VII. Popular Music

Classical Schemas (in a Pop Context)

Bryn Hughes and Kris Shaffer

Key Takeaways

The schemas discussed in this chapter are all based on those often found in common-practice music.

  • The lament schema is a four-chord schema that descends down the minor tetrachord from the tonic to the dominant: dotelesol [latex](\hat1-\downarrow\hat7-\downarrow\hat6-\hat5)[/latex]. Most typically, this is harmonized by I–♭VII–♭VI–V, however, te [latex](\downarrow\hat7)[/latex] can be harmonized in numerous ways.
  • The circle-of-fifths schema is at least four chords in length, and it consists of chords whose roots descend by perfect fifth. This schema has many possible variations and does not necessarily start on the tonic.

Chapter Playlist


The “lament” progression is so named because in early classical music, this chord progression (almost always in minor) was used as the ground bass for songs of lament. Examples include “Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell, from the opera Dido and Aeneas, and J.S. Bach’s “Crucifixus,” from his Mass in B Minor. For more on those classical cases, see the Ground Bass chapter.

Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” provides a classic example of the lament in a pop/rock setting (Example 1). The phrase descends through the minor tetrachord dotelesol [latex](\hat1-\downarrow\hat7-\downarrow\hat6-\hat5)[/latex] and is harmonized with diatonic triads: I–♭VII–♭VI–V. The middle two chords are syncopated and given less duration in order to make room for the seventh to be added to the dominant chord at the end of the phrase, which provides a turnaround to repeat the chord progression.

Example 1. Dire Straits, Sultans of Swing” (1978)

Example 2 shows the opening of the verse in Muse’s “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist.” Importantly, note that te [latex](\downarrow\hat7)[/latex] is harmonized by a B♭ major chord in second inversion. One may interpret this as a III chord in second inversion or, as is shown in the transcription, a VII chord embellished with two upper neighbor notes.

Example 2. Muse, “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist” (2004)


In this schema, each chord’s root moves down by fifth to the next root. This progression often happens in minor, beginning on i and ending on the relative major. Like the “singer/songwriter” progression, there is some key ambiguity in this progression, as the starting chord is easily considered tonic, but the motion from VII to III can easily be heard as V–I in the relative major key. And indeed, it can be used to move from the relative minor to the relative major.

The chorus of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” provides a somewhat tonally ambiguous example of the circle-of-fifths schema (see Example 3).

Example 3. Aqua, “Barbie Girl” (1997). 

The verse of Muse’s “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist” also includes a four-chord circle-of-fifths schema, immediately following the lament discussed above. This progression immediately repeats, returning to the initial minor key. However, the second time through, this lament–circle-of-fifths pattern leads to a chorus in the relative major (taking the III chord as the new tonic).

Longer examples of the circle-of-fifths schema can be found in pop/rock music, too.

Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” (Example 5) presents a slightly more complex instance of a circle-of-fifths schema. Here we get a chromatic sequence of the schema, in which each pair of fifth-related chords functions locally as an applied ii–V progression of the following chord, much like the applied ii–V progressions found in jazz. Like “Barbie Girl,” “You and Whose Army?” is tonally ambiguous. The circle-of-fifths schema propels the music forward, without ever strongly confirming the tonic. Both E major and C♯ minor are viable interpretations, and thus have both been provided in the analysis below.

Example 5. Radiohead, “You and Whose Army?” (2004).

  1. Classical schemas (.pdf, .docx). Asks students to identify the chord progressions of various songs that use classical schemas. Worksheet playlist
  2. Identifying schemas (.pdf, .docx). Asks students to identify schemas in pop songs from a wide pool of possibilities, including blues-based schemas, four-chord schemas, puff schemas, and classical schemas. Worksheet playlist


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

OPEN MUSIC THEORY Copyright © 2023 by Bryn Hughes and Kris Shaffer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book