The 'sensitive female chord progression'?

January 2, 2009 at 01:53 AM ·

This article claims that the chord progression vi-IV-I-V has been used widely in pop songs of 2008, especially by "sensitive female" artists. It can be easily identified by singing the chorus from Joan Osborne's "One of Us."

Striking a Chord

by Marc Hirsh (Boston Globe, 12/31/08) 

Rob Kapilow is quoted as saying that the chord's progression's popularity comes, in part, from "the way it can be played over and over and return smoothly to the first chord each time."   Is the desire for "cycling" in music a female trait?  Or is that an unfair stereotype--"One of Us" was actually written by a man and recorded by Osborne.

And what about other chord progressions like I-vi-IV-V or even I-IV-V-I?  Do they have popular or cultural meanings?  Do violinists and other classical musicians think themselves "above" appreciating and enjoying simple chord progressions or is this something more universal?

Replies (32)

January 2, 2009 at 04:31 AM ·

A lot of the people who write these songs really don't know what they're doing (meaning they rely more on their ear and instinct). The I vi iv V I and the I IV V I progression are the most basic progressions in all of music. It's what freshman music majors learn in the first week of their theory classes. The reason that these are used so much is simply that is sounds good. Honestly, I don't believe the people who write these songs think roman numerals, rather they think more of a lead sheet, or simply just the names of the chords themselves.

Something else that's very common in pop songs (especially musicals) is the key change up a half step as a way to heighten the drama. I don't mean to sound like I think all of these songs are garbage, as there are quite a few good songs written with this basic progression, but for the most part it is quite cliched and tired. There needs to be something new  brought into pop music. Of course, most of the people who listen to this kind of music don't really care a whole lot about the whole musical picture. They think more about the melody and the words and that's about it.

January 2, 2009 at 06:39 AM ·

Good points, Marty.  Anyone ever notice how most pop/rock songs are in 4/4 time? 

January 2, 2009 at 10:29 AM ·

The descending 5-6 sequential progression (root position variant) is possibly the most influiential progression in all of internet culture.  =D

I-V-vi-iii-IV-I (-IV-V :||)

Also of course the descending thirds is influential in pop music.


January 2, 2009 at 03:45 PM ·

One of the people in the rock group Black Sabbath remarked that his whole outlook on music was changed by going to a concert where Pinchas Zukerman was playing trios.  Zukerman's response was something like "rock music is so boring; it's all based on I, IV and V."  vi is essentially a version of IV (they share two of the same notes out of three).  It works well for pop music, but really only in short bursts, IMHO, which is why most pop songs are not very long. 

As my music theory teacher told me, the trick historically for composers has been to come up with a way of extending a piece and keeping it interesting when you do not have voices.  I, IV and V only take you so far. 


January 2, 2009 at 02:59 PM ·

As said, descending 3rd and descending 5th are the most basic progressions out there.  Anyone who knows anything about music theory knows those progressions.  It actually IS fair to say that a great many pop groups have little in the way of ingenuity.....most of it is boring, IMHO-the same music/lyrics/idea-rehashed.

There's a reason why the RIAA hasn't been having luck selling mass volumes of it's wares...and it hasn't got much to do with music piracy.  Perhaps after a 1000 years and more of vernacular music-the tradition of singing about how Mary-Jane thinks you have cooties will finally become passe. 

After a while people get tired of hearing the same sounding music over and over again.  There is only so much one can do as a pop-singer to keep things interesting, as the lyrics are the main thing people can latch on to and they need to be easily understood.  Hence why most pop-songs are all of 3-4 minutes long.

I am of course being a bit snobbish here, and there are some good and clever musicians in the pop-scene not using Cookie-Cutter-Form Songs-but they are a minority.

It is fair to say that the violin (and other instruments) can be far more capable.  Would you WANT to listen to a 15-20 minute tune made up of the same 8 bar chord progression sung to the lyrics of mean old Mary Jane?  The form is your Chaccone and Passacaglia-and we "classical" heads love those.  Any romantic era composer, knew how to suspend and lengthen chord progressions and keep them interesting.  

January 2, 2009 at 06:41 PM ·

If you've seen the infamous Pachelbel rant, you know "pop music is a joke/it's really just Baroque."  Brides everywhere have yet to tire of Canon in D (a handful have specifically asked me for something different, but in my experience these are the exception, not the rule).   

I---V---vi---iii---IV---I---IV---V... zzzzzzzzz    

Already your cellist is out cold.

It's rather typical for classical musicians to approach rock music (as a subgenre of 'pop') as if it should be about scintillating harmony, but it isn't, so naturally it's going to seem boring.  What did and still does make it exciting is rhythm, and by and large, harmonic progressions are simply a vehicle for that.

