4 Chords You Need To Know

Music Theory: 4 Chords You Really Need To Know

When we talk about music theory, it usually bores people to death. Some musicians will reason out that learning theory makes you rigid and become ‘by the book’.

However, I promise not to bore you with this short tutorial. In this tutorial, we’re going back to the basics and the infamous four chords nearly every mainstream artist uses. Trust me, even if you learned only 3 chords, you can play hundreds if not thousands of songs.

Before we go on, listen to this perfect example:

How Do Chords Work Anyway?

Remember how you practiced scales in your piano class & played them during exams? I thought playing scales was a waste of time till I finished my grades in music examinations. Now let’s take the most basic scale, C major:

The C Major Scale

Chords are built up from scales and are typically 3 or more notes played together as a harmony. (too confusing? I hope not)

There are two types of chords I want to go through today.

The Major Chord 

A major chord sounds happy and joyful. When it comes to happy songs, you’ll find that composers usually utilize more major chords. The major chord’s formula is, (1 3 5). When we say 1,3 & 5 it means we take the 1st, 3rd & 5th note from a scale and together they form a major chord!

Therefore, a C major chord is basically the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the C major scale

C major chord formed from a C major scale

A C-major chord consists of three notes, which is C E G. Play three of them on your piano or keyboard and hear how it sounds.

The Minor Chord

The minor chord sounds negative and dull. Minor chords are used to express sadness and loneliness in music.

The chord formula for a minor chord is very much near the major chord, however, the 3rd note is flatted. The formula for a minor chord is simply 1, 3b & 5.

Change only the 3rd note to get a minor chord

Change only the 3rd note to get a minor chord

So, a C minor chord is simply C Eb G

Then we have chord progressions.

Chord progressions are basically a group of chords put together.

Now, if you watched the video above, the band, Axis of Awesome played several songs with four-chord progressions in roman numerals written as I – V – vi – IV. We can play a chord progression in different keys.

Let’s take C major again, as our key. Now with the chord progression of I – V – vi – IV, form chords out from the scale.

  1. I of the C scale is C. Form a major chord from that and you’ll get C E G.
  2. Next, V from the C scale is G. Form a major chord from that and you’ll get G B D
  3. vi from C scale is A. Notice that the roman numeral is small, telling you it should be a minor chord. Therefore, a minor chord from that is A C E
  4. IV from C scale is F. Form a major chord from that and you’ll get F A C

So in short, here are the chords formed with the chord progression played on a C key. 

  • I = C major chord
  • V = G major chord
  • vi = A minor chord
  • IV = F major chord

(remember you can play progressions in any key, so we’re not constricted to only playing in the C key. Try different keys such as the G key!)

Listen to a chord progression example.

Piano only

Piano with some simple pads & rhythm


What we’ve gone through today is something fairly simple and I didn’t even explain key signatures and how we go about sharps and flats in music.

However, if you’re a beginner in music, try playing these four chords first and listen carefully to how chords work together in a progression. That said, we have thousands of chords and also progressions in the world though not necessary for you to learn every single one of them. Learn these four chords first!

I hope this short tutorial helped you. Play the progression, record it or even produce a piece with it!

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