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The Four Chords of Pop

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"Six and one of half a dozen
Black guitars and plastic blues.
Hide behind a wall of nothing
Nothing said and nothing new.
Four chords that made a million."
Porcupine Tree, "Four Chords That Made a Million"

I, V, vi, & IV. There's just something about these four chords that makes for a catchy tune in western pop music, transcending the boundaries of genre, and work in a song with any mood or tempo. This particular ordering of them, the "pop punk progression" as Wikipedia calls it, was spawned as a variant of the Doo-Wop Progression, and has been particularly popular from the 1990s to the present day. Actually Older Than They Think - this progression is already known in the Baroque music. Pachelbel's Canon is a variant of this progression, known as "Pachelbel's Canon" Progression. Jazz players often make the IV chord a Dominant 7 chord and use a minor chord built on the second note of the scale giving this variant: I-VI7-ii7-V7.

The Roman numerals above represent a sequence of four chords. If you don't know Roman analysis, check out this video, or play these chords on a piano: C major, G major, A minor, F major. Repeat if desired. If this progression loops back to I, this effectively produces a Plagal Cadence. Very often, this progression is used as an ostinato—a repeated pattern that occurs throughout a song (or a part of it).

In a major key, this progression is I-V-vi-IV. If we play them in a different order, vi-IV-I-V (A minor, F major, C major, G major), the progression sounds to be in the relative minor key (the key whose home note starts on the sixth note of its relative major key), in which case we notate it as i-VI-III-VII. Occasionally, it's played starting with the subdominant major key: IV-I-V-vi, (or VI-III-VII-i relative to the minor), though this variation is less common than the tonic major and submediant minor versions. This version is sometimes called the "sensitive-female chord progression."

All of these progressions can be and are played with fifth or "power" chords; these are not major or minor chords (they don't possess the "third" which determines whether a chord is major or minor), but people's ears will pick up on the sound they're "expecting" to hear and fill in the blanks mentally so the progression sounds right.

Note, as always, that Tropes Are Tools: while it has proven to be an irresistible progression, a band who relies on it for too many of their songs runs the risk of being regarded as unimaginative and dull.

It's become a theme of music oriented comedy to make fun of this trope. Epitomized in this video. The above-mentioned Pachelbel is the subject of a great rant, as well.

See its predecessor from the 30s to mid-60s, the 12-Bar Blues.

Related chord progressions:

    open/close all folders 

    I-V-vi-IV (tonic major) 

Examples of I-V-vi-IV (the tonic major key version):

    i-VI-III-VII (minor) 

Examples of i-VI-III-VII [vi-IV-I-V relative to major] (the minor key version):

    IV-I-V-vi (subdominant major) 

Examples of IV-I-V-vi [VI-III-VII-i relative to minor (subdominant major key version)

  • AFI - “Beautiful Thieves” (chorus), “Girl’s Not Grey” (chorus)
  • Assemblage 23 - "Bravery" (alternates with IV-vi-I-V below)
  • Aviators - "Writing on the Walls"
  • The Band Perry — "If I Die Young"
  • blink-182 - "What's My Age Again" (verses)
  • Kate Bush - "James and the Cold Gun" (chorus)
  • The Chainsmokers - "Don't Let Me Down"
  • Day Above Ground - "Asian Girlz"
  • Gavin DeGraw - "I Don't Wanna Be" (chorus)
  • E-Type - "Life" (first half of the chorus) and "True Believer" (chorus)
  • Fall Out Boy - "Alone Together" (chorus, also uses vi-IV-I-V above)
  • Golden Earring - “Radar Love” (chorus)
  • Green Day - "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (chorus), "Kill the DJ" (chorus)
  • Groove Coverage "Angeline" (chorus)
  • Getter Jaani "Rockefeller Street" (chorus and bridge)
  • Israel Kamakawiwo'ole - "Over the Rainbow" (second half of A-section)
  • Levert - "Casanova"
  • Linkin Park - "Final Masquerade"
  • Little Boots - "Remedy"
  • Mandisa - "Overcomer"
  • Ava Max - "Sweet But Psycho"
  • Martina McBride — "Happy Girl" (verses)
  • Muse - "Citizen Erased" (chorus; actually IV - I - V/vi (III) - vi, or bVI-bIII-V-i)
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic - "We'll Make Our Mark" (chorus)
  • My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - "Equestria Girls(Helping Twilight Win The Crown)"(chorus), "This Is Our Big Night"(verse), and "A Friend for Life"
  • Nickelback - "If Everyone Cared"
  • Owl City and Carly Rae Jepson - "Good Time"
  • O-Zone - "Dragostea din Tei", during the chorus
    • And by extension, T.I. & Rihanna's "Live Your Life"
  • Paramore - "Misery Business" (chorus)
  • Passion Pit - "Take A Walk" (during the chorus)
  • The Rain Within - "Violet Glow" (chorus)
  • Ren Zotto - "Blue Sugar"
  • Rihanna - "Umbrella" (chorus)
  • Rise Against - "Architects" (chorus)
  • Prince Royce - "Lao' a Lao'"
  • The Script - "Breakeven" (chorus)
  • Jay Sean - "Down"
  • Jordin Sparks - "Battlefield" (chorus)
  • Special D - "Me and My Lover"
  • Taylor Swift — "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together", "Bad Blood" (chorus)
  • Shania Twain - "That Don't Impress Me Much" (chorus)
  • Walk the Moon - "Different Colors" (bridge and chorus)
  • Steve Winwood - "Higher Love" (chorus)

    Rearranged progressions 

Other chord progressions containing the four chords. All chords are written in major scale.