That's right, these are the chord progressions we have to face in our daily, uphill battle against old, played out music. If you have any chord progressions you think belong in the top 10, in place of one of these, node it and I'll change it :)

* In no particular order

  1. I | IV (one of the most basic, and most overused progressions around. Used in James Brown - Sex Machine)
  2. i | IV (Used in Tito Puente - Oye Como Va and Herbie Hancock - Chameleon)
  3. I | IV | V (happy pop sound. Used in Green Day - Time of Your Life)
  4. I | V | IV (thanks, Third Eye Blind, all your latest hits use this progression. Also used in Blink 182 - All The Small Things (chorus))
  5. I | V | vi | IV (hooray for Blink 182, *cough*)
  6. i | VII | VI | V (Hit the Road Jack, and several Flamenco pieces)
  7. I | vi | IV | V (50s happy doowop. Used in Ben E. King - Stand By Me, the first chords of The Beatles - This Boy, and Every Breath You Take by The Police)
  8. I | VII | IV (rock)
  9. ii | V | I (jazz standard. Autumn Leaves begins with these chords)
  10. I | IV | I | I | IV | IV | I | I | V | IV | I | I (12 bar blues, another jazz standard. Used in Jimmy Hendrix - Red House and B.B.King - Everyday I Have The Blues)
While certainly some of these chord progressions were revolutionary and are still key in reproducing some of today's most classic genres, we'd still like certain genres of music to move forward and introduce to us new chord progressions. I have a feeling that although new chord progressions might sound weird at first, with enough use we'd easily attach an emotion or mood to them, just as we did to the blues and to the 50's bebop progression--I bet if the 4 chord blues were played in the 17th century, everyone'd think it was odd and dissonant crap. People adjust. It's just that when 4 of Blink 182's hits use the same exact chord progression (Alien, Dammit, What's My Age Again, M&Ms) .. I begin to raise an eyebrow (or two, as my eyebrows raise and abdominal muscles tighten in preparation to vomit)

Surely I don't want these chord progressions all to be put out of existence. Some of my favorite songs use them. This list is mainly here to make us aware that sometimes what we call different, new and fabulous has really been done hundreds of times before. Surely the greater value of a song can lie in its lyrics but as my favorite type of music is instrumental (which I often find just as moving as lyrical music) I tend to appreciate more those songs that break away from a standard chord progression, rhythmic pattern or time signature. Sorry, I've heard all the great 12 bar blues songs--I don't think I want to hear any new artists tear this thing apart again, beacuse I doubt they could reproduce it as well as its originators, and even if they did, the fact still remains that it's been done before.


Confused? For starters, upper case chords are major, and lower case are minor. Check out chord progression and chord for more information.
I cannot disagree that certain chord progressions or changes may be used frequently, but I do disagree with the idea that they must be abandoned.

If we are going to play blues in some form or another, not necessarily the 12 bar form as in chrisjh's example 10 above, by definition we will use some form of it.

I like the blues. I go to it for inspiration often. (I've noded some of what I go to here.)

Maybe for chrisjh all these songs, and the changes they present, are "old, played out music." But there are only seven different chords in diatonic harmony. Even when using jazz and other altered chords, one is still working from the same basic palette of sounds.

I think it is, as it has always been, how the materials are used. When the true musician comes along, it really doesn't matter what chords are used, what matters is the song that is sung. And if the song isn't there, then it's only so much sound, no matter how novel the chords.

I would like to add:

I - V - vi - iii - IV - I - IV - V

This is the progression used in the (in)famous Pachelbel's Canon in D, which in itself is possibly the most overplayed piece of classical music.

In addition, it seems to crop up in overplayed pop tunes as well, e.g. Blues Traveler's "Hook" and Green Day's "Basket Case" (although Green Day skips the last IV and extends the V to last for 2 bars). 'S true.

There's a fine line between tradition and stagnation, and some overlap between songs is expected and even a good thing -- without consistent standards there would no way to be revolutionary and "break away" from these standards. Still, I find this progression to be particularily offensive because it's immediately distinctive and long enough that if you recognize it, you know exactly where it's going and it becomes boring. In other words, fuckin' cheesy.

