Friday, June 12, 2009

The 2 most overused chord progressions in pop music today

A list of 10 overused chord progressions -- and a manifesto -- in this post on by "chrisjh," a music undergrad:

While certainly some of these chord progressions were revolutionary and are still key in reproducing some of today's most classic genres, we'd still like certain genres of music to move forward. . . . I have a feeling that although new chord progressions might sound weird at first, with enough use we'd easily attach an emotion or mood to them, just as we did to the blues and to the 50's bebop progression — I bet if the 4 chord blues were played in the 17th century, everyone'd think it was odd and dissonant crap.
Here are the two chord progressions that I think have become most worn-out in the popular music of the last few years (the first of which is in chrisjh's list):

Progression #1

 I - V - vi - IV. If you're in the key of C, this is C - G - A minor - F.

A classic example is U2's "With or Without You":

Someone asked about this progression in this AskMetafilter thread, which contains some detailed analyses (including mine). That thread links to this YouTube clip that brilliantly reveals the monotony of so much popular music:

The progression has its place — it's beautiful in "With or Without You" and "Let It Be." I also like it in the songs by Michael Jackson, Bush, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in that clip — all from at least 15 years ago. But recently, this chord progression and the next one have so thoroughly infected pop music that I find it hard to take today's top 40 seriously.

Progression #2

i - VI - III - VII. In the key of A minor, this is A minor - F - C - G.

Here's a whole article about it, which calls it the "Sensitive Female Chord Progression" and suggests that you can identify it by trying to sing Joan Osborne's "One of Us" over it:

Progressions #1 and #2 are closely related: you can play each one by starting halfway into the other one (i.e. starting with the 3rd of the 4 chords) and looping back to the beginning.

Between these two chord progressions, you can easily write a whole radio station's worth of hits -- as long as you don't mind if music stays in the same place rather than evolving. Even when an artist as eclectic as Regina Spektor relies on these progressions (#1 in "On the Radio," #2 in her new "Blue Lips"), the result can be wearying.


Johnny said...

I about lost it when they snuck "Down Under" in there...that just stood out as hilarious to me!

Anyway, I think an even bigger problem is rhythm and arrangement. Progressions are almost always four bar progressions (even in odd times) where the chord changes happen on beat 1 or land on a strong beat. So in addition to experimenting with less predictable progressions, there should also be more experimentation with where the chord changes happen rhythmically.

And maybe the verse/chorus/bridge structure has about run its course as well! In the end, modern music has just become too simplistic. But it really always has been, with some exceptions. It's interesting to contemplate the idea that classical and jazz were once considered to be "popular music." Why can't today's pop be as sophisticated? Certainly classical and jazz had emotional colors that moved people -- even in all their sophistication. Imagine the complexity of classical music with the rhythm of modern music being a basis for vocal music. And I'm not talking prog...

Anonymous said...

Lame, its not about the chords its about feeling emotion melody ... by stating what you are your making it technical and sure technically the same 4 chords for every song would look boring.. its not the colours you use its the painting you've painted.

Anonymous said...

There are only 7 chords to each major/minor scale. Obviously you are going to get rehashed progressions.

Even with keychanges/modulation you are still limited as to where you can go.

Saying you are sick of the same progressions is like saying you're sick of only having A-G.

It's not what chords, key, or progression you use. It's how you use it.

WC said...

To the Anonymous's,

There was a group called the Beatles who clearly felt that being harmonically interesting was very important (and the memorability of their songs would attest to validity of that belief), as you can see by even a very quick look through this website.

Cliche chord sequences may be difficult to avoid, but the problem is not using the sequence - it's using it so that it SOUNDS cliche.

For example, the Beatles song "I'll Get You" makes use of the classic 50's I-vi-IV-V (think "Stand By Me", but by surrounding it with other chords the Beatles are able to paint a picture that doesn't sound AT ALL like 50's doo wop.

Saying "Nothing wrong with using the same chord cliches over and over" is like saying "nothing wrong with only painting in red, blue, and yellow."

No, nothing wrong - but you're missing out on a ton of emotional possibility by not mixing colors.

Peter said...

