Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quit Hating On vi-IV-I-V


     The vi-IV-I-V chord progression in modern music is like that kid in high school that everyone hates. He's class president. He's an athletic star.  He's extremely socially intelligent, and has a wide circle of friends to prove it. Don't you just love to hate him? I mean, how dare he be everywhere you turn! How dare he be so popular! Never mind that he's smart, blends well in almost any situation and is pleasant to be around.
     I'm not one to hate on something because it's popular. Years ago I was into that, but I've grown up since. Among my songwriter peers, it's trendy in a non-conformist way to hate on what is probably the most commonly used chord progression in pop music of the last 20 years: vi-IV-I-V (and the same thing in different orders, like I-V-vi-IV). If you're not that well-versed in theory, but own a guitar or keyboard, vi-IV-I-V in the key of C would be Am-F-C-G.
     Let me just establish first that chord progressions are basically templates. They're meant to be drawn from a standard, informally established library of common combinations. The same is true for a collection of standard melodic fragments. There's a reason why you can't copyright a chord progression, or an 8-7-5 (scale degrees) figure. These elements exist to be used and reused, and thanks to the tone tendencies that are so vital to the way we intuitively appreciate music, there are a limited number of moves that we perceive as consonant and naturally flowing. Melodies (not cliche fragments) are copyrightable because we have available to us an infinite number of possible combinations of notes, variation points, space placement and rhythms. But the number of chord progressions that really work according to our modern, Western system are limited.
     According to our system, the vi-IV-I-V progression is inherently strong. It has just the right amount of tension and release to most ears. It's dramatic because 2 of the 3 chord changes are either a 4th or a 5th apart by the chords' root notes (IV to I, I to V), while another is a 2nd apart (V to vi), yet it's digestible because vi to IV is a 3rd apart (or 6th, same thing). A less dramatic chord progression would be I-iii-V-vi or C-Em-G-A, because all the chord changes are a 3rd apart, save for the V-vi being a 2nd apart. Something like this would work well for a purposely placid sounding ballad, but for the perfect amount of drama vs. comfort in an emotional power ballad, vi-IV-I-V is chosen because it almost always works. There's also the nice cliffhanger created by V being at the end of the phrase, but going to vi instead of I (which is the relative minor, and outlines the key) that makes this progression so delightfully repeatable.
     Finally, you can hate on cliches all you want, but there is something to be said about something reaching such a level of universal recognition and appreciation. Without cliches, our music would not have the familiarity that we crave as part of our human nature. Ever hear something on the radio, and it has this "home" feeling that draws you in? That's because you've heard bits and pieces of it before, and the familiarity combined with something new is comforting and exciting all at the same time. Of course this will vary from person to person, but I think it's safe to say that most people prefer more familiarity with only some new information. We're programmed to be like this.
     So really, quit hating on vi-IV-I-V, and quit hating on cliches. It really doesn't make you any cooler than the kid who thinks he's unique because he avoids Old Navy and hates on the nice popular dude (see South Park goth kids).


  1. Good topic, Jill! In general, I think this is a very good post and you're right on a few things, but obviously I disagree in a general sense.

    6415 is not like the class president - it's more like the person who does everything in their power to blend in - never says a word, wears the most neutral clothing possible, etc. Gives almost no information whatsoever about himself, ever, to anyone. Pleasant to be around, sure, I guess - in that it's like being around no one at all.

    "But the number of chord progressions that really work according to our modern, Western system are limited."

    Limited to like, 800 billion different combinations... but I think you just mean in the pop-music palette, which I think you do. There are still thousands if not millions of acceptable pop chord progressions. Look at the Beatles. Look at Bird & The Bee, They Might Be Giants, Queens of the Stone Age... there's absolutely no shortage of interesting chord progressions that still fit into the pop-music style.

    I know this comment's a bit long, but I really want you to read the following paragraph...