I'm not even sure the lyrics of popular music have to be comprehensible.  Louie Louie?  Stairway to Heaven?  Parts of Bohemian Rhapsody?  And what the bloody 'ell is I Am the Walrus?

January 2, 2009 at 06:54 PM ·

Well, Nicole I'd say that the example you cite are exceptional...what and how they are different is why they are exceptional from all the stereotypical Cookie-Cutter-Songs.  As in many artistic fields, for there to be proverbial diamonds in the rough, there has to be a great deal of proverbial rough to sift through.


For every Stairway level composition, how many cliche Cookie-Cutter pieces are there?  I don't think anyone knows but the number is likely staggering.

January 2, 2009 at 07:14 PM ·

Marc, I have always thought that if the pop/rock/country musicians just simply put the Mary Janes down once in awhile, their brains might eventually be clear enough to come up with some original ideas...

January 2, 2009 at 07:27 PM ·

'Tis a tradition that dates back to the renaissance madrigals and beyond...I once worked with the Baltimore Consort at a music festival...they were actually proud that they made a CD that required a "Parental Advisory" label :>)

January 2, 2009 at 09:09 PM ·

Louie Louie is pretty famously made up of  three chords, isn't it?  As is (more or less) the iconic riff from Smoke on the Water, which I hadn't mentioned before as part of the lyrics dicussion.  How is that different?

I agree that every genre has its duds.  But if these are the exemplars, as you seem to indicate, and as their staying power seems to indicate, perhaps it challenges some basic assumptions about pop music and the people who listen to it.  I.E., that more original/more profound/more complex = better.

Incidentally, I think I have probably mentioned before that one of my favorite pieces of music is Mahler's 'Urlicht.'  It's not by any means an uncomplicated piece.  However, it opens roughly thus:

vi--V--I (pause) I--V7--I--iii--IV--I.

Do re mi.   Mi fa sol, sol la ti, do ti la sol.      

Major scales are hardly original.

January 2, 2009 at 09:09 PM ·

One of my memories from my (long lost) youth was the realization that two songs by the group Lovin' Spoonful -- if I recall correctly, Younger Girl and Do You Believe in Magic -- consisted of the same two or three chords repeated in the same order.

January 2, 2009 at 09:12 PM ·

Tom, did you feel that either song was diminished by using the same chords?

January 2, 2009 at 09:23 PM ·

They were both nice songs (give them a listen some time if you do not know them, assuming my memory serves me correctly).  However, once I became aware of the chords, they sort of stood out as I listened, and that took a bit away from otherwise good songs.

January 3, 2009 at 03:28 AM ·

Do you guys realise that all the rock and/or pop pieces you mentioned are about 30 years old or so? Those are now called "classics" indicating that they are from an era that has long passed and is no more. I think you will probably find that the commercially produced popular music which is made TODAY is something very different and that there are no diamonds to be found anymore.

January 3, 2009 at 03:34 AM ·

I'm no expert, but I'm not sure the major issue is the simplicity of an underlying chord progression.  So much of all types of music, even the most harmonically sophisticated, can be distilled to a basic harmonic structure. So what?  It's always where you go and what you do with those basic structures that makes something new or ...not.  Look at what a guy like Joe Pass can do with the basic chord changes of a standard like All the Things You Are.  Or Brad Mehldau. Or even Brad Mehldau doing a cover of the Radiohead song Paranoid Android (Youtube has it). Okay, these are admittedly jazz guys, and it's harder to find this sort of creativity/inventiveness in pop music.  Pop music at its worst is, I must admit, mindless kinesis -- lots of movement and huge production values with absolutely no development.  And no originality.  But that's not always the case. 

January 3, 2009 at 04:35 AM ·

No pop diamonds? Maybe a few... and definitely some other precious "pop" stones out there if you look (why not try building a station at -- Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Amos Lee,  Badly Drawn Boy, Radiohead, Bjork, The National,. Arcade Fire, Portastatic, Lambchop, Ryan Adams, The National, Spoon, The Shins, Wilco, Tori Amos, The Jayhawks, David Gray, Ray Lamontagne, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, AC Newman, Katie Melua, Richard Ashcroft, Steve Earle, Rhett Miller, Modest Mouse, The Dresden Dolls, The Bevis Frond, Golden Smog, Garbage, The Polyphonic Spree, Switchfoot, Ben Harper, Martin Newell, Lucy Kaplansky, Nada Surf, Dar Williams, Tom Waits, The Armadillo String Quartet, Ljova, Andrew Bird, Plumb, Puressence....for starters

January 3, 2009 at 04:54 AM ·

Well, I am sorry but none of that stuff compares to the rock/pop/soul classics of the 60s and 70s and even the artists from back then who are still around today are distant shadows of their former selves. And no, its not that I don't look, I have been looking very hard but I only found 2 CDs with commercially produced popular music in this decade which I thought worth paying for. One of them was indeed worth paying for (Gotan Project, but does that even count as pop music? I don't know) the other was definitely not worth the 10 EUR I paid for it (Teo & Tea by Jean Michel Jarre, one of those who can't seem to match nor even come close to their former master pieces). The only modern pop-style music amongst which I can find something appealing every now and then is music made by amateurs put up for free download on music sharing sites which specialise in DIY music. The professionals all seem to have totally lost it, they seem to only care about making money no longer about making music.

