Yes, when it comes to chords, there are almost infinite possibilities. Yet before you step into the mere foothills of harmonic hazards, you might want to know the truth: you might not even need to go there to play the music you love. Like, ever! Because there are many thousands – maybe millions – of songs that use nothing more than the same four chords.

It may seem unbelievable, but a huge percentage of music, especially (but not limited to) popular styles like pop, hip-hop, country, rock, and others, is built on the I, IV, V, and vi chords. But before we bewail the supposed harmonic poverty of pop, it’s important to recognize and respect why this is true.

Why Four-Chord Songs Are So Great

These chords provide the harmonic bones of the scales that we use. These four chords can be arranged and rearranged in thousands of different patterns. When we do so, we stimulate the most important melody-generating tendencies in the tonal architecture of a scale.

The patterns provided by the I, IV, V, and vi chords are immensely satisfying to the listener, and have been so for hundreds of years. So is it really so terrible that by learning four chords you can play thousands of songs, and play by ear much more easily, and even write your own hits?

Inside Musical U we have long recognized the importance of these chords with our dedicated Play Chords by Ear Roadmap and many modules dedicated to training on three and four-chord progressions.

In this month’s Instrument Packs, Musical U’s Guitar, Bass, and Piano Pros bridge the ear-to-instrument gap and show you how to play I-IV-V-vi progressions on your instrument.

And Speaking of Harmony…

Applying music theory isn’t just for instrumentalists – singers who want to harmonize can benefit greatly from understanding theory to construct meaningful, beautiful harmonic lines. Former Swingles member, Singing Pro Clare Wheeler knows a thing or two about harmony…

Singing

Ever wonder how some singers seem to come up with cool vocal harmonies on the spot? It’s not magic – there is a science to it that you can learn. In Harmonizing, Part 2, Singing Pro Clare Wheeler continues to expand on the parallel method of creating vocal harmonies:

Including:

  • Recap of Harmonizing, Part 1 – using scale degrees to create one parallel harmony.
  • Working with a new song in three-part harmony.
  • When, why, and how to easily adjust when the parallel method isn’t working.
  • Full scores for the exercises.
  • MP3 demonstration and background tracks to help you in your practice.

Beautiful vocal harmonies add such richness to the music! Understanding how to come up with them yourself will also add to your appreciation of the harmonies you are already singing, and those that you hear in the music you love.

Piano

The songwriters that create songs for mainstream music don’t write hits by accident – these songwriters know which core-chords are going to be the most impactful to their listeners.

Those chords are not in the hundreds, not even dozens… when we distill these hit-making chords into their simplest form we are talking about three or four chords. Doesn’t that sound more manageable?

In this resource pack, Piano Pro, Ruth Power, teaches you how to play I-IV-V-vi progressions on your keyboard:

Including:

  • How to build on your previous knowledge of I-IV-V progressions.
  • Introducing the “Sad Twin” (often referred to as the “relative minor”.)
  • Five fun exercises in varying styles from dance to pop to doo-wop and more.
  • MP3 demo and backing tracks that illustrate and provide practice opportunities for each exercise.

Once you have mastered these patterns, you’ll be ready to take them out into the real world. To fully master these handy chord progressions, begin to learn them in all 12 keys. It’s a fair amount of work to master this, but just think how many hundreds of songs this opens up to your playing!

Guitar

The various chord progressions with the I, IV, V, and vi chords are so valuable for learning songs fast and playing songs by ear, that Resident Pro Dylan Welsh thinks of them as one of the ultimate guitar hacks!

Dylan unveils a systematic mega-approach to mastering I-IV-V-vi all over the fretboard in every key:

Including:

  • How you can very easily find out what the I, IV, V, and vi chords are in any key using patterns found on the guitar fretboard.
  • Running through each of these chords in every position on the guitar.
  • Expediting the process of learning and executing songs efficiently.
  • Practice with memorizing the fretboard.
  • A brief overview of the super-handy CAGED system of fretboard organization.
  • A nice long MP3 backing track for you practicing pleasure.

This kind of practice is very, very structured and targeted. It may feel like work, but if you put the time in, it will make a massive difference in your improvising (as well as in all other aspects of your guitar playing).

Bass

It’s nothing short of amazing what a working aural and practical knowledge of just four chords – the I, IV, V, and vi chords – can do in terms of you being able to play many thousands of songs by ear.

Steve Lawson, our Resident Pro for bass, helps you make that ear-to-instrument connection:

Including:

  • Why these four chords are important – especially in pop music.
  • What we can do to help us recognize the I, IV, V and vi.
  • How to recognize the movement between the chords.
  • How to come up with basslines that connect them in interesting ways.
  • Six exercises to sensitize your ear to the harmonic shifts between pairs of chords, then all six chords.
  • Scores for suggested basslines for all the exercises.
  • Six MP3 tracks in various styles for practicing the given basslines and inventing your own.

Learn to play thousands of songs by ear and come up with your own cool I-IV-V-vi chord progression basslines with Steve’s ears-to-fretboard techniques.

Coming up next month…

More fascinating, fun, and growthful resources from Musical U’s Resident Pros.

Interested in getting access to these resources and much more, with an Instrument Pack membership? Just choose that option during checkout when you join Musical U, or upgrade your existing membership to get instant access!

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