VII. Popular Music

4-chord schemas

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

Chapter Playlist

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

Doo-wop

Example 1 shows music notation, chord symbols, and Roman numerals for the :  I–vi–IV–V, or C–Am–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 the fact that it was was very common 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 be found starting on a different chord in the cycle and then proceeding 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 their phrases begin on IV rather than I (Example 2).

Example 2. “Viva la Vida” uses the doo-wop progression, but rotates it to start on IV rather than I. The chords still progress in the same order.

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 Am–F–C–G in C major. But this is not the only Roman numeral sequence you might use to understand this schema, because it is exceedingly common in two rotations. 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 has two rotations that are equally common. The schema is tonally ambiguous, meaning it can be interpreted in either its relative major or relative minor.

Like the 50s doo-wop, this is a four-chord cyclical progression. It has been around for some time but became increasingly common beginning in the mid-1990s with singer/songwriters such as Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, and Joan Osborne, though the chord progression can be found in a variety of musical styles.

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, Bm–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. 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, which chords in the cycle begin and end it, and the important pitches of the melody (Example 4).

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).

timestamp section progression (chord symbols) progression (Roman numerals) implied key
0:00 intro Dm–C–B♭–C over D pedal i–VII–VI-VII over tonic pedal D minor
0:23 verse Dm–B♭–F–C vi–IV–I–V
or
i–VI–III–VII
ambiguous between D minor and F major
1:10 chorus F/A–Bb–C I6–IV–V F major
1:33 interlude Dm–C–B♭–C over D pedal i–VII–VI-VII over tonic pedal D minor
1:44 verse Dm–B♭–F–C vi–IV–I–V
or
i–VI–III–VII
ambiguous between D minor and F major
2:08 chorus F/A–B♭–C I6–IV–V F major
2:29 bridge (guitar solo) B♭–C IV–V F major
2:53 chorus F/A–B♭–C I6–IV–V F major
3:11 coda B♭–C–D over D pedal ♭VI–♭VII–I over tonic pedal D major

Example 5. "What about Love" by Heart exploits the singer/songwriter schema's tonal ambiguity to link between a minor-mode intro and a major-mode chorus.

Rotations

As discussed above, starting the progression on I or vi are two equally common of this schema. 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 deceptive 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–Am–C, either Am 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 is tonally ambiguous, and can be interpreted in either its relative major or minor keys. The “hopscotch” name refers to the root motion in the chord progression, which proceeds step-step-skip, as shown by the annotations.

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 raises scale-degree 7 to become the , while the subtonic VII chord uses the natural scale-degree 7. 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. A common alteration to the hopscotch schema is to replace VII with V. This means the G of the VII is replaced with the G-sharp of the V chord. The root and bass motion also changes (left), although sometimes, artists will invert the V chord, creating a more stepwise bassline that is more akin to the regular hopscotch schema (right).

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 , the same as what is used 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 cadence traditional cadence).

Even if you think the real tonic is the minor tonic, listening to the approach of the major tonic will help distinguish among these four-chord schema options. Listening to the approach of 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

License

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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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