VIII. Popular Music

Puff schemas

Megan Lavengood and Bryn Hughes

Key Takeaways

  • Puff schemas are based on a I–iii–IV progression.
  • Common variations:
    • I–III♯–IV
    • i–III–iv

While many of the schemas discussed in other chapters are commonly used as repeating , others are more often used as a building block within a goal-oriented phrase. Puff schemas, which use the mediant triad (iii), are one such schema. The name comes from its use at the outset of phrases in the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary (1963).

Lead sheet A C♯ D A
Lyrics Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea.
Roman numerals I iii IV I

Example 1. The puff schema begins most of the phrases in “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”

The puff schema is typically found in the opening of phrases, as it is here (Example 1). Again, the puff schema is not typically looped, so the chords that come after the IV chord can vary. In “Puff,” the fourth chord is I. But in “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye, the IV chord progresses to V (Example 2). “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals (1964) is an example of the puff schema in a minor-key song (Example 3); a major IV progresses to VI in this song. This shows an example of how the puff schema can involve varied chord quality.

Lead sheet E♭ Gm7 A♭ A♭/B♭
Lyrics ………I’ve been really tryin, baby
Roman numerals I iii7 IV V11

Example 2. “Let’s Get It On”’s phrases begin with a puff schema before finishing with a V–I motion.

Lead sheet Am          C D          F Am         C E
Lyrics There is  a house in New Orleans they call   the Rising Sun
Roman numerals i             III IV          VI i            III V                    

Example 3. “House of the Rising Sun” uses the puff schema in minor. The IV chord is also major instead of the typical minor.


One particularly common chromatic variant of the puff schema is I–III♯–IV. This progression   is prominently featured in Radiohead’s debut single, “Creep” (1993). It combines the puff schema with a plagal schema with mode mixture (Example 4).

Lead sheet G B C Cm
Lyrics When you were here before couldn’t look you in the eye. You’re just like an angel; your skin makes me cry.
Roman numerals I III♯ IV iv

Example 4. ”Creep” by Radiohead alters the iii chord of the puff schema by raising the third to make it a major III♯ chord.

Raising the third of the iii chord by a half step changes iii to a major III♯ chord. This leads nicely into the IV chord because the chromatic tone, scale-degree ♯5, resolves upward by half-step to scale-degree 6 (Example 5).

[example here]

III♯–IV as deceptive motion

In many cases, a III♯ chord should be interpreted as an applied chord: a V/vi. The III♯ chord, acting as V/vi, does sound good when followed by vi. A progression like C–E–Am–F can be understood as a variation on the singer/songwriter schema, in which a V/vi replaces the V chord.

Especially in a song that uses a progression like C–E–Am–F, a progression that moves from E straight to F could be understood as deceptively resolving the III♯ chord:

  • E–Am is a V–i progression in the key of Am.
  • Am is vi in the key of C major, so in C major, we can analyze E–Am as V/vi–vi.
  • E–F is a V–VI progression in the key of Am, a deceptive resolution of the V chord.
  • In C major, E–F may still sound like a deceptive resolution of the V/vi chord.

The play between deceptive and authentic resolutions of III♯ as a V/vi chord is a remarkable feature of the progressions used in “Weekend Wars” by MGMT (2007). Setting up the puff schema with an authentic V/vi–vi progression prepares the listener to experience the puff progression as a deceptive resolution (Example 6).

authentic resolution puff schema:
deceptive resolution
Lead sheet A/C♯ Dm C/E     F A                    B♭
Lyrics … Instant battle plans written on the sidewalk
Roman numerals V6/vi   vi   V6      I V/vi                 vi/vi
(or III♯          IV)

Example 6. “Weekend Wars” by MGMT makes the puff schema sound like a deceptive resolution of a V/vi chord. 

Further Reading
  • Doll, Christopher. 2017. Hearing Harmony: Toward a Tonal Theory for the Rock Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Worksheet on puff schemas (.pdf, .docx). Asks students to identify the chord progressions of various songs that use the puff schema. Worksheet playlist


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