Once you’ve decided that you want to learn to play by ear, you’re going to be spending quite a bit of time at your instrument, be it keyboard, guitar, or even the tubax… Maybe there’s a particular song you’ve always wanted to learn, and that’s the very reason you started to play music to begin with.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret:

There’s a formula in most pop, alternative, indie, country, hymns, gospel, blues, rock, reggae, insert-genre-of-your-choosing-here.

Once you know the formula you’ll be able to play hundreds — literally hundreds — of songs.

I-IV-V Chord Progressions

(It’s a little bit magical.)

The 3-chord song

We refer to this as a three-chord song, or I-IV-V.

(Not sure about this “roman numeral” notation, IV, etc.? It’s easy! Read up here)

What this means in the simplest of terms is that you play certain chords in a certain progression and voilà! You will have achieved that familiar sound you hear in so much popular music.

Musicians who play by ear should learn the basic three-chord song structures as soon as possible.

Seriously: think of all the songs you’ve been wanting to learn – and the chances are good that most of them fall into some variation of this three-chord structure.

Whether you’re at the keyboard, playing your horn, or picking up your guitar, you can do this.

So, why should you care about I-IV-V?

Here are a few good reasons:

1. It’s easy to find the chords

In the process of sitting down to work out a song, half of the battle is trying to figure out which chords to use.

When you learn I-IV-V, you will realize that half of the battle is over already! You’re halfway to learning a I-IV-V song once you work out which chords to use, and that’s easy to figure out if you know your basic major scale.

From a major scale, you’ll play the first note’s major chord, then the fourth note’s major chord, and finally the fifth note’s major chord.

In the key of C, it would go like this: C major, F major, G major.

Likewise, a three-chord song in the key of F would contain F major, B♭ major, C major as its I-IV-V progression.

2. It’s easy to figure out what to play

…since there are only three possible choices!

It will just be a matter of which chord comes next and how long you need to stay on it. Figuring that out is just a matter of listening.

However, true to its name, the pattern often follows the order:

I, IV, V

3. You’ll learn songs quickly

You might begin to recognize this progression as the dominant sound of the 1950s. For example:

The more music you listen to, the more you’ll realize how modern pop has roots in this ’50s rock-n-roll sound.

Once you start noticing these common chord turnarounds in songs you’ll continue to pick up on them.

Combine your developing ear with the chops you’re establishing, adding to that your new knowledge of the actual I-IV-V chords, and you will start learning songs very quickly.

The key will be to listen to learn the sound of the progression and listen to a variety of tunes. Don’t just learn three-chord songs – learn the 3-chord progression, and all those songs come for free.

More about this here:

4. You will be able to play in any musical genre

Literally, any musical genre.

Take, for example, blues.

Try country.

Some swing tunes fit in with I-IV-V.

Rock.

Bluegrass… or Punk.