January 3, 2009 at 05:23 AM ·

As for "sensitive female chord progression", it seems to me that this is sexist language that should be eradicated from our vocabulary. Isn't there any non-sexist equivalent term for this?

For example, the Society for Music Theory maintains guidelines for non-sexist language which advocate the use of "metrically unaccented cadence" instead of "feminine cadence". Maybe there is a similar replacement term for "sensitive female chord progression", too. If not, somebody ought to create one.

January 3, 2009 at 05:27 AM ·

NONE of it, not one song of one of the many musicians I've listed above compares to the classics of the 60s?  You're painting with a rather broad brush.  (Or should I say a narrow one?)  I wouldn't even know where to begin...I don't know, to take only one random example....when I listen to the songs on Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," for instance, I am transported every time.  They are rough-hewn gems, gorgeous, wonderfully written  narratives...classics that can stand comfortably next to the best of any era. I like the pop classics of the 60s and 70s, but good songwritring didn't simply stop on January 1, 1980.   In other words, I simply disagree.   

About your other comment above, re the sensitive female chord progression (ugh), however, we couldn't be more in agreement. 

January 3, 2009 at 06:14 AM ·

Well, one can't really argue about matters of taste. One thing is certain though: sales are falling and have been for more than a decade, so even the audiences which apparently still do find some appeal in the produce are less and less willing to pay for the output. Unless this industry starts looking for the reasons in their own backyard -- and declining quality is certainly a major factor there -- they will go out of business, eventually.

January 3, 2009 at 10:14 PM ·

"Zukerman's response was something like "rock music is so boring; it's all based on I, IV and V." 

"vi is essentially a version of IV "

vi is "a version" of the I chord, actually. 

Assuming that quote from Zukerman is accurate, it's a really provincial way of trying to underscore the complexity of what he does. You know, there are innumerable intriguing rock solos with -no- chord changes.  Find interesting things; they're there.   Bettern' that Sarasate dude fer sure.


January 5, 2009 at 11:27 AM ·

I wrote an essay regarding J-pop for an introductory course called "Issues in Fine and Performing Arts".

I wrote that pop music (especially J-pop) is steadily losing its audience and its creative integrity by becoming increasingly lazy and blunt, thus disabling a lot of techniques. Chord progression variety is the first to go out the window, though as someone mentioned earlier, fancy chord progression is arguably a moot point in pop. Chorusing (as in vocal harmony) is virtually unheard of nowadays in Japan because no one can sing in pitch; any time anyone tries to harmonize it creates awful dissonance that can easily offend anyone even with no musical training. It's bad to the point where "I liked how you sung in harmony" is considered a real compliment.

I also wrote that while it's up to the listener to decide whether they like a particular song or not, when entire techniques are being abandoned one after another due to the sheer lack of musical aptitude, there's a serious problem.

I got a D on my essay because what I said was "too negative and subjective".

So no, I don't think fancy chord progressions are a necessity for good pop music, but the lack thereof is definitely symptomatic of the mediocrity that plagues music today. It's an effect, not a cause.

What's making it worse is the "there is no such thing as good or bad music" attitude that lazy-thinking academics are instilling on society.

January 5, 2009 at 02:06 PM ·

Jim - your point about vi is well-taken as it also shares two of the three notes of the I chord.  My point, which I did not make well, is perhaps a bit different.  vi can be used as a substitute for or in addition to IV to give some variety.  I have not seen it used as a substitute for or in addition to I in that way.

January 5, 2009 at 05:49 PM ·

People like Benjamin K are the reason I will be stuck listening to the oldies station at the coffee shop until I die.

January 6, 2009 at 03:24 AM ·

Emily, I fail to see how I am responsible for your choice of radio program. Besides, if I was running a coffee shop it is more likely you'd be getting live music there and if the business didn't make enough money to pay for live music, then I doubt it would make enough to pay for performance licenses needed to play commercially produced music, in which case it would be either no music at all or music made by amateurs who are not members of any collection society, released under a license that allows royalty free public performance.