    When you're discussing why the 6-4-1-5 works so well, it seems like you fail to realize the largest reason why this progression (and other progressions like it - the 1645 was huge in the 60s, for instance) is so popular: that the 1, the 4, the 5 and the 6 are the MOST CONSONANT, (and therefore easiest to use) chords in existence. The 1 is the 1 - it's the root, obviously it's completely consonant. The 4 and 5 are extremely consonant, sharing the most overtones - no one would deny that they are, outside of the octaves, the MOST consonant notes available. Finally, the 6 as you know is the relative minor, meaning that all of the notes in its key are the same. Any song in C, you can resolve to Am; they're completely interchangeable.

    So the point is, these are the SAFEST chords that a person could possibly play. Meaning, if you don't know what you're doing and you just want to ramble some random diatonic notes, playing the 1, 5, 6 and 4 (in ANY order) is a safe bet. However, it ALSO means that these chords say the least, musically.

    That's NOT to say that there aren't some great songs that use these progressions; there absolutely are. I think a lot of my gripes with them is based on two things - over-use, and uncreative use.

    Expanding on "uncreative use" for a second, I really wish you had gone into HARMONIC RHYTHM - the rate at which chords change, because that's really a major major related problem. I wouldn't complain about 1-5-6-4 or 6-4-1-5 if it wasn't like, every song has completely homogenous harmonic rhythm (one bar per chord, FOR THE WHOLE SONG). Spicing up the rate at which chords change can make a boring song into something very very cool.

    I also think that you are making a mistake by saying that the distance between chords is what determines the level of drama... I think you can be extremely dramatic by just moving your chord up a half-step, for instance... but perhaps I mis-understood you on that point.

    Regarding cliches: everyone agrees that we need some level of recognizability, and balance that with creativity. It's just a matter of finding where the sweet spot is for you.

    "I'm not one to hate on something because it's popular. Years ago I was into that, but I've grown up since."

    You definitely want to avoid making statements like this. Another person could easily retort with "Well, I used to think like that also, and then later I thought like how you think now, but *now& I realized that I was right the first time."

  2. Just wanted to expand and respond to what Keith said - firstly, that both of you have great analyses of what makes this chord progression (and the I-V-vi-IV) work so well - the combination of extremely safe, consonant choices with a V chord that occurs either in the middle or the end of a phrase and always resolves deceptively.

    Jill, earlier today we talked about "Disarm," which is IMO one of the best uses of the vi-IV-I-V progression (which makes up the verse - the chorus, post-chorus, and interludes all use the same palette of chords, re-ordered). Most of the extensions used (vim7, IVadd9) are "safe" extensions, too, and for the most part the chords change every 4 counts (with some 8th-note displacements). So what makes it work, and what masks the safeness and conventionality of the progression?

    First, the melody - it makes good use of half-steps and intervallic relationship to the bass, and includes a lot of NCT's (non-chord tones, for any readers dropping by). The first notes of the melody follow the half-step movement from B to C that marks the vi-IV change (in G), and then land on the 6th of the I chord and the 9th and 7th of the V chord - which is given to us in inversion, and (sometimes) with a rub between the bass note (an F#) and the moving line, which begins a m9th above. This opening phrase is followed by a much weaker melodic statement ("cut that little child" - just a descending 3rd), but this statement is strengthened by its relationship to the bass movement - parallel fifths. This is followed again by lots of NCTs, and then when we get to "burned, burned, burned" the progression changes order - iv, IV, I, V6, and then......IV! And we hold the IV for another measure, taking us into the chorus....which holds the IV even longer and re-orders the chord progression as a IV-IV-vi-V.

    Suddenly we have a drastic shift in harmonic rhythm - and, as one hears when comparing chorus 1 to chorus 2, the creation of melodic negative space and then deletion upon reiteration. The last section does another re-ordering, this time as V-vi-IV-IV. What's cool about this is that only in the verse do we get tonic, and the verse sets up a harmonic rhythm that is totally shattered by the other sections.

    It's not just the intellectual exercise of re-ordering that works - the re-ordering, the placement of points of tension (C as pulling downward, D as pushing upward, Em as being an always-disappointing resolution of the D chord) reflects the changing moods of the song, while the holding of certain chords over the barline changes position within phrases to reflect whether the character is building tension, releasing tension, dwelling,'s smart writing. Also, it has those kettledrums, which are badass.

