In the Loop

The ol' "I V vi IV" trick...

Posted at 9:48 AM on March 27, 2009 by Jeff Horwich (6 Comments)

A friend of ours posted this video on Facebook, and it's the first thing I started my morning with.

I love it:

It's a send up of the chord combination us music-theory dorks would refer to as "I V vi IV" (the "vi" is lowercase because it's a minor chord). In the key of C, it would C major, G major, A minor, F major.

My only gripe is that they left out perhaps the most influential example of all: Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry. And also pretty much anything by Jason Mraz. But all in all, this video is a thing of beauty.

It captures the fact that this chord cliche is sooooo hard to resist. When you sit down with a guitar, it just pops out -- perhaps because it is so driven into our brains by all the people who've used it before.

I have tried to avoid it when writing songs. When I do go there, I usually try to disguise it. Here's an example from our last Story Slam, in December:

Embed | Help

Here, "I V iv IV" becomes "I iii IV ii" (with some sevenths in there, but this is the basic idea on the verse). You can sub in the ol' standby, and it works just fine. And I'll admit: When I wrote this puppy, I was listening to a bunch of Jason Mraz because I had to learn some for a wedding. (Here's a link to download that song, Small Christmas, if you want.)

Then there's this one:

Embed | Help

Here I left it more obvious on the first pass, but then mixed up the changes each time it came around. "I V vi IV" became "I V ii IV" became "vi iii IV ii" became "vi iii ii IV," or something like that. It actually doesn't matter what combination I play, as long as I mix it up -- it still works (though my habit of doing this is some frustration to The Smarts, I think.) BTW/ here's another download link for that tune.

What's amazing about that video is how many successful songs make NO attempt to disguise it at all (maybe that's my problem? :-) It proves that the bulk of music is not bought by snobby music theory dorks, that's for sure. And it proves that there must indeed be something magical about I V vi IV.


Comments (6)

Great post. maybe this progression is like the twelve bar blues of rock music.

Here's something I, as a wannabe music theory dork, have never understood. Why (or when did this happen) does pop music use IV as a "dominant" and not V, like most other tonal music?

Is it because guitar strings are arranged in fourths?

Posted by Alex Coppock | March 27, 2009 11:10 AM

The Only Ones, "Another Girl, Another Planet"

Posted by Mac Wilson | March 27, 2009 4:10 PM


definitely forward to all of my music dork friends. they'll like it too.

Posted by Elizabeth T | March 28, 2009 12:17 AM

The live version doesn't give the song titles, but it's funnier to watch:

Posted by Joanna | March 28, 2009 12:52 PM

I listen to folk music almost exclusively, and there's a genre kept as simple as possible. Never gets old, though, 'cause the songwriters always have something to say.

Y'know, in America we reflexively label ourselves as failures when everything we do is not innovation. How silly is that? Take formed poetry -- take the haiku. The whole point is to take a standard (easy to use, easy to remember) form and make it say something new. I'm not gonna claim that pop music is high art, but it is valid creative expression. Obviously, it's not impossible to write a great haiku. It's not impossible to write a great song in I V vi IV...provided you have something to say. (That, incidentally, is my criticism of pop music, not its musical structure.)

I mean, despite what the jazz guitarists would have us think, there are only so many chords, and only so many ways to combine those chords that are pleasant to a human ear. The point is not to do it differently; the point is to do it well.

Posted by Sarah M | March 30, 2009 12:44 PM

In my book, this is the definitive send up of I V vi IV...

Posted by Joe | March 30, 2009 3:02 PM

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