Primary Chord Progressions

In earlier lessons we learned about cadences and pre-cadence chords. The cadence chord progressions are all very common, whether they are used at a cadence or elsewhere in a piece of music. These progressions use the “primary” chords, I, V and IV.

You will frequently find the progressions V-I, IV-I, and a variety of chords moving into chord V.

primary chord progressions

Here are some general guidelines:

  • Chords, V, V7, IV and vii° are the only chords which typically move to chord Ia. (Other chords can move to Ib).
  • Chord V normally only moves to chord I. While it can also move to VI, this is much rarer. V can also move to V7 or vii°, as these chords are quite similar. It is unlikely to move to any other chord.
  • Chords vii° and V7 normally only move to chord I. They do not move to V, because they contain a diminished 5th which must be resolved properly in chord I.
  • Avoid using the same chord from a weak to a strong beat. (An exception to this rule is for the beginning upbeat of a piece, which can be the same chord in bar 1.) It is fine to use the same chord from a strong to a weak beat.

Some common “incorrect” chord progressions to avoid are:


The Progression of 5ths

The progression V-I is the most common progression found in Western music: chord V feels like it “needs” to move to chord I.

The root note of chord V is a 5th higher than the root note of chord I, and in fact, every chord has a very strong connection with the chord which is a 5th higher (or a 4th lower) than it.

In C major, V-I uses the chords G major and C major. The chord a 5th higher than G major is D minor (ii), so D minor moves easily towards G major. The chord a 5th higher than D minor is A minor (vi), so A minor moves easily to D minor.

We can carry on moving backwards in the same way, until we return to the original chord of C major, to work out the complete progression:

progresion of 5ths

Moving forwards through the progression of 5ths, each chord’s root is a 4th higher than the previous one (or a 5th lower): I – IV – vii° – iii – vi – ii – V – I. Chord IV is a 4th higher than I. Chord vii° is a 4th higher than IV, and so on.

Any part of the progression of 5ths can be used, but it is relatively rare to see the series used in its entirety. More often, just two or three chords are taken from it at any particular time. For example, you might see the progression vi – ii – V, or ii – V – I.

Here is an example of the whole progression used in Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K545. The key at this point in the piece is G major.

mozart piano sonata in C progression of 5ths