One of my favorite songs, Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" is essentially both these progressions put together:

C G Am F C G

Anonymous said...

to all the people defending these over used chord progressions, please dont. sure we only have A-G but with major, minor, 7th, flats and sharps, and the hundreds of variations on the chords, we can achieve so many different tones. unlike what people are saying, you are never limited, look at the bebop musicians, like Charlie Parker, he did and went anywhere he pleased musically. and REALLY,the Beatles clearly WERE harmonically interesting. when they used these progressions it was new. please musicians of the future, dont let creative minds go stale.

Anonymous said...

Here's another chord progression from the german Johann Pachelbel (17th century) which was copied endlessly.

Anonymous said...

Sorry here are the chords
D – A – Bm – F#m / G – D – G – A

fillopastry said...

I don't think theres anything wrong with these progressions. There's something about the tension and release in the progression that make it so satisfying to hear especially in the chorus, especially if you've kept the chord tones quite ambiguous with everything pre-ceding the chorus.

i think whats important to note is, that as previous posters have mentioned, its not the colours that you use but the picture you paint.

They may be over used in pop music, but how many people can actually write a song using these chords with a memorable, orignal top line melody and great lyrics, so much so that the song resonates and connects with thousands, even millions of people all of the world.

I can imagine this is no easy task. Just because you know the "money" chord progression (what I like to call it :) doesn't mean you can write a hit song. There's just too many other elements to consider.

Also I think its fair to say that pop music has its name for a reason. Its "pop" because it popular with so many people.

Unlike some of us who have musical backgrounds, the general public don't want to hear music that is too challenging.

If Jazz music became "pop" then someone would probably be posting a blog about "the ten most overused chords progressions in jazz", and people would be saying, "why can't someone just play a straight 1, 5, 6, 4 progression? I'm sick of all these 7th 9th, etc chords!"

Moss said...

The reverse of these chord progressions is very popular these days too. I-IV-VI-V. For example, New Soul and Wavin' Flag, to name but two.

Russ said...

Writing has become purely song-smithing. Every time I hear these same four chords, I sing other tunes to them but unfortunately, non-musicians don't get it. The best musicians/artists earn respect from fellow musicians while the same four chord ripoffs are only designed to make money. Example is Cher's big hit Do you Believe in Life After Love. I sang Katy Perry's You're Hot and You're Cold to it yet nobody agreed that one is a ripoff of the other. So, as long as the public buys plagerism, it will continue. lack of imagination and effort is rewarded with sales. I mean, listen to Jason Mraz and Train. Train's rippoff, Soul Sister of Mraz's Can't Wait is so obvious to any musician but amazingly, one followed the other and both were huge hits. What does this say about copy-cating? It pays! bad for music!

Russ said...

I found this thread after searching. I KNOW other musicians must be fuming like I do everytime I hear the same old garbage being called "a latest hit".
The Beatles????? Every song they ever did was not only unique from other music, but from their own! It was artistry and effort and a standard of excellence that separated them. The doowopp era stagnated music bigtime, and I do see the parallel today. Just wait: Someone will blow everybody's mind in the next few years and Gmaj-Dmaj-Em-CMaj "instant emotion" formula will be dead. My daughter asked about Let It Be.....I said, um yea, same chords but the writer was a freak'n genius and the song still stands as totally unique sounding. There was SUBSTANCE behind the writing. Now, it's all production trickery, with nothing else in the underlying "song". I mean autotune has even eliminated the performance aspect from deserving a nod.

I did like U2's use of the progression and definitely Journey's use as well (we all know which songs I'm talking about here because non-musicians have no clue all this even occurs). And the fact that Rolling in the Deep is a ripoff of Gimme Shelter doesn't negate the value because at least Adele had a really neat and unique sound. Sometimes exceptional performances allow for the borrowing of song substance.

OK, I said my piece. At least whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, you know what I am talking about! It is VERY frustrating to point this out to listeners who argue with me because they fail to understand that the same four chords are being used over and over. To me, it is not only a lack of ability and imagination that leads to this situation in music, but the fact that consumers have no clue that it is happening.

Anonymous said...

You know you got your chords all wrong in the second progression? It's supposed to be: vi - IV - I - V...

John Althouse Cohen said...

No, they're correct for a minor key, with the first chord being the tonic. You're assuming it's a major key and the tonic is the third chord.

Anonymous said...

You're right... But it's not plagiarism. It's a classic progression that EVERYONE unfortunately uses. That's like saying painting with the color red is plagiarism.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, all these petty non-musicians have NO CLUE.

Andé D'Mello said...

