VII. Popular Music

Megan Lavengood and Bryn Hughes

Key Takeaways

I, IV, V, and vi are the most common harmonies in pop music, and they can be arranged into several , each with a distinct sound. Each schema can have variations, such as or , while still remaining recognizable as that schema.

  • The  is I–vi–IV–V, and it was common in 1960s pop music. Common variations:
    • I–vi–ii–V (ii substitutes for IV)
    • IV–V–I–vi (rotation)
  • The is vi–IV–I–V or I–V–vi–IV, and it was common in 1990s singer/songwriter music. It can also be understood in its relative minor: i–VI–III–VII. A common variation is IV–I–V–vi (rotation).
  • The is IV–V–vi–I, and it is common in recent pop music (since 2010). It can also be understood in its relative minor: VI–VII–i–III. A common variation is VI–V–i–III (V substitutes for VII in minor).

Chapter Playlist

The progressions discussed in this chapter all have something in common. They use the same four chords: I, IV, V, and vi, which are probably the most common chords in all of pop music. Because of this, they all sound somewhat similar; the difference is in the order of the chords.

Doo-wop

Example 1 shows music notation, chord symbols, and Roman numerals for the :  I–vi–IV–V, or C–Ami–F–G in C major.

Example 1. The doo-wop schema (left) and a common variation of it that replaces IV with ii (right).

The name for this cyclical chord progression comes from its common use in rock ballads from the 1950s and early 1960s, such as  “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler (1962). However, it has continued to be used frequently ever since: examples include the verse and chorus of “Friday” by Rebecca Black (2011) and the chorus of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler (1983) (starts at 0:49).

Substituting ii for IV

Because ii and IV share the same in this chord progression, ii can be swapped out for IV, as in Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” (1966).

Rotation

Because the doo-wop schema is typically employed in cycles, it can also start on a different chord in the cycle and then proceed through the same succession of chords (). For example, “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay (2008) works through a cyclical repetition of the same succession of chords, but the phrases begin on IV rather than I (Example 2).

Example 2. Rotated doo-wop progression in Coldplay, “Viva la Vida.”

Singer/Songwriter

The may be the best known of all the four-chord schemas. A common Roman numeral analysis for this schema is vi–IV–I–V, or Ami–F–C–G in C major, but the rotation starting with I is also exceedingly common. On top of that, either rotation may be understood as having either the major tonic or the relative minor tonic. This is best understood through Example 3.

Example 3. The singer/songwriter schema in its two common rotations.

Like the 1950s doo-wop, this is a four-chord cyclical progression. It has been around for some time and can be found in a variety of musical styles, but it became increasingly common beginning in the mid-1990s with singer/songwriters such as Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, and Joan Osborne,

Tonal ambiguity

One important feature of this progression is that it does not, on its own, clearly communicate a definitive tonic chord. This property is known as . An example is “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (2017). The chord progression, Bmi–G–D–A, can sound like vi–IV–I–V in D major or like i–VI–III–VII in B minor to different listeners (Example 4). One reason the singer/songwriter schema is ambiguous is because there is no authentic cadence: the two potential cadential motions are either plagal (IV–I) or stepwise (VII–i). Without a strong harmonic cadence, listeners might only be able to determine the tonic chord—if at all—by the progressions before and after the singer/songwriter schema, which chords in the cycle begin and end it, and the important pitches of the melody.

Example 4. Both D major and B minor are plausible tonic chords for “Despacito” because of its use of the tonally ambiguous singer/songwriter schema.

In fact, some songwriters take advantage of this duality in songs that modulate back and forth between relative major and minor keys, as well as in songs with some parallel ambiguity in the text (hence its usefulness for those mid-1990s songwriters). An example is “What About Love” by Heart (1982), which has an obvious D minor intro, a D minor/F major verse (begins at 0:23) using the singer/songwriter progression, and a chorus obviously in F major (begins at 1:10)—listen while following along with the chart below (Example 5).

[table id=6 /]

Rotations

As discussed above, this schema has two equally common  that start the progression on I and vi. From time to time, the singer/songwriter progression might also begin on the IV chord, resulting in a “deceptive” variant of this progression that ends with V–vi—a cadence (IV–I–V–vi). The chorus (starts at 1:11) of “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga (2009) uses this rotation of the singer/songwriter schema.

Hopscotch

In recent years (since about 2010), another type of four-chord schema has become increasingly common: IV–V–vi–I, or VI–VII–i–III in minor.  Examples include “Dancing with a Stranger” by Sam Smith (2019) and “No Brainer” by DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, and Quavo (2018). We will refer to this as the because of its root motion: step, step, skip.

Like the , the hopscotch schema can be . In other words, in the progression F–G–Ami–C, either Ami or C might sound like tonic (Example 6). There is often no definitive cadential motion, especially moving into the C chord.


Example 6. The hopscotch schema, with annotations showing the “step-step-skip” pattern.

Replacing VII in minor with V

An especially common harmonic substitution that encourages a minor-mode interpretation of the hopscotch schema is to replace the subtonic VII chord with the major V chord, so that VI–VII–i–III becomes VI–V–i–III. One song that does this is “Nightmare” by Halsey (2019). Although these chords have the same harmonic , the two chords have quite distinct colors, since the major V chord in minor uses ti [latex](\hat7)[/latex] while VII uses te [latex](\downarrow\hat7)[/latex]. Some songs, like “Mixed Personalities” by YNW Melly, invert this V chord, which allows the bass motion of the hopscotch schema to stay the same (step-step-skip) even though the has changed (Example 7).

Example 7. The hopscotch schema with V replacing VII, meaning the G of the VII is replaced with the G♯ of the V chord.

Recognizing by Ear

All of these four-chord schemas sound similar to one another, since they all use I, IV, V, and vi. All the schemas can be rotated, so it’s not simply a matter of seeing where the progression begins and ends! Instead, try listening to how the major tonic is approached (Example 8).

 


Example 8. Each schema approaches the major tonic from a different chord.

  • In the doo-wop schema, the tonic is approached with very traditional , as in classical music.
  • In the singer/songwriter schema, the major tonic is approached with .
  • In the hopscotch schema, the major tonic is approached by a skip (not related to any traditional cadence).

Even if you think the real tonic is the minor tonic, listening to the approach to the major tonic will help distinguish among these four-chord schema options. Listening to the approach to the minor tonic may not be helpful, since both the singer/songwriter and the hopscotch schemas approach the minor tonic by step.

Further reading
Assignments
  1. Identifying Four-Chord Schemas (.pdf, .docx). Students must identify which schema is used in a number of songs, each of which clearly presents the schema. Worksheet playlist
  2. Variations on Four-Chord Schemas (.pdf, .docx). Using songs that put slight variations on the schemas discussed in this chapter, asks students to identify schemas and variations on the schemas. Worksheet playlist

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Megan Lavengood and Bryn Hughes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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