    Most songwriters, when employing such a stock progression, don't actually use its strength, so much as unthinkingly rely on it. It's important to note who's using it well + what melodic & rhythmic moves are holding our interests. It's also important to note how often the arrangement or our own emotional attachments to songs get in the way of our realizing how weak a song really is.

  3. I gotta go to bed, but I'll look at this more tomorrow, but let me just say that one's idea of the number of chord progressions that "work" is subjective. 800 billion may work for you, but for most people, the number is much smaller, and this is reflected in pop radio. You make a good point about vi-IV-I-V being most consonant, and consonance is important for accessibility (for most people). I appreciate some good dissonance (in sparse amounts, it is like a strong spice), but I'd rather too consonant than too dissonant.

    Read in a book by some Berklee guy that chord changes a 4th and 5th apart are "strongest", followed by a 2nd apart, with 3rd apart being weakest. I didn't look into all the theory behind it, but I played some chord progressions on the piano afterward to see if my intuition agreed, and it did.

    I meant that iv-IV-I-V is like the popular kid because of its, well, popularity. And that it's cool to hate it. I think that chord progressions SHOULD blend in for a pop song. I feel that this brings the focus more on the emotional and immediate (melody and lyrics), and away from the intellectual-ness (chords). In some cases I appreciate the intellectual-ness, but I love the idea of a song that sounds like pure inner monologue untainted by our logical thoughts (which is what weird chords convey to me). Music has always been, for me, more about the speaker and their inner monologue than about the physical/musicality of it.

    Anyway, I'm falling asleep, and I'm surprised you liked this post.

    And as far as your side note goes, what is the point of that?

  4. Andrew I can't read your whole post now, but I caught that last part, "It's also important to note how often the arrangement or our own emotional attachments to songs get in the way of our realizing how weak a song really is. "

    Actually I think the opposite, that our knowledge of theory and song craft can get in the way of truly feeling a song the way we were supposed to. Art is not about whether it's right to feel a certain way from a piece. It's about that you felt it, and you shouldn't be able to help it. You shouldn't have to justify why you like a song. If you're a songwriter, you want to think about why you like it and try to emulate it, but not about "I like this song for this reason. SHOULD I like it for this reason?"

    I can play a song acoustic and it could sound boring while the recorded, fully arranged version is enchanting. All it means is that the song is dependent on its arrangement, and so freaking what? Final product is all that should matter.

  5. Jill, this post is rife with bald, baseless assertions and, sorry to say, outright wrong information about the nature of tonal harmony. You didn't form any kind of demonstrative argument, all you did was choose an agenda, "attack people for disliking what I like," and construct a shoddy, rickety argument that might just trick a few people. I'm going to try and make sure that doesn't happen.

    First, what is cliché? You seem to be defining it as anything familiar to or reminiscent of something else used many times in a particular cultural context. I half-agree, but there's something we're missing here, so let's be clearer on our terms.

    A distinction must be drawn between a "cliché" and a principle, between a cliché and an idiom, and between a cliché and a trope.

    A principle is a basic guideline, a standard that seems to "work" throughout all human history. The same principles of writing can be seen in Greek tragedies to shakespeare to romantic comedies. However, those three examples are distinctly different idioms, and within each of those idioms, distinctly different "tropes" or conventions can be seen. They all have a protagonist, for example. This principle is something that consistently allows humans to emotionally connect with a story in a very efficient and eloquent way. While you will see protagonists in most narrative drama, we don't call that particular principle a "cliché."

    But what DO we call a cliche?

  6. Let's take the romantic comedy. What are the tropes we generally see? We see a crestfallen, single, flawed protagonist. He usually has a hard time with women(or men) and usually has a bunch of buddies help him get the girl. This particular setting for a romantic comedy is used a lot because it's a ripe "template" (as you put it) for drama. Another major climax trope in this genre is the part when the girl mistakingly catches the guy in bed with his cousin, but doesn't know it's his cousin. He tries to explain, but she storms out. We now have to watch him track her down and convince her everything is ok, but she's been struggling with the decision to transfer to another country for work, and she's at the airport! Drama and tension ensue!.

