To celebrate the 30th anniversary issue of American Songwriter (Jan/Feb 2015), “Measure for Measure” served up a smorgasbord of 30 handpicked, solid gold chord progressions. This e-book supplements the column with added commentary and a new classification system.
In the column, the songs were listed alphabetically. In the e-book, I have organized them by mood, which is more likely to provide inspiration when you put pen to paper. The mood choices are not engraved in stone, and if you want to continue to collect chord progressions on your own – something I highly recommend – please don’t feel obliged to use the same scheme.
Some songs that made the list are made for dancing. They are driven by a solid beat, simple harmonies, and catchy riffs. An example might be “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics. Others feature harmonies that are as distinctive as a fingerprint. Even without lyrics, the dark mood of the “Hotel California” progression is instantly recognizable. In between, we find many hit songs with compelling chord progressions that linger in memory long after the music has stopped (ABBA’s greatest hits fall into this category). The e-book contains all types.
Take this list as a beginning, not an end. When you notice some chord changes you like, you can usually find them on the Web. Once you copy them down, you need to make them your own. Some suggestions for doing that appear below.
A Short History of Pop Harmony
The pillars of the ’50s sound included the seemingly inexhaustible I – IV – V progression and its variations, such as the blues (see no. 30). Second, the “heart and soul” progression (I – vi – IV – V) formed the framework of many hit songs, including “Lollipop,” “Stand By Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “The Man Comes Around.” These primary-color chord progressions have never really lost their savor, but you can get a feeling for how clichéd they had become by listening to The Beatles satirical tribute, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.”
Rich new veins of harmonic gold opened up in the early 1960s when the British Invasion reached U.S. shores. Together with stateside groups such as The Beach Boys, the Brits introduced an exciting new rainbow of harmonic color into pop music, borrowing from a wide variety of sources, including African-American blues and jazz, American folk music and its Celtic counterpart, country twang and exotic Indian scales whose sound seemed to match the psychedelic mood of the times.
Modern pop styles have evolved from these roots, continuing the cultural cross-fertilization while adding electronic elements, which has led to an embarrassment of riches, harmonically speaking. In the face of so many choices, it pays to familiarize yourself with a few that really grab you. Some tips on how to do this are provided below.
How to Make the Most of a Chord Progression
- First, practice in the original key. Play the bass line first, then add the upper voices. Reharmonize the chords so that different notes appear in the soprano. Vary between tight, “barbershop” voicings and more open, pianistic voicings.
- Sing along with the chord progression. Sing both the bass and the soprano, if you can reach it. If you can’t, then just play the bass and sing the soprano notes down an octave so you get the contrapuntal feeling of bass and soprano moving together. Improvise bits of melody between chord tones.
- Once you know the progression in one key, branch out to the others. When you transpose the progression to a different key, simplify your task by transposing the bass line first, then add the upper voices. Ultimately, you should know the progression in all twelve keys. This is an invaluable exercise.
In the course of researching the list, I ran across many interesting websites. The following were standouts (there may be others, of course):
Three PhD’s from UC Berkeley have developed a color-coded program that tracks chord progressions in real time while the song plays. Embedded YouTube videos allow you to see a synchronized performance, too.
Click on the “Categories” link at the top of the page and you will find “Songs about friendship,” “Songs about perseverance,” “Songs with a reggae influence” and many other interesting lists.
Errata from the Column
Writing the column required an enormous amount of research and detail work, and due to deadline pressure, a few mistakes were made. I have corrected these in the e-book, but for the record, they included the following:
13) “I’ll Follow The Sun” – The first chord in measure 5, “C,” was misidentified as a “II” chord in the column. It is actually a tonic chord, Roman numeral “I”. This was a typographical error.
22) “Fast Car” – The section identified as the bridge in the column is actually the chorus. Choruses usually contain the song title. This one does not, but harmony and melody give it the unmistakable lift that one expects from a chorus.
23) “Bad Moon Rising” – This was called “Bad Moon On The Rise” in the column.
25) “I Can See For Miles” – The column showed this in the key of D. The actual key of the performance was E. The key and the chord progression have been updated in the e-book.
