The Most Common Chord Progression in Music

We can learn and memorize music more quickly when we think in chunks instead of bits. If we can lump information together, we can retain more.

This means that if we can think of strings (or progressions) of chords as larger chunks, we may learn them faster.

There is an order of chords that happens more frequently than all others. And when we know and recognize it, we have a nice, big chunk of information to work with. This progression is 1 4 7 3 6 2 5 1. Read on for an explanation.

Note: This tutorial contains music theory. Click Here for beginning lessons in music theory.

Each Key has a Set of Chords

Within each key in music, we have seven chords. These chords vary by key, but the recipe is consistent.

We start with a major scale.

major scale

This is a C major scale. We can build chords from it.

Next, we stack notes on each note of the scale. These stacks of three or four notes are called chords (also called triads).

chords from scales

When we stack notes on the scale tones, we get a series of chords.

So we can make chords from a scale. And these chords will all sound good together because they are all made from the same small collection of notes.

Each Chord in the Key has a Quality

The major scale is built using a specific combination of steps. (On the guitar, a half-step is one fret, and a whole step is two frets.)

chord quality

Each chord will have either 3 or 4 half steps between notes. This pattern gives us the chord quality.

So when we stack them into chords, we find predictable patterns in the quality of the chords. Chord quality refers to the chord being major, minor, diminished, or augmented.

In a major scale, we have three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord (which we don’t use very much).

chords in the major scale

We can use Roman Numerals to notes major and minor chords, plus the number of the chord in the key.

We can represent major chords as upper-case Roman Numerals, and minor chords as lower-case.

The Most Common Chord Progression

Now we come to making music. Composers and songwriters tend to favor the chords in a single key. In larger or more complex pieces, they may change from one key to another within the piece. Or they may borrow chords from other keys.

But the main chords usually come from the collection outlined above.

The most common way to move from one chord to another is through the V>I relationship. The fifth chord, especially when played as four notes (including the 7th of the chord) leads strongly to the root chord, or I (one) chord.

So in the key of C, G (and G7) leads strongly to C.

We can then lead from one chord to the next, through all the chords, using this relationship.

This means that the most common chord to play after C is F. This is because C is the V (five) of F.

most common chord progression in music

Here we have the same chords but in order of descending 5ths (or ascending 4ths). This is the most common progression

Going through the entire group of chords, we find our most common progression: 1 4 7 3 6 2 5 1

Up in Fourths or Down in Fifths

We can go up in fourths or down in fifths. The results are the same. We land on the same note/chord going up a fourth or down a fifth.

We See This Progression in Snippets

Most commonly, we find the 14736251 progression in small snippets. So we may have just the I, IV, and V. These are the main chords in most folk, rock, and even classical music.

In jazz, we often see many instances of ii, V, I. Or just ii, V. This is because these two chords lead strongly to the I chord. We may not even arrive at the I chord, but our ear has been guided in that direction.

We also see the iii, vi, ii, V progression used frequently in jazz. This is a common “vamp,” which can act as a background progression for players to solo over. It leads the ear and creates forward momentum, but does not fully arrive at the I chord. So the climax is postponed and interest grows.

Find This Progression in Your Music

As an exercise, see if you can identify the chords in the music you are currently playing. You can then see how they fit into this chord progression.

You may find that large sections, or even the entire piece, conform to this recipe. If so, great! You now have a new way to remember the music.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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