    Now... the difference between "cliché" and the sort of convention or familiarity you refer to is this: Within that scene, the "trope" is her walking in on the guy. The "cliche" will be found in the execution. It's up to the writer to introduce a fresh, original, engaging WAY to tell this all-too-well-told story.

    A creative re-imagining of this trope could be that he's burned his tongue badly tasting a romantic dinner he's cooking for the girl, and his cousin was teaching him how. They clamber in the kitchen for some first aid, but he ends up knocking the sauce on the floor, which drenches his pants in sauce. In an attempt to remove the scalding hot pants, he slips and smashes his head. He now has a concussion AND a burnt tongue, and he can barely speak. She takes him to his bed to lay him down, and she picks up a romance novel his girlfriend got him ironically to do a reading test to make sure he doesn't have a concussion. The girlfriend walks in, sees the mess in the kitchen and his pants. She then walks into the bedroom and sees him in the bed, the cousin is pointing at the book saying "read this part to me" and he's moaning out the words because of his burnt tongue. Have we seen this story before? Yes. Has it ever been told in that WAY? Maybe, but it's less likely.

    Now, a cliché telling of the story would be that the girl walks in, and he was hugging his cousin after a heartfelt talk. He sees her, gets up, and says "uh...HONEY! You're home early! it's not what it LOOKS LIKE!!"

    As an audience, we'd hear that dialogue, realize how uncreative, obvious, done-to-death and artistically naive it is, and collectively go "this sucks." THAT's a cliché... and that's.... BAD, Jill. Very bad!

    That's what clichés are. They are something that may have once been creative or culturally relevant but are no longer. They are used by hacks who lack craft. By people who simply don't have the vocabulary, education, cultural context or self-awareness to "tell the story in their own way." In pop music, that "story" involves a relatively simple harmonic palette, melodies that are lyrical and singable, and certain conventional pop instruments. THOSE are familiar conventions, tropes, principles. Not clichés. at this point in history, 6-4-1-5, LIKE the 1-6-4-5 in the fifties, has gone out of "familiar" and become "cliché." Is it still possible to breathe some life into that progression and make an original, YET familiar statement with it? Of course. However, since it's been SO milked dry as a cultural idiom, that baggage has made it considerably harder to pull off.

    I'll get into detail about your music theory errors in my next comment.

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  8. Onto Melodic and Harmonic considerations:

    Leonard Bernstein once asked "what IS melody?" and answered it with a popular definition, "the ordering of pitches into a meaningful and beautiful sequence."[paraphrased]

    This is where we run into problems. "meaningful" and "beautiful" are two very subjective terms. There are probably as many definitions for them as arguments about which is the right one. However, going back to my point about things that "work throughout all known time," there are as many tropes, techniques, genre and idiom considerations as well as crafts we, as artists, employ in melodic writing as do screenwriters into their romantic comedies. Things like sequencing, retrograde, augmentation, etc. It seems awfully sophomoric to lay out those terms we heard in music school, just as sophomoric as "metaphor, alliteration, symbolism, motif" would sound to an educated fiction writer. However, in both cases, these techniques ARE used, and have been throughout all known time.

    In melodies, why DO we tend to like appoggiaturas? (leap followed by step in the opposite direction) Why do we not like 2 intervals bigger than a 3rd sung in the same direction in a row? There are many opinions on why, and in my opinion it has to do with the harmonic series, but the fact is, this is the case.

    When you say "1-7-5" is one of a "few" melodic figures pop writers can choose from, well, you're just plain wrong. Many young, inexperience and craftless writers USE this ad infinitum, but it's because they know only the practice of hearing music they like and regurgitating bits and pieces from their intuition. In these "run-on" melodies I often allude to, you might find 1 or 2 interesting contours, 1 ow 2 good ideas, but not a cohesive, well-written sequence of notes. The melody, as a whole, fails to be "meaningful" in a certain sense (I know anything can be meaningful to anybody.)

    This is what I mean. Cliché is craftless, artless, arbitrary. It's the result of a tinkerer's hand, not an artist's. MANY artists, I'm sure, have used the 1-7-5 melodic figure and used it well, but it's because they understand their craft and can write melodies. There may be a few artists who have so much raw talent and ability that they can make a profound statement once in a while, but the only artists who release quality work time and time again are those who know their craft, doesn't matter the medium, be it music or any other art.