26) “Clocks” – The first chord is Eb major, rather than Eb minor, which makes this an example of Mixolydian mode, not Dorian mode, as given in the column.
D “D major,” A capital letter means a major chord based on the tone
Bb “B-flat major”
Dm “D minor”; a lower-case “m” indicates “minor”
D9 “D-nine”; a dominant 7th chord with an added 9th, in this case an “E” (the tone “E” is nine steps above “D,” the root of the D7 chord: D-F#-A-C-E, 1-3-5-7-9
Roman numerals show the relationship of a chord to a key center, which merely naming the chord does not. For example, “C major” names a chord, but it doesn’t tell you whether it is the tonic (the “I” chord), the subdominant (IV), the dominant (V), or a secondary dominant (V/ii, for example). Lowercase Roman numerals are used for minor and diminished chords:
I The major chord built on the first degree of the major scale. In the key of C, “I” is C major. In the key of Eb, “I” is Eb.
IV The major chord built on the fourth degree of the major scale. In the key of C, “IV” is F major (C – D – E – F; “F” is the fourth degree of the scale). In the key of G, “IV” is C major (G – A – B – C; “C” is the fourth degree of the scale).
V The dominant chord. The dominant strongly implies that the next chord you hear will be the tonic, the I chord. For example, in the key of G, D major is the dominant (the V chord). The dominant can be found by counting off five scale steps on your fingers: G – A – B – C – D (one, two, three, four, five).
V7 The dominant 7th chord. In the key of G, D7 is the dominant 7th chord.
ii The minor chord based on the second degree of the scale. Lowercase letters mean “minor” chords. In C major, “ii” is D minor; “ii7” is D minor 7.
“Sea Of Love”
“Sea of love” songs are songs about being in love, drowning in love, getting lost in love. Major might seem to be the mode of choice, as in the straightforward “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” but composers often dip into minor mode or the subjective subdominant spaces to express the dreamy, sometimes disconcerting side of this emotional state.
1) Blue Velvet (recorded by Bobby Vinton, Tony Bennett, The Clovers, and others; written by Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris)
| F7 | Bb | Dm | Cm7 F7-9 | Bb | Cm7 | Cm7 F7 | Fm7 |
| V7 | I | iii | ii7 – V7-9 | I | ii7 | ii7 V7 | v7 |
| “She wore | Blue | Vel – vet…” | | | | … love was | ours.” |
This is the second phrase, which trails off dreamily into the minor dominant, v7, undermining the tonic and creating a haunted feeling.
2) Can’t Help Falling In Love (recorded by Elvis, UB40; written by George Weiss, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore)
| F Am | Dm | Bb F | C7 | Bb C7 | F Gm | F C7 | F |
| I – iii | vi | IV – I | V7 | IV – V7 | I – ii | I – V7 | I |
| “Wise men | say…” |
3) Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan)
| A – C#m/G# | G – Bm/F# |
| I – vi | bVII – ii |
| “Lay, Lady Lay…” |
Hypnotic progression in which the bass line descends by half steps.
4) Misty (recorded by Sarah Vaughan and many others; written by Erroll Garner)
| Ebmaj7 | Bbm7 Eb7b9 | Abmaj7 | Abmi7 – Db9 |
| Eb: Imaj7 | Ab: ii7 – V7b9 | Imaj7 | Gb: ii7 – V9 |
“Look at | me…” |
Garner suggests three key centers in the first phrase. Each key has more flats than the previous key, taking us deeper into misty subdominant spaces.
5) Parachutes (recorded by Coldplay; written by Guy Berryman, Jon Buckland, Will Champion, and Chris Martin)
| B | G#m | B | G#m | F#m |
| I | vi | I | vi | v |
| “In a haze, a | stormy haze…” |
Love isn’t all roses and moonbeams. Sometimes it causes pain, breaks your heart, or tortures your soul. While a broken heart is difficult to mend, consolation is available in the form of some of the greatest songs ever written. Many songs about love gone wrong borrow elements from the blues. Classic blues songs, however, fall in the category of Mood 9, I-IV-V songs. Here we find a few blues elements mixed with harmonic twists that set them apart. Surprisingly, all the songs chosen for Mood 2 are in major mode, with the exception of no. 6, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
6) Ain’t No Sunshine (written and recorded by Bill Withers)
| Am7 Em7 – G | repeat
| i7 v7 – bVII |
“Ain’t No Sunshine when she’s | gone…” |
Added 7ths make for a bluesy-sounding Aeolian mode (see nos. 28 and 26).
