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).