January 6, 2009 at 09:52 AM ·


January 6, 2009 at 07:33 PM ·

Okay folks, this discussion intrigued me enough to stop lurking and respond.

First of all, my knee-jerk reaction to the "pop music is harmonically boring crowd" is to assume that the folks who think this have never really studied or played pop music.  As a teacher of both guitar and violin, "popular" and "classical" music-- this is something I live with daily.

The "three chord rock" cliche is pervasive among musicians, but once you've taught a student how to play  wild thing (I-IV-V), you'll find that this progression only really applies to blues, country, and punk rock.  In fact there are many, many, many more "classical" pieces that follow this progression than there are rock songs.  Don't believe me?  Check out Hydn Serenade Op. 3, No. 5.  most of Handel's water music, (indeed most "wedding" music), Schumann's Happy Farmer, and inumerable others. 

Add the ii and the vi to this and you can forget about it. 

The fact is that "classical" harmony is much more simplistic than most pop harmony, using primarily diatonic triads, with the occasional dominant 7, for thematic material. 

Take a look at pop music, on the other hand, particularly top 40, r&b, and motown, as well as much "indie" music, and you see much more harmonic creativity:  lots of extended chords, interesting inversions, strange atonality.  In fact, there are many pop songs that have turned a progression a classical composer would have thought insane and unlistenable into a cultural phenomenon, the above example of Smoke on the Water is a case in point:  i-III-IV, i-III-flatV-IV, etc.

So, hate the istrumentation, insipid lyrics, corporate homogeny, repetitiveness, makeup fetish, morality or volume of pop music, but, hey man-- Don't hate on the chord progressions.


January 6, 2009 at 09:56 PM ·

This discussion reminds me of something I just heard yesterday:

About four minutes of pop music hits, all comprising of four chords. Quite interesting to watch. :)




January 6, 2009 at 10:42 PM ·

Classical era music is indeed relatively simple both harmonically and melodically.  I think that was the point.  Art of that era was also relatively simple compared to the Baroque and Rococo, it was the aesthetic of the time.  Usually when a simple progression is used in classical music, there is a expressive reason for it.  Happy Farmer is a good example because it wouldn't make sense for a happy farmer to have chords that go in a sequence of half cadences in his vocabulary. 

If you look at Bach it's often....deceptive cadence that ends on a DIMISHED TRIAD...PSYCH!  And then of course starting in the romantic you get crazy progressions.  Especially in Liszt and Chopin there's some strange stuff. 

Also, though Schubert's harmonies are relatively simple, I think one of the most expressive aspects of his songs is that the same harmony and melody repeats but the second time through the character of a chord changes to match the lyrics (ii=>N, IV<=>iv, vii(hd7)<=>(vii(d7)). 

I think in Rock and Pop this kind of planned expressive use of chords is rarer than in classical music even if unusual progressions are more common.  I wouldn't dare say non-existant but I've yet to hear anything that moves me the same way outside of classical music.  I think most people who steriotype popular music into three/four chord progressions have had the same experience.  Similarly I've heard popular music involving 5/4 meter, but it wasn't used as in as interesting a way as in classical music I've heard in 5/4 meter so I don't associate pop with unusual rhythmic pulses. 

January 7, 2009 at 12:48 PM ·

I think it was just the Boston Globe journalist who came up with that name for this progression--maybe he thought it would sound good in a headline and be "catchy."  

I've usually thought it was interesting when I learned about music being able to be reduced to simple chord progressions.  Why is simple always equated with boring?  Sometimes what is most interesting about a particular progression is the way it doesn't resolve or resolves contrary to expectations.  But would that even work if there weren't those expectations to begiin with?  I have come across studies of brain imaging that suggest that typical chord progressions activate particular areas of the brain across cultures, ages, and degree of musical training.  


January 7, 2009 at 02:08 PM ·

Karen - I think perhaps the issue is repetition of simple chord progressions.  I-IV-V-I is beautiful but may become boring if endlessly repeated.  Do you like listening to the end of the Beatles "Hey Jude" where it goes on and on repetitiously?  I don't.  Expectations are obviously important, but the trick is to use enough variation to create interest, particularly in longer pieces.

January 7, 2009 at 02:19 PM ·

Actually, I do like listening to the end of "Hey Jude."  And, although it will probably get me drummed out of this forum, I'll admit I even like listening to the Pachelbel Canon.  Like everyone else here I've played it a million and one times on all 3 violin parts (which I know are the same violin part)--and on the piano--but I don't find that the familiarity breeds contempt, but rather, comfort.  A similar type of discussion can go on around religious rituals too, in which some people find the repetition boring and others find the repetition spiritually profound. 

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