7) Crazy (recorded by Patsy Cline; written by Willie Nelson)
| Eb | C7 | Fm | Fm | Bb7 | Bb7 | Eb |
| I | V7/ii | ii | ii | V7 | V7 | I |
| “Cra – zy…” |
8) Desperado (recorded by The Eagles; written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey)
| G – G7 | C – Cm6 | G – Em7 | A7 – D7 | G |
| I – V7/IV | IV – iv(add 6) | I – vi7 | V7/V – V7 | I |
“Des – pe – ra – | – do…” |
9) Hey Joe (recorded by Jimi Hendrix; written by Billy Roberts)
| C5 – G | D – A5 | E |
| bVI5 – bIII | bVII – IV | I |
| “Hey Joe…” |
An E blues with chords borrowed from E minor. Each chord is a perfect 5th above the previous chord, what is called a retrograde progression because it goes contrary to the usual V – I, downward by a 5th root movement. This parallels the lyrics, in which Joe shoots his girlfriend and goes on the run, breaking moral laws and the law of harmony at the same time.
10) Landslide (recorded by Fleetwood Mac; written by Stevie Nicks)
| Eb | Bb/D | Cm | Bb/D | repeat ten times
| IV | I (3rd in bass) | ii | I (3rd in bass) |
| “I took my love…” |
The bass – Eb-D-C-D-Eb – paces the floor while the tonic remains weak, befitting a song of questioning.
11) More Than A Feeling (recorded by Boston; written by band leader Tom Scholz)
| G – C | Em – D | repeat three times, then | G – C | Eb |
| I – IV | vi – V | | I – IV | bVI |
| “More Than A Feeling…” |
The surprise cadence on bVI creates an air of mystery and drama. Other songs that use the bVI include “Hey Joe” (9), “Eleanor Rigby” (16), “House Of The Rising Sun” (17), “Sweet Dreams” (20), “California Dreamin’ (21), “Hotel California” (24), and “I Can See For Miles” (25). Scholz credits “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke as the main inspiration for the song.
“I Will Survive”
So you break up. It’s not the end of the world – is it? Some songs say “Yes.” These songs say “No.”
12) Good Riddance (recorded by Green Day; lyrics by Billie Joe, music by Green Day)
| G5 | G5 | Csus2 | D5 |
| I5 | I5 | IVsus2 | V5 |
| “Another turn – | ing point, … |
At first blush, this appears to be a classic I – IV – V song (Mood 9), but holding over scale tone 5 throughout the progression and omitting the 3rd from all three chords breathes new life into it. (In classical harmony, chords have at least three elements: a root, 3rd, and 5th. Here, all three chords have a root and 5th, but no 3rd.)
In the key of G major, scale tone 5 is the tone “D” (G-A-B-C-D, 1-2-3-4-5). In the first two measures, D is the 5th of the tonic chord. The chord is called “G5” because it has no 3rd, only a root and 5th.
In the third measure, the root changes to “C”, and the tone D, which is held over, now becomes a suspended 2nd. In the guitar riff, the tone D is actually a 9th above the root, but, since the chord has no 3rd, the D hangs indecisively between the root and the anticipated 3rd of the chord, unsure of where to go. Since it is held over from the previous chord (G major) it is termed a suspended (sus) tone. Where D was harmonious with the G5 chord, it is now mildly dissonant; that is, it clashes mildly with the root C, creating unresolved tension.
Finally, in the D5 chord, D – held over again – becomes the root. It is harmonious once again, and filled with a firm and forthright resolve, the general feeling of a V chord.
13) I’ll Follow The Sun (recorded by The Beatles; written by Lennon/McCartney)
| G | F7 | C | D7 | C Em/B | D7 G7 | C |
| V | IV7 | I | II7 | I – iii | II7 – V7 | I |
| “One day | you’ll look…” |
Brilliant harmonic detours keep the tonic a secret until measures 7 and 8.
