So what you’re saying is that if I use this progression my song will be good but the same as every other one?
1. Topics of discussion
In this tutorial, we are going to take a look at possibly the most common chord progression used to write songs and try to understand why it is so common.
2. Analyzing the I-V-vi-IV progression
There was this old adage in songwriting that sayd something along the lines of “you only need 4 chords to write a song”. Artists and songwriters took this literally during the years and as a result, you have a plethora of songs that use the progression I have mentioned, in various keys of course. Some examples include but are not limited to:
- Ed Sheeran – Photograph (during the chorus)
- Journey – Don’t Stop Believing
- Avenged Sevenfold – Afterlife (during the chorus)
- Rise Against – Give It All, Far From Perfect, This Is Letting Go (during the chorus)
- Beatles – Let It Be
- Alphaville – Forever Young
- U2 – With or Without You
Of course, there are many more where these came from. And there are other songs which make use of the same chords, but in a different order.
What makes this progression so special though? Why do so many artists and songwriters use it in their songs? (aside from the fact that many of them apply the rule of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”).
One of the obvious reasons why it’s so used is simple: it sounds good and pleasant. Seriously, pick up your guitar and play the C, G, Am and F chords and you will see what I mean.
However, since we’re trying to explain this from a musical perspective, let’s look at each of those chords. Note wise, we have the following triads (I’ll be using the C major scale as an example):
- the I chord consists of the C-E-G notes
- the V chord consists of the G-B-D notes
- the vi chord consists of the A-C-E notes
- the IV chord consists of the F-A-C notes
As you can see, between them, these 4 chords contain all the notes from the C major scale. In other words, any note you play on top of these chords is going to sound good, because this chord progression can harmonize any note of the scale.
Another important factor to take into consideration is the fact that this progression contains all three primary chords. A person with a keen eye can state that “primary chords can harmonize any note by themselves…why do we need a fourth one?”. The answer is simple: it’s the way that most songs are written.
Think about it. Songs usually have 4 lyric verses and a 4 lyric chorus. You kinda need 4 chords in order to make this work. This isn’t a requirement of course, but it’s the way many musicians go.
And finally, let’s delve into another important question: why the vi chord and not a different one? We’ll delve into more details in a subsequent tutorial, but for now, all you need to know is that the vi chord acts as what is known as a tonic substitute. What this means is that you could have played a I chord instead of a vi chord and the progression would have still worked. This is something we will discuss in the next tutorial in more details, so do not worry.
That about covers it for this lesson. In the next one, we are going to look at another useful chord progression and we will also talk about those chord substitutions in more detail. See you then.