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Four Piano Chords for (nearly) every Song

Four Piano Chords for (nearly) every Song  ·  Source: Bonedo

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What if we told you that you can play most songs on the piano using just 4 chords? Let’s go one step further: What do “Let It Be” by the Beatles, “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley, and “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber have in common? Nothing at all, you say? You’re about to be surprised!

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As different as they may be, all the songs I just mentioned have a very important common feature: they all use the same chords! It may sound unbelievable at first, but it’s actually true. All three songs are based on the same four piano chords. And it’s not just these three songs. You’ll soon discover that the list is almost endless. Artists from every corner of the world of music use the same chord progression over and over again!

Piano Chords come in many Shapes

Now, if all of those songs use the same chords, why do they sound so different? That’s because the actual chord progression is just one of many elements that make up a song. Since the keys, tempos, instrumentation, and, of course, the melodies are completely different, their similarity may not be that obvious.

In Western music, there are only twelve different notes, only seven of which make up a scale. And yet you can compose endless variations of melodies and rhythms. And that’s why hundreds, if not thousands of songs can get away with using the same four piano chords.

What is a Chord?

In music, a chord is a harmonic structure consisting of at least three different notes sounding simultaneously. A three-note chord is called a triad. Although they’re not typically considered to be true chords, even two notes played at the same time can imply a chordal function.

The beauty is: On the piano, you have a lot of possibilities for playing chords with two hands. If you then put them together according to certain rules and arrange them in different sequences, you can play lots of pieces with only four piano chords.

Is Music with only four Piano Chords boring?

So was grandma right after all? Do current songs really all sound the same? Whether or not you think that’s the case has absolutely nothing to do with facts (because they quite obviously don’t) and all the more with personal bias. But in every myth is a grain of truth, and in this case, it is: Yes, many songs use the same basic chord progression (and have done so for ages).

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In practice, this means: If you learn these piano chords, you can play and accompany an incredible number of songs. Let’s look at some examples.

Four Piano Chords for (nearly) every Song: Part 1 – Major Chords

This is a C major scale:

Piano Chords C Major Scale

These are the notes of the C major scale in both hands · Source: Tobias Homburger

If we now build a three-note chord on each note of this C major scale using the notes that C major provides us, we get this.

Piano Chords in C Major

Building triads on each note of the C major scale · Source: Tobias Homburger

These are the seven basic piano chords that can occur in C major. Let’s take a closer look at their names.

C major

The names of the chords on each scale degree in C major · Source: Tobias Homburger

We get three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord: C-, F- and G-major, D-, E- and A-minor, and B-diminished. In addition, certain chords are parallel or related. For example, C major and A minor belong together, as do F major and D minor, and G major and E minor. This is important because a major chord can always be replaced by its parallel minor, so instead of C major, you can always play A minor. And this is exactly what happens in our chord progression. The famous chord progression we talked about in the beginning consists of the chords on the following scale degrees: I – IV – V – VI.

Four Chords Piano

These are the 4 piano chords used in an incredible number of songs · Source: Tobias Homburger

However, the chords aren’t usually used in this order. Instead, the most famous chord progression in the world looks like this: I – V – VI – IV.

Piano Chords in Root Position

Four piano chords: Probably the most common chord progression in the world · Source: Tobias Homburger

Now it almost sounds like a song. However, using all chords in root position doesn’t sound very good. If we apply proper voice leading and use some of the chords in inversions, it will sound much better.

Piano Voice Leading

Every chord progression sounds better with proper voice leading and inversions · Source: Tobias Homburger

Remember that this basic progression is only a building block that is often modified or supplemented with additional chords. But there are indeed countless songs that use exactly this progression. Now let’s examine the songs mentioned at the beginning and see which four piano chords they consist of.

Four Piano Chords: The Beatles – “Let It Be”

Let’s start with “Let It Be” by the Beatles – without a doubt one of the most famous songs ever written. Take a look at the first verse:

Let it be piano chords

“Let it be” begins with the famous chord progression · Source: Tobias Homburger

Have you discovered our 4 chords? They even occur exactly in this order. As you can see, the pattern changes in the second line. Nevertheless, the chords used still come from the same four piano chords. Here’s the part written out with the melody.

Let it Be Piano Music

Good songs don’t have to be complicated. · Source: Tobias Homburger

Here you can listen to the entire piece. If you have already practiced the chords, just play along. Or just follow the notes. Also pay attention to the voice leading of the intro chords.

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Bob Marley – “No Woman, No Cry”

Now for something completely different. As you’ll see, our 4 piano chords also appear in reggae music.

No Woman No Cry Piano Chords

“No Woman No Cry”: lyrics and chords. · Source: Tobias Homburger

And here’s the melody.