14) The Warmth Of The Sun (recorded by The Beach Boys; written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love)
| Eb – Cm | Gb – Ebm7 | Fm7 | Bb7 – Bb+ | Eb – Cm |
| I – vi | bIII – i7 | ii7 | V7 – V+ | I – vi |
“What | good is the dawn…” |
“Paint It Black”
Sometimes life sucks. Fortunately, we have great songs such as the following at times like these. And if you’re not lucky enough to be depressed all the time, they still sound great.
15) As Tears Go By (recorded by The Rolling Stones; written by Mick Jagger, Andrew Loog Oldham, and Keith Richards)
| G | A | C | D |
| I | II | IV | V |
| “It is the | evening…” |
The major II chord surges toward V, but the IV chord pulls back with deferential restraint, not unlike the lyrics.
16) Eleanor Rigby (recorded by The Beatles; written by Lennon/McCartney)
| C | C | Em | Em |
| bVI | bVI | i | i |
| “Ah_____ look at all…” |
Just two chords build enough momentum to launch a powerful melody. The song begins with the bVI chord, delaying the tonic (E minor) until the third measure. The bVI appears at dramatic points in many hits, such as “Hey Joe” (9), “More Than A Feeling” (11), “House Of The Rising Sun” (17), “Sweet Dreams” (20), “California Dreamin’ (21), and “Hotel California” (24). It often appears in visionary songs, such as “I Can See For Miles” (25), and Donovan’s “Sand And Foam” and “Isle Of Islay.”
17) House Of The Rising Sun (recorded by The Animals; traditional folk song)
| Am – C | D F | Am – C | E |
| i – VI | IV – bVI | i – bVI | V |
“There | is a house in | New Orleans…” |
The ominous bVI adds to the fateful sense of a life in ruins.
18) Lodi (recorded by Creedence Clearwater; written by John C. Fogerty)
| Bb | Bb | Eb | Bb | Bb | Gm | Eb | F |
| I | I | IV | I | I | vi | IV | V |
| “Just about a year ago… | | | | | | …gold.” | |
The guitar riffs that accompany this classic song show the many shades of emotion waiting to be found even in the simplest of chord progressions.
19) Money For Nothing (recorded by Dire Straits; written by Mark Knopfler and Sting)
| G5 | G5 | G5 | Bb5 C5 (open phrase) | G5 | G5 | G5 | F5 G5 (closed) |
| I5 | I5 | I5 | bIII5 IV5 (phrase 1) | I5 | I5 | I5 | bVII5 I5 (phrase 2) |
This is the chord progression to the opening riff, which is cited to show the classic “question and answer” compositional device: two phrases, first open, second closed. “Open” means your ears expect more music to come at the end of the phrase. “Closed” means the phrase seems final and complete.
20) Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) – (recorded by the Eurythmics; written by Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart)
| Cm | Ab – G |
| i | bVI – V |
| “Sweet dreams are | made of this…” |
“All I Have To Do Is Dream”
These songs express longing and hope for escape to a better place, a better situation in life.
21) California Dreamin’ (recorded by The Mamas & The Papas; written by John Phillips and Michelle Phillips)
| C#m – B | A – B | G#7sus4 | G#7 |
| i – bVII | bVI – bVII | Vsus4 | V7 |
“All the leaves are | brown…” |
This progression is similar to Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” whose descending bass seems headed for the V chord, but avoids the commitment of this key-defining step by retracing its steps back to the tonic, giving the song an ominous “pacing the floor” feeling. Here, however, we do hit the V7 chord, confirming the key in a dramatic moment of literal and figurative suspense (Vsus4 going to V7).
