…exploring the combinatorics of pop’s favorite chords, and finding the obvious gaps.

From: Ian

To: Dan

There are 6 ways to order the chords I — IV — V — vi, invariant to circular shifts. Four of those orderings are used all over the place. Here they are:

I → IV → vi → V

I → V → vi → IV

I → vi → IV → V

Every song from the 1950s, e.g.:


I → vi → V → IV

I → IV → V → vi
I → V → IV → vi

These two are totally underutilized! Maybe going from vi to I doesn't sound good. Or maybe we could write some huge hits using these progressions.

From: Dan

To: Ian

The underutilized ones are the ones that most ambiguously start major but resolve to vi (or i, depending). Pop songs are typically major, maybe this is resolution too vague for pop listeners wrt mode?

From: Ian

To: Dan

There are many songs with progressions that start major and end minor, or vice verse, and I even wrote a blog post about it once:

Also, the "resolving" can be shifted. Why aren't there more vi → I → IV → V songs, or V → IV → vi → I songs?

From: Dan

To: Ian

Remember this thread from 2010? You highlighted that among possible orderings of I/V/vi/IV, the world is short on vi → I → IV → V and V → IV → vi → I songs. Every time I hear something that seems vanilla except for something I can't quite place, I think of this thread. I just heard a vi → I → V → IV (a circular shift of I V IV vi) that reminded me this thread exists:

As you predicted, it sounds perfectly normal and suggests there should be more such songs in the world.

Video is marginally NSFW. In fact if you just listened the lyrics and imagined what the video looked like, you'd be pretty close to what the video actually is, and you'd correctly identify it as marginally NSFW.

2 thoughts on “I-IV-V-vi

  1. Calvin Caulfield

    Having been digging on this exact issue for a while because I know a Japanese hit song (‘ヒカリへ’ by a singer songwriter ‘miwa’, btw) with IV-V-vi-I progression (which is the case mentioned above).
    It’s in G key, and for vi (Em) she used G / E which makes the progression very smooth.
    I have got a feeling she was aware of this ‘unutilized chord pregression’ thing. Really awesome song, so I guess this unutilized progression deserves some attention maybe.


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