Ironically I found this while looking around for pop songs that use unusual chord progressions but I found this interesting (and the Axis of Awesome video was funny)

As others have said, it's not the chords you use; it's how you use them. What makes With or Without You so much better than a lot of other songs that use that progression? If the song has been written by some professional songwriters in a studio, feigning emotion in their writing so they can give it to the next beautiful female artist the label has thrown at them then it's going to come out as cold crap.

There have been some great uses of this progression in recent years though. A good example is Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap. Even without the vocoder it's a brilliantly written song (because let's face it; an interesting arrangement doesn't make an interesting song).

Anonymous said...

The examples you list make this a good post for wannabe songwriters who aren't too familiar with music theory. Even if we don't get the whole roman numeral thing, we do know what 'with or without you' sounds like. That makes sense to my ears, and that's what music is all about, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to go off topic, but my favorite thing to do is create chord progressions based on patterns. And if you use chromatic harmony (like secondary dominants) you can create cool chromatic bass lines.

Anonymous said...

Change the second progression (i VI III VII). You're basing chord numbers on the relative minor, but chords are generally written in the major numbering regardless of key and it will confuse people. It should read vi IV I V.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I'm not basing it on the relative minor. I'm basing it on the actual key. The relative minor is when you're in a major key but temporarily switch to the minor key having the same notes. I don't think it's correctly to say that a song that's entirely in a minor key and starts on the tonic starts on "vi."

Anonymous said...

This is retarded, if it was that easy to write a radio station worth of hits, you would have them written already, and you'd be writing more, instead of writing a blog. I did just want to comment "Dominant 7th" but i think i'll elaborate. By understanding the harmonic sequence of a single key being struck on a piano, you would understand harmony and how the major chord comes from the first 4 harmonics of the strings vibrations. Hence why it's harmonious. The most dominant harmonic in the sequence, gives us a note a fifth away from the fundamental. By striking the fifth note, it gives us it's own set of harmonics, i.e. the major chord, the dominant harmonic is again a fifth away. This would give us C, G, D, and so on up the keys untill you hit F and back to C. The major third of the fifth chord gives us a note that is known as the leading note, residing one semitone below the first key, that wishes to gravitate back to the first root key that was struck. Dominant is another word for leading. So the V chord leads us back to the I chord. Knowing that there's a strong connection to notes and chords that are a fifth apart, we can see from moving up the keys that the fifth below the fundamental has the fundamental as it's dominant harmonic, i.e. F to C(IV to I). So if the V chord leads to the I chord, then the I chord leads to the chord a fifth below it, the IV chord or the Sub-Dominant chord. Therefore the I chord leads to the IV chord and to get back home to the I chord instead of falling down all the keys by fifths, taking us out of the original key which was defined be the first harmonic sequence of the root note, we move to the dominant or V chord as it's the only chord (within the key) with the power to lead you back home to the I chord. The dominant 7th chords hold the power to also clearly demonstrate what the root key is, because from the scale built from the harmonic series we get many instances of each interval within the scale except, we only get one instance of the tritone interval, or augmented 4th as it's also known, and this interval only appears in one chord within each key, and that chord is the Dominant7th or 7th chord as its known in pop, jazz, classical, heavy metal, hip hop, etc. To explain the minor chord i would recommend researching Arnold Schoenberg's over-hang and under-hang harmonic series. The reason these chord progressions are used have more to do with the physiology or the ear and the way the physical world vibrates with rational number and simple ratios. Pop music is arguable more sophisticated and less limited than the restricted composers of the classical period. A pop writer can put a story as complex as Wagner's 9 day opera in a 3 minute time frame. I mean Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a novel in 6 words, "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn," an epic story of heart break and acceptance.

Anonymous said...

The second one is the same as the first one, only starting from bar 3.

Anonymous said...

Major scales tend to be more rigid than minor scales and since most songs are written in major keys, you will have a lot of the same progression. Wanna sound different, use a minor scale. I want to correct an earlier remark about only 7 chords. Technically yes but minor scales can be harmonic or melodic and that changes things. In a harmonic minor, you introduce a second diminished chord (normally in either major of minor there is just one; #2 in a minor scale and 7 in a major scale. This is caused by rasing the 7th note, the subtonic a half step making it a leading tone. Also if you add a root to this second diminished chord you get a dominant 7th.