There's a reason those progressions are "over-used." The reason is that they are the strongest diatonic chord progressions, in terms of voice leading. The three strongest ( chord progressions are Dominant (descending by fifth) Subdominant (ascending by fifth) , and descending third from a major down to its relative minor (I vi). Examples for each are shown on this node. By strongest, I'm not referring to the Schoenberg/Sadai idea of there being three classes of progressions, Strong(ascending and can be used as much as one likes), Descending(which can be used often, but better used in combinations of three chords which result in a stronger progression((Schoenberg)) and Superstrong progressions which are stepwise either ascending or descending which "may be considered too strong for continuous use"(Schoenberg). Now, this isn't to say one can't grow tired of these progressions, as many musicians do and then reach out to more chromatic alterations based on these progressions. Also, these stock diatonic progressions are a good way to set up a listener for one type of resolution (which may or may not be considered "played out" as some would say) and goes to something entirely different, once a few out of key or chromatic chords are thrown in. One progression might use said chromatic chord to segue into a different progression, in an entirely different key, or the tonality can be altered to place, say, a ii V I progression in a spot where it doesn't quite land on I, but maybe a minor I chord or a dominant I7 (which I'll talk about a little more in a moment), or whatever you like as long as it resolves nicely. The beauty part is that the psychology of music relies almost entirely on what a listener could be expecting, and what a composer might actually give the listener-for example, foregoing one of the normal resolutions to a progression and moving on to something much more interesting and/or creative. Whew.

Classical music and jazz are action-packed with such variants, such as the ii bii I (tritone inversion) and the I IV #IVdim which appears in a few jazz-blues tunes. Once chromaticism is involved, a composer then has options such as "borrowing" chord tonalities from the key's parallel key, such as "borrowing" a major I chord from G major to be used in G minor which is called a Primary Mixture. The trick in chromatic progressions is that the chords are analyzed less by the way they are "spelled" and more in the way they function as guiding a progression to some type of resolution. If you're a listener who's looking for some more unorthodox chord progressions, you'd probably dig John Abercrombie's stuff, very very modern ideas in jazz.

I agree with Sharp11Thirteen. If you rule out the progressions chrisjh listed, you'd be left with little to use. Most of those progressions ( such as the I | IV, the i | IV, the I | IV | V, and the ii | V | I ) are simply Tools to use to sculpt your final musical piece.

Like what Sharp11Thirteen said, the reason they are overused is also Context. Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk could write totally far out progessions, and then Tease a silly ii V I in somewhere, as a musical joke. Frank Zappa would have a large Verse-Chorus song, and tease an entire Blues chorus as the bridge, and then jump right back in where he left off. These guys used the common stuff specifically when it was appropiate. Yes, they are still common, but now they are something Special.

Also, plenty of guys have modified and changed common progressions to get a new sound out of them. Sonny Rollins took the very common Rhythm Changes and changed a couple chords with substitutions and made 'Oleo'. Charlie Parker took Rhythm Changes and put ii V's in the bridge, and called it 'Dexterity'.
John Coltrane uses only 3 different ii V I progessions in different orders and such, to create a pattern that became 'Giant Steps'. It's only 3 different ii V I's... -just Three!- and it is one of the most unique, even difficult, songs in jazz. Coltrane also took that pattern, slightly modified, to change Mile Davis' 'Tune Up' into 'Countdown'.
Also, little things make big differences. Thelonius Monk ('Blue Monk') put a #IVdim7 in the sixth measure of the blues. The Chromatics make a hip new sound that is unmistakable. And the boys from Steely Dan, who would take the blues, and alter it into this new being in tunes like Black Friday, Bodhisattva... and in a way, even Peg.
And the Tritone Substituion ( ii bII7 Imaj7 ) that Sharp11Thirteen meantioned is a great example of a common porgression, slightly modified to create something very new Sounding.

If you want New progressions unlike anything else... Check out these Jazz Standards (lead sheets available in the Real Book). Check out Herbie Hancock's 'Maiden Voyage' and 'Butterfly'.... no ii V I's or other boring progressions there... Or Coltrane's 'Crescent' and 'Lonnie's Lament'. Both very unique progressions. 'Fables of Faubus' and 'Jump Monk' by Charles Mingus are long heads that aren't simple changes or patterns. Freddie Hubbard's 'Red Clay' is an awesome display of jamming out on a unique, new form. 'Peaches en Regalia', Frank Zappa's epic tune: long and building. And Miles Davis/ Wayne Shorter's 'Nefertiti' is a beautiful and unique Ballad, unlike any hokey ii V I ballad heard before. Also, 'Naima' by Coltrane is a great ballad, too. 'Space Circus' by Chick Corea. 'Speak No Evil' by Wayne Shorter. 'You know, You know' and 'Awakening' by Mahavishnu Orchestra.
If you want to ditch ALL progressions flat out.... check out Free Jazz... John Coltrane's A LOVE SUPREME album, and Miles Davis' BITCHES BREW are milestone albums for the free jazz school.