    So, there aren't a "limited number of moves that we perceive as consonant and naturally flowing." But there ARE a limited number of working young singer/songwriters who understand that melody writing is a discipline, just like screenwriting or painting. And, like in those other 2 mediums, a good deal of it is trial and error, experimentation, intuition, boldness and raw content. An artist takes that and subtracts, edits, refines. I...SINCERELY doubt Avril Levigne sits at a piano toiling over the PERFECT notes, the PERFECT transitions, the PERFECT climax. I'd be surprised if she even did second drafts.

    You disagree, I'm sure, with everything I say like always, but I hope this is at least starting to make sense.

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  11. ast one, Harmony:

    I'll have to read what this Berkley fellow wrote about chord change's order of dissonance being 5th, 4th, 2nd, then 3rd. If it's anything like the harmonic series, 2nds are more dissonant than 3rds, not less. But there may be something to what he says, I don't know.

    In any case, you refer to the "Drama" you get from this progression, and how it's perfectly tempered with the familiarity of it. You also say chords are " basically templates. They're meant to be drawn from a standard, informally established library of common combinations.[as well as melodies]" and that they're "meant" to and "must be" drawn from these "libraries" and reused? I'm sorry but where are you getting this "must?" And "library?"

    Harmony is a language. Harmonic progression is as fluid a thing as melody. Was the progression for "God only knows" in this "library" you speak of? Well, it was a top 10 hit, and is still resonating and being loved internationally to this day. Is that seriously how you see music composition? It is NOT a grab back of stock footage and stock sounds. We're not making an infomercial here, we're making art. We use principles, techniques, tropes and idioms that have worked and been internationally resonant for centuries. I quote a current book on 3 act structure I'm reading, "there is no 'formula.' There is only 'form."

    As to "tension," "drama?" Well, conventionally, "tension" we associate with dissonance. The soul of dissonance is the half step relationship. In the 6-4-1-5 there is TWO half steps, and that's the C in the C chord going down to the B of the G chord and the E going up to the F from Am to F. Doesn't seem very "balanced" to me. Sounds PRETTY heavy on the NO tension. That's the point. It's saccharine. It's tension-LESS. Drama-LESS, except in the most obvious and safe spots. It's like a movie with no conflict, a novel with no antagonist. It, like Keith said, wears the drab, "Old Navy" clothes. It sits in the corner, neither charming nor offending.

    a lot of young writers today don't take risks. They lack the vocabulary to take risks. It's not because this progression "works," beyond their limited ability to recognize its familiarity "Hey I've heard music that sounds like this!" It's a squirrel reaching in the dark for nuts. It's guesswork. It's pure intuition. intuition with no craft... well... you can listen if you want to. It simply bores me to death.

    Big distinction.

  12. 1-7-5 "must" not be used anymore than any other combination of notes. Like anything else, it's how you use it. the more artlessly regurgitated something is, though, the more baggage it carries, the more it runs the risk of going from the familiar to the cliche, and eventually to the parody and mockery stage. People mock hair metal, they mock a lot of country music, they mock a lot of emo. It's not because it's "cool to pick on the popular kid." It's because there are many kinds of popular kids. there's the popular kid YOU described, good at everything, kind, smart, handsome, well-liked, and then there's the popular kid who's popular because he has the newest gadget, and all his peers flock around him to see it. There's the popular kid who knows all the latest internet jokes, The popular kid who has a big screen TV. Eventually, this gadget gets old, his jokes get old, and his TV becomes obsolete. There was no SUBSTANCE to his popularity, only superficial value derived from someone and somewhere ELSE.

    So, you say Originality is overrated, and I say it's essential. You say Clichés are a good thing. I attempted to demonstrate that, while principles of convention are indeed good things, "cliché" in and of itself, is not. It's the opposite of craft, and as artists, craft is our language, our toolbox, our livelihood, and our means of communicating our soul to the world.