I recently wrote a song in the harmonic minor scale. it contains three different seventh chords and two different diminished chords (they are also different types of each). Can't really do that in a major scale.

Unknown said...

I write hard rock and metal, and i'm always trying to push the boundaries to stay fresh. try this progression, i used it to envoke a feeling of space. F#m-D-Db7-E-F

Unknown said...

This is an interesting discussion, and you have a point, but I wouldn't labour it too strongly.
I echo some of the previously made comments:
1. that we are talking pop here, which by definition cannot be overly challenging to most people's ears
2. there is a lot more to making a "good" pop record than laying down a I VI VI V (or whatever)
3 if it's that easy to do, please go ahead and do it, to prove it
4 a good melody can very well disguise or distract from the chords that sit underneath it
5 it's not just the progression, it's how it's used; in particular you have (as has been mentioned) timing issues, but you also have inversions, and you also have different bass roots (e.g. C/G chord).
There are so many ways to do it.
Sure, there's a lot of lame stuff around, but perhaps more in stuff like trance (especially considering you can just whack an arpegiattor on a chord and get away with it) than on mainstream pop.
Good discussion though.

Anonymous said...

It's definitely unfair to label all pop music using these common progressions as 'plagiarism'. There is a lot of, in my opinion, garbage music being mass produced to make as much money as possible with a formula that currently sells. That's why they call it the music business. Every industry (eg. Fashion, food..) does it because that's how they make their money. The only way you can get away from it is by making an effort to hear the musicians who deviate from all that crap in a way you like. Find the ones who want to share their art with you instead of selling their produce and support them. All that said, a lot of creative artists do get caught in the business trap because that's how they will make their living. The lucky ones manage to make their money and actually have a say in their sound.
I do pride myself on being an open minded with a good understanding of music theory and appreciation of all genres, and while I love experimenting with different patterns in my own music, I understand the gravitation towards the common progressions. There's a reason those chords became so popular and it's because they are simple and effective which is all a lot of people are looking for in their favourite tunes.
These chords have been pooular a lot longer than many people seem to think. A lot of my oldest classical and folk piano pieces use the same progression everyone here is complaining about. Soo, take it up with Pachabel.
Finally, I said I have favourite artists and songs from all genres, and that includes pop of course. A lot of my most loved songs happen to use the progression I-V-vi-IV or some order of the like, and I respect the artist no less for it. Some of my most hated songs use the same progression. There's so much more to music than that. The pregression really serves as a backround. If it sucks than the piece doesn't work but once its good you still have a lot of work to do to make somewthing worthwhile.
Anyways, that's my two cents on this old post. Please excuse any grammatical or spelling mistakes, I got sick of editing on my mobile phone a couple of paragraphs ago. :)

Anonymous said...

I was searching for a tutorial on how to make complex chord combination with both major and minor chords while still on thesame key in a song before coming across this blog and although most of the people here have spoken the painful truth about over used chord progressions I still believe there are people out there who know how to use their chords when composing songs with somewhat complex chords for example take a look at "Bruno Mars' When I was your man" although he used the popular IV,V,I (F,G,C) progression in the song he went a long way to add II,ii,IV,iv(Dmaj,Dm,Fmaj,Fm) chords to the song and that gave an amazing color to the song. If you'r a musician or a song composer you'll know that these popular progression are almost impossible to avoid I do believe theres hope.

this is not a blog said...

Oh my god - THANK YOU for this blog post.

The use and abuse of these two godforsaken, worn-out, tedious musical cliches is something that's grated on me for years.

Last night I was at a club, which spewed a steady stream of current pop hits (from the untz-untz-untz club-pop variety to contemporary commercial country) from its PA system.

Easily 90-95% of all the songs I heard over the course of several hours were based on one of these two progressions.


To those of you who defend the continued use, re-use and abuse of these trite devices, based on the "it's only pop" mentality, allow me list just a few tunes that are unequivocably within the "pop" millieu, and yet possess utterly unique chord choices, arrengements, melodies, etc:

Prince "Take Me With You"
Queen "Killer Queen"
Olivia Newton John" "Magic"
Madonna "Borderline"
The Chiffons "Sweet Talkin' Guy"
Stone Temple Pilots "Interstate Love Song"

Some of the breeziest, catchiest, sing-along-iest pop/rock songs you've ever heard, right?

