well as his own releases. But that is perhaps why he had such an ear for talent.

His 1971 hit from Hunky Dory, “Changes,” features the piano of Rick Wakeman, and the song only benefits from it.

You will hear this chord progression in the first part of the verse (“Still don’t know what I was waiting for / And my time was running wild / A million dead-end streets and…”).

Arguably, this would be one of the most “conventional” parts of “Changes,” which features a lot of other great progressions and riffs. See if you can learn them all!

This progression sounds great on acoustic guitar, just as it does on piano, and it’s versatile enough for most genres. And that iii really sounds great as a minor 7.

I – iii – IV – bVII

Example: Fmaj7 | Am | Bb | Ebmaj7

This is one of those chord progressions that sounds like it’s leaning one way, and then out of nowhere, throws a curveball at you. In this case, of course, the curveball is the bVII, where you would typically expect a iv chord (yes, minor iv, which in this case would be Bbm).

But this chord progression comes from a hit with plenty of twists and turns – the jazzy ballad of “Colour My World” by Chicago. What I’ve shown here is just the tip of the iceberg, as the song transitions through other unexpected chords. But altogether, the song sounds a little like mall or elevator music.

This progression represents the first four chords in “Colour My World,” as well as the verse section (“As time goes on / I realize / Just what you mean / To me…”).

As noted, this one is a little outside the box. There is some logic to how “Colour My World” progresses, and it’s not completely random. Fmaj7 and Am obviously play well together in context, and so do Bb and Ebmaj7 (Bb would be the V chord in the key of Eb). So, when you take it two or three chords at a time, you start to see a bit of a formula at work.

What I want to emphasize here is that in a progression like this, you wouldn’t land on the bVII just for fun. You would come up with a plan as to how that connects to the next chord in the progression, as well as how it might relate to the chord that comes before it.

That said, rules don’t need to be followed to a tee, so feel free to experiment and see where this idea takes you.

Top Piano Chord Progressions, Final Thoughts

Rules are meant to be broken. There is no right way or wrong way to play the piano, and it’s often little nuances that end up making a player unique. If all you do is play what everyone else plays, you’re just a jukebox. But if you can “sneak in” those curveballs in your playing and become a master at this, you’re going to create trademark techniques you will become known for.

That’s my philosophy, and you don’t need to take it from me. But most chord progressions aren’t that complicated, all told, and finding your own way and your own channels for personal expression is paramount to artistic success, even if you are covering other people’s songs.

Practice all the above progressions, try variations on them, and don’t forget to have fun.

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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