Perturbations in cardiac development result in congenital heart disease, the leading cause of birth defect–related infant morbidity and mortality. Advances in cardiac developmental biology have significantly augmented our understanding of signalling pathways and transcriptional networks underlying heart formation. Cardiogenesis is initiated with the formation of mesodermal multipotent cardiac progenitor cells and is governed by cross-talk between developmental cues emanating from endodermal, mesodermal and ectodermal cells. The molecular and transcriptional machineries that direct the specification and differentiation of these cardiac precursors are part of an evolutionarily conserved programme that includes the Nkx-, Gata-, Hand-, T-box- and Mef2 family of transcription factors. Unravelling the hierarchical networks governing the fate and differentiation of cardiac precursors is crucial for our understanding of congenital heart disease and future stem cell–based and gene therapies. Recent molecular and genetic lineage analyses have revealed that subpopulations of cardiac progenitor cells follow distinctive specification and differentiation paths, which determine their final contribution to the heart. In the last decade, progenitor cells that contribute to the arterial pole and right ventricle have received much attention, as abnormal development of these cells frequently results in congenital defects of the aortic and pulmonary outlets, representing the most commonly occurring congenital cardiac defects. In this review, we provide an overview of the building plan of the vertebrate four-chambered heart, with a special focus on cardiac progenitor cell specification, differentiation and deployment during arterial pole development.