Right. But have you ever tried to learn the chords? By today's pop standards they're practically laborynthine in their complexity, yet the songs never sound dense, difficult or laborious.

In fact I'd argue that the above-mentioned tunes are far more memorable and repeat-listenable than something like "Edge of Glory" (Lady Gaga - I V VI IV) or "Stronger" (Kelly Clarkson - I VI III VII).

There are PLENTY of examples (I could go on and on) of more thoughtful, more skilled pop songwriting that doesn't lean on lazy-ass cliches.

As far as I'm concerned, leaning on these chord progressions again and again (you'll hear these used multiple times on a single album - just check out Nicki Minaj's last LP) is no different than rhyming "girl" with "world", "fire" with "desire" or "down on my knees" with "beggin' you please".

These chord progressions are used by lazy, cynical songwriters who are banking on a non-discerning public who desires only familiarity.

Unknown said...

Hey, you've got me on board 100%, my friend. You are absolutely spot on with everything you said there.

You wrote that you could mention plenty of examples of 'more thoughtful, skilled songwriting' which doesn't resort to monotonous/cliched chord progressions. Any chance of you putting a longer list together? I'd be very interested to look at how these songs have been constructed and I'm sure many others would too. You'd be doing a great service!

If you don't ask...

Anonymous said...

Sometimes a beautiful voice and lyrics makes this entire discussion obsolete...Adele. Case in point.

Jeff Engel said...

To the people who claim "it's not the colors you use, it's the painting you make", I'll say you're right. And what exactly is the painting? The painting is a pretty sunset with waves crashing on the beach, and there's a castle in the distance as well as a woman on a white unicorn riding through the surf. These images are used over and over again as FORMULAIC SCHLOCK, meant to appease the simple-minded and un-educated public. And this chord progression is one of those formulaic elements that is used OVER AND OVER because the people using it know exactly how easy it is to use it, OR, they are so inexperienced with the wealth of sounds one can create, that they simply revert to the same old stuff over and over again. If you honestly don't agree, then you honestly don't *know* the building blocks of music. Just like if you honestly think a painting of waves crashing on a beach with a woman on a unicorn is amazing art, then you have very little experience with art. You only know what makes you feel good. That's great... but guess what? You're being manipulated.

Anonymous said...

This is because everybody just sticks to diatonic(Maj/min) scales instead of using modes(which is essentially using notes from other scales for effect/different emotions). For example, a superlocrian mode(7th mode of harmonic-minor) played over a major progression would create a very evil/ominous sound.

Roslyn said...

I didn't take the time to read all the comments but this what they did with the 12 bar blues format. Nearly all the blues songs follow it in one way or another and then 50% of Rock and Roll and even alot of country music used the same structure. Noone ever complains that blues music is boring (though I personally do, I just don't complain about it). There is no musician on Earth who hasn't been influenced by someon else's music. And it ultimately shows up in their own work. The Beat Goes On (no pun intended)

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this conversation. There's good knowledge in here for new people to learn a lot, I would like to add to that.

All of this being said and opinions aside, bottom line is you can't copyright a chord progression. That is where the exploitation potential stops. You can't call using common chord progressions plagiarism, because it's not.

If I want to make scrambled eggs, I have to use eggs. The same eggs everybody else does. I don't get bonus points for trying to make eggs with pizza dough.

ted samuel said...

I have another one... IV I VI V: Safe and Sound (Capital Cities)... and Paradise (Cold Play)..

Paz said...

The great songs, whatever chord progression when analysed, hit the llstener as being AUTHENTIC...not contrived....the brain says this song is saying something i should pay attention to. Once you've heard such a song it's as though you think...this hasn't been was always there in nature waiting for someone to find it. Can you imagine the world 30 minutes before the Beatles created "She loves you" ?...a world in which "She loves you" doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...

John Cohen looks like he's in the state of permanent shock. Was he smoke'n some powerful stuff out of his musical bong? Deer caught in the head lights. Hey man, who stopped the music dude? John and his co hens, cold hands. The two most abused chords are the ones that John Cohen plays on his invisible violin. How many Co Hands am I holding up dude? I am a freak'n robot man!! A.K.A Ho Hands. Wait until the hair lose starts then you'll be pissed man.

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Ron said...

They are both the same chord progression, just rotated by two chords. You don't have to re-cast I-V-vi-IV into a minor key. Just call the second chord progression what it is: vi-IV-I-V.