In rock, there's Radiohead, Tool, Incubus, Primus, King Crimson... all taking things away from traditional music.
Check those out for more far out wont be let down, man.

I V vi IV is everywhere, man... EVERYWHERE. Yes, it started with Blink, but has metastasized. Tune in to any poop (oops, pop) station, and count how many songs IN A ROW use it... You'll be horrified. Maybe they'll substitute the ii for the vi, but the intent is the same.

The reason for its popularity and (hopefully) imminent demise, is that you can sing any repetitive doggerel over it in major pentatonic, and it still sounds OK. This gambit has worked enough times now, that when record labels and radio programmers hear it, they automatically think "HITSVILLE" without regarding the actual content. Sadly, most of the public follow in their train. It engenders what can only be described as a knee-jerk reaction. And since it sounds like "success", more songwriters are tempted to resort to it immediately instead of using their brains, further perpetuating the vicious circle.

Granted that a chord progression is only a box, and you can put whatever you want in it. This was a good one. It has a kind of languid ease, a sense of inevitability, of everything falling perfectly into place. I've used it myself. Great things have been done with it, and in the right hands it is capable of unquestionable grandeur. It can provide the underpinning of a magnificent, soaring melody, and a cracking good story... Two examples that come readily to mind are "Let it Be", and more recently, "All Kinds of Time" by Fountains of Wayne.

But it's over. It's been whored out too many times by lazy hacks. Now it's like a virus. When I hear it on the radio, I quickly stab the "SEEK" button to escape it, only to find it all over the dial. I've lost count of the number of times this has happened.

This is The One That Must Die.

Honourable mention must be given to IV V iii vi... as the recent legal skirmish between Joe Satriani and Coldplay has pointed up. They should both be sued for using such an obvious Euro-cliche.

While many of the chord progressions are overused, there's a reason so many different writers stick to them. For some reason, they just naturally seem to go together. Some of the best tunes are based on these, a few of which I will detail below. There are many songs to come before the overused chord progressions die off for something else. Eventually, our great-great grandkids will be into random industrial noises, or listening to Laurie Anderson's Oh, Superman over and over.

For example, consider the Major chord progressions, which are based on the Major scale (surprise!). The overused ones typically fall into a couple of standards.

Major Scale

  • I-IV: Examples include Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are in D, and the Beatles' I Wanna Hold Your Hand in G. A typical chord progression is C to F.
  • I-IV-V: Examples include the Beatles' Twist and Shout in F, and Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone in C. A typical chord progression is C to F to G.
  • I-IImin-IIImin-IV: Examples include Bill Withers' Lean On Me and Dan Fogelberg's Longer. A typical chord progression is C to Dmin to Emin to F.
  • I-V7-VImin-I5-IV-I3-IImin-V: Probably the best rambling example is Billy Joel's Piano Man.
  • I-VImin-IImin-V: Examples include oldies like Please Mister Postman and Earth Angel. A typical chord progression is C to Amin to Dmin to G. There are several different variations, such as I-IImin-VImin-IV-V and IIImin-VImin-IImin-V.

So, we can see some excellent songs in these progressions, and these are not what I'd consider fluff tunes (sorry, Blink182 fans). Just because the framework looks like every other house doesn't mean you can't create a unique abode for yourself. That's the real difference between folks who write fluff and those who are remembered after their albums are long gone from the charts.

Disclosure: I am a member of ASCAP, but not a professional musician (any more).

Don’t give up on the idea of coming up with a totally original, great new chord progression.

Some people think all the good ones have been taken. Debussy didn’t think so. Duke Ellington proved them wrong. The Beatles broke the old boundaries quite successfully.

And so can you.

But show respect for the classic progressions, too. You have to learn why they’ve worked so well for so long. Then you can try to replicate their (well-worn) beauty in your own way.

You can't beat I-IV-V and ii-V-I for logic and simplicity. They pack all seven scale tones into three chords. In a classic sense, they are perfect.

But they sure can be boring.

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