  13. Blake, I'm not saying that chord progressions *have to* be drawn from the informally existing library. I'm just saying it's there to be used, just like if you design clothes, it's perfectly acceptable to use pre-established cuts, shapes, fabrics, colors, etc. But you don't *have to*. You can still make up new cuts or colors or variations of them.

  14. This is a stupid article and discussion. Its meaningless and pedantic. I feel like all the energy dispelled on this topic should have been spent, trying not to write shitty songs.

  15. Ignoring Reason (in many senses) and plunging back in, I'd just like to say that knowing our own personal weaknesses as listeners is crucial. What I meant when I said that we can't trust our personal tastes can be perfectly illustrated by hanging out with any thirteen-year-old. Namely: they have no discernment. Some great stuff makes it in, some awful stuff makes it in, but the nature of adolescence is a hunger and obsession for certain types of music to claim as one's own and to identify with, and this desire trumps taste - because taste is still being formed.

    Part of growing up as a songwriter is finding what was great in the music you discarded during your formative listening years, and part of it lies in smashing your idols. In adulthood, I've realized that Billy Joel crafts well but is frequently insincere; that Eminem's stream-of-consciousness approach often leads to contradictions, hot buttons and non-sequitors that undermine his aim; that Styx is totally overblown, tasteless schlock.

    If you're a songwriter and you've reached your twenties without finding yourself immersed in a type of music totally foreign to you, and re-evaluating everything you've held dear, you're playing it too safe and you're not allowing yourself to grow.

    Smashing idols, man. It's where it's at.

  16. I dunno man. "Safe" is working well for me.

  17. That's not to say I'm closed-minded. I'm not. I'm just saying, I value the same things in music now as I did when I was 13 - accessibility, flow, structure... the inner monologue of the character with the environment (arrangement's) reaction. I didn't consciously understand song structure when I was 13, but intuitively, I did. I wasn't writing wonderfully structured songs at that time, but structured songs still felt more correct and more accessible to me.

    I have learned to appreciate other aesthetics and approaches, but what I originally loved is still my favorite.

    Like, I still hate jazz. I simply don't get the aesthetic (jazz seems to be a hugely encompassing term. I hate stuff that makes me feel like I'm listening to a bunch of math problems, and much of what jazz fans refer to as "groove" makes me *literally* nauseous). I can understand the jazz aesthetic *objectively*, but not emotionally. So am I going to torture myself listening to a bunch of jazz records that I hate and trying to force myself to like it and take something from it? No. It seems like that's what you're saying I should do. Correct me if I'm wrong.

  18. See, that's the thing - "Jazz" IS a hugely encompassing term. It covers so many styles of music with so many kinds of feel, so many kinds of rules. So much of jazz is very simple, actually.

    To put it another way: if we consider pop music to have started around the late 19th century, with sheet music sales and tin pan alley, and if we say that the traditions of what we consider tonal, formally structured music go back to the 18th or 17th century (I'm ignoring a few centuries here for the sake of there are like five people in the world who dig Renaissance music), and if we again note that within every genre are perhaps hundreds of sub-genres with literally hundreds of thousands of artists, a hundred or so of whom are worth listening to — if your listening comes almost exclusively from music made within a fifteen-year period, in two or three select sub-genres, with the same market in mind for each one, I think it's fair to say that you're not getting an especially well-rounded experience.

    Of course, to play devil's advocate, we could say that you're becoming a specialist.

  19. Argh sorry I have just not known what to write about lately.

  20. People like you, Jill who've grown up listening to mostly safe consonant music are the writers of today. And like their listeners, they really get every musical emotion out of a simple chord structure like the I-V-vi-IV progression. For me that's rather fascinating, because i hear nothing in it. please make sure to at least change the bass note, change the rythm structure a bit. I feel safe in the most mindblowing chord structures, and it's not to prove how intellectual i am, it's just how i was brought up to music.
    But the main thing is: please don't act like THIS time now would be like the highest purest form of music. some decades ago, people laughed and cried and had sex while listening to other chord structures, still pleased. same thing like some hundred years ago. music changes, but it doesn't get better and better. It's all about what you've gotten used to.
    excuse my english.