No Woman No Cry Piano

“No Woman No Cry”: Melody · Source: Tobias Homburger

Let’s listen to the whole song.

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Justin Bieber – “Love Yourself”

Here’s a newer song originally written by Ed Sheeran for one of his albums, but he ended up giving it to Justin Bieber instead. The chorus goes like this.

Love Yourself Piano Chords

“Love Yourself” · Source: Tobias Homburger

Let’s look at the melody.

Love Yourself Sheet Music

“Love Yourself” · Source: Tobias Homburger

And here’s the whole track to play along.

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Isn’t that amazing? So many different songs and they all use the same chords? And there are countless other songs that consist of these four piano chords. Many of them also use them in this exact order. Remember, though, that the songs aren’t necessarily all in the same key – it’s about the chord progression in relation to the key of the song (I – V – VI – IV).

  • Elton John – Can You Feel The Love Tonight
  • Alphaville – Forever Young
  • James Blunt – You’re Beautiful
  • John Denver – Take Me Home, Country Roads
  • Jessie J – Flashlight
  • Charlie Puth – One Call Away
  • Enrique Iglesias – Hero
  • Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start The Fire
  • Miley Cyrus – Party In The USA
  • Justin Bieber – Baby
  • Pink – Raise Your Glass
  • Carly Ray Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
  • Richard Marx – Right Here

And the list goes on and on. Maybe you can think of more songs with these four chords. In any case, you can play them all of them now!

Four Piano Chords for (nearly) every Song: Part 2 – Minor Chords

So far, we’ve only talked about songs in major keys. But there’s also a version of this chord progression in minor, which is almost as popular as the major version. But don’t panic, it’s not difficult. After all, C major and A minor are parallel keys, as we’ve already discussed. This means that they have the same accidentals and use the same notes. Looking at the A natural minor scale, we encounter exactly the same chords as in C major. This is the A natural minor scale:

A natural minor scale

These are the notes of the A natural minor scale in both hands · Source: Tobias Homburger

Now let’s build a piano chord on each note again, using the notes that A natural minor provides.

A minor triads

If you build a triad on each note of the A natural minor scale, you get these chords · Source: Tobias Homburger

And here’s what these chords are called.

These are the names of the chords that can occur in A natural minor

These are the names of the chords that can occur in A natural minor · Source: Tobias Homburger

As you can see, they are exactly the same chords as in C major, except that they start on A minor. So in minor, our four chords are the scale degrees I – III – VI – VII.

Piano Chords Minor

These chords make up the famous chord progression in A minor · Source: Tobias Homburger

In a minor key, the sequence of the 4 piano chords usually looks like this:

Four Chord Songs

These are the 4 piano chords in minor, all in root position · Source: Tobias Homburger

Now let’s apply our voice-leading knowledge again, which gives us this result:

Minor Chord Progression

Chord progressions always sound better with proper voice leading · Source: Tobias Homburger

And immediately, this progression probably sounds like a song you know. So let’s take a look at some examples.

Four Piano Chords: Adele – “Hello”

Adele Hello Chords

Adele’s “Hello”: Lyrics and Chords · Source: Tobias Homburger

Here’s the melody.

Adele Hello Sheet Music

Adele – “Hello” (melody) · Source: Tobias Homburger

And here’s the video for you to play along.

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Avicii – “Wake Me Up”

Avicii Wake Me Up Piano Chords

Avicii – “Wake me up” · Source: Tobias Homburger

And here’s the melody.

Avicii - "Wake me up"

Avicii – “Wake me up” · Source: Tobias Homburger

You can listen to the whole track in the video below.

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The Script – “Hall of Fame”

The Script - "Hall of Fame"

The Script – “Hall of Fame” · Source: Tobias Homburger

Hall of Fame Piano Chords

The Script – “Hall of Fame” · Source: Tobias Homburger

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Again, the list goes on endlessly. Here are a few more examples:

  • Ed Sheeran – Photograph
  • The Weeknd – I Can’t Feel My Face
  • Wiz Khalifa – See You Again
  • Robin Schulz – Ok
  • Jon Bellion – All Time Low
  • John Legend – All Of Me
  • Lukas Graham – 7 Years
  • Eagle-Eye Cherry – Save Tonight
  • Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee – Despacito

There are many more examples of songs in minor that you can easily play with just 4 piano chords. Look for these chord progressions in your favorite songs – I promise that you’ll be amazed!

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Further Reading

To find out more about music theory and piano chords, check out these excellent books*!

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Hal Leonard All About Music Theory
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Note: This article was originally published in German on bonedo.de.

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Four Piano Chords for (nearly) every Song

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