22) Fast Car (written and recorded by Tracy Chapman)
(Verse) | Dmaj7 A | F#m Amaj7 |
| Imaj7 V | iii Vmaj7 |
| “You got a fast car…” |
(Bridge) | D | A – F#m7 | E |
| IV | I – vi7 | V |
| “Now remember when we were | driving…” |
Interpretations of the tonality for “Fast Car” differ. Some scores place it in the key of A (three sharps). After studying the guitar score and listening to Tracy Chapman sing the song, I hear the emphasis on Dmaj7 pointing to D as home base (the tonic) in the verse. The persistent occurrence of G# in the accompaniment indicates the Lydian mode. “Lydian mode” is like a major scale, but the 4th scale degree is raised a half step (to G# in this case). Lydian has been known for its dreaminess and sensuality since the time of Plato. In the guitar part, the falling half-step between “A” and “G#” adds a note of sadness and uncertainty. All of these moods mingle in the lyrics.
Beginning with “Now remember when we were driving,” the tonality seems to shift to A major, a 5th above D, creating a surge of positive emotion. This is confirmed when we hear E major, the dominant of A, supporting the following line in the lyrics: “And I had a feeling that I belonged, And I had a feeling that I could be someone.” The change from dreamy Lydian to tonally focused major mode and the jump from the D tonal center a 5th up to A adds expansive energy and assertive hopefulness to the song just when they are needed. These features make for a rousing, dynamic chorus.
The visionary songs in this category make prominent use of metaphors and dream imagery. The mood isn’t necessarily dark, as shown by no. 25, “I Can See For Miles.” “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan (not shown) would also fall into this category.
23) Bad Moon Rising (Creedence Clearwater; written by John C. Fogerty)
| D | A – G | D | D |
| I | V – IV | I | |
| “I see a | bad moon a-|ris-ing…” | |
The lustful impulse of V is pulled back by the lunar gravity of the IV chord.
24) Hotel California (The Eagles; written by Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Don Felder)
| Bm | F#7 | Asus2 | E9 | Gmaj7 | D | Em | F#7 |
| i | V7 | bVII | IV | bVI#7 | bIII | iv | V7 |
| “On a dark desert highway…” |
Three pairs of retrograde, I – V, root progressions (B to F#, A to E, G to D), lead up to the ominous, rising bIII – iv – V7 in measures 6, 7, and 8. Retrograde means progressing in the opposite direction from the normal, expected V – I root movement.
25) I Can See For Miles (The Who; written by Peter Townshend)
Playing along with the original, I discovered that it was in the key of E, not D, as shown in the column. A D version may exist, and this may explain the score I worked from, but an E major score wasn’t hard to find, and the updated version is shown below:
| E | G6 | A | C | D/E | E |
| I | i7 | IV | bVI | bVII | I |
| “I can see for… | miles and…” |
This song was chosen to illustrate the beauty of a pedal point, a constant tone over (or under) which a chord progression is played, creating all kinds of interesting, transient harmonic clashes that ultimately settle down when the chord progression finds its way back home. The “pedal point” (pedal tone, pedal note, organ point, or pedal) was a technique pioneered by organists, who would hold down one note with a foot pedal, letting it drone on continuously while playing chords on the keyboard. In this case, the guitar creates the pedal point.
The G6 chord is a G major chord (G-B-D) with an added 6th (E). However, this is a bit misleading. The E is really the pedal point, which drones on continuously (on guitar), with a G major triad played over it. This adds up to an E minor 7, or i7 chord (E-G-B-D).
Songs of redemption, revelation, salvation, inspiration, or resolution make up this category.
26 )Clocks (written and recorded by Coldplay)
The chord progression in the verse is in Mixolydian mode, which is characterized by major I, ii, and v chords.
| Eb | Bbm | Bbm | Fm7 |
| I | v | v | ii7 |
| “The lights go out…” |
Western music, and most pop music, principally relies on two modes: major and minor. From these come the familiar major and minor scales and their characteristic chords and chord progressions. But these two aren’t the only choices, and alternatives have grown in importance since the British Invasion of the 1960s.
Mixolydian mode is an often-used alternative to major and minor tonalities. The term comes from the medieval church modes, which include Ionian (same as a major scale, “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do”), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (the parent of today’s minor scale).
Mixolydian mode sounds like a scale beginning on the fifth tone of a major scale: Sol-La-Ti-Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol. In order to support “Sol” as the tonic, the chord progressions must change. For example, the I-IV-V of “La Bamba” or “Twist And Shout” (C-F-G) would become I-IV-v in Mixolydian (C-F-Gm), which would not support I (C here) as the tonal center. In Mixolydian mode, bVII often plays the role that the V chord plays in a major key leading to I-IV-bVII, or I-bVII-IV (see no. 29, “Sweet Home Alabama”). In “Clocks,” bVII would be Db major.
This is only a superficial explanation, but going deeper would take us far afield. Suffice it to say, the harmonies based on Mixolydian mode are similar to major mode, but with a few important differences that lend it an exotic sound. One of these – the minor dominant chord (Bbm) – shows up in “Clocks.” In pop music, the modes rarely appear in unadulterated form. This is because tonality – a sense of key center – is weaker in the modes than in the major and minor key system, and the tonic must be repeated more often to keep it in place psychologically. You can hear this in the floating feeling and repetitiveness of the I-v-ii7 progression in “Clocks.” Interestingly, the bridge switches to Db major (making a tonal center out of the bVII of Eb Mixolydian).
27) This Is The Day (The The; written by Matt Johnson)
There seem to be two schools of thought about this song: Some listeners interpret it as a positive statement by someone who’s finally figured out that his life isn’t working and has resolved to make a change. Others say the opposite – the chorus mocks our efforts to change, and this will only be another doomed attempt, like all the others. The answer, perhaps, lies in the chord progression, where we hear a strong suggestion of insight and faith:
| Bb | Gm | C | Eb |
| I | vi | II | IV |
“Well, | you didn’t wake up this morning…” |
The major II chord in measure 3 seems to imply that the dominant (V) is coming next. Instead, the restrained IV arrives, then fades by plagal cadence (“A-men”) to I, implying “epiphany” with the II followed by “humility” with IV – I. The jury is still out, but if the verses were meant to be taken ironically, we might have expected the chord progression to provide a hint. Instead, it implies the opposite. In an interview with Uncut’s Michael Bonner, songwriter Matt Johnson seems to affirm this: “… I’d got myself a sort of reputation in certain quarters for songs that were moody or depressing, but people found it [the song ‘Blind’] uplifting. ‘This Is The Day’, ‘Smile’ and ‘Giant’, they’re also supposed to be uplifting, but thoughtful. A poignant reflection.”
28) What I’ve Done (written and recorded by Linkin Park)
Chorus, phrase 1: | Gm | Bb | F | Cm |
Chorus, phrase 1: | i | III | VII | iv |
“What I’ve | Done | I’ll face myself” |
Chorus, phrase 2: | Gm | Bb | F | Cm – Dm | Eb – F | Gm |
Chorus, phrase 2: | i | III | VII | iv – v | bVI – bVII | i |
| “become – | erase myself…” |
Rockin’ the Aeolian mode (see notes to no. 26, “Clocks,” above). The Aeolian sound can be found by playing a C major scale from A to A’: La-Ti-Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La, or A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A.
Aeolian mode is the basis of minor mode. What’s the difference? In a minor key (as opposed to Aeolian mode), scale degrees 6 and 7 are moveable, which allows for a dominant 7th chord. In Aeolian mode, 6 and 7 are not moveable, which means a minor V chord (no V7 is possible), and a major bVII chord. The minor key system features a highly distinctive diminished 7th chord on VII, too:
Aeolian: i – ii half-diminished – III – iv – v – bVI – bVII
Harmonic minor: i – ii half-diminished – III – iv – V or V7 – bVI – vii diminished 7th
“My Kind Of Town”
In this category we find exuberant anthems and paeans to places, cities, and countries.
29) Sweet Home Alabama (recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd; written by Ed King, Gary Rossington, and Ronnie Van Zant)
| D – C | G |
| I – bVII | IV |
| “Big wheels keep on turn | – in…” |
This form of “Mixolydian cadence” (see no. 26, “Clocks”) appears in many hit songs, such as “Takin’ Care Of Business,” “So Long” (ABBA), and “Orinoco Flow” by Enya.
“Land Of A Thousand Dances”
30) I – IV – V songs
This exuberant chord progression is found in thousands of songs from the ’50s through the present day. Some of these, such as “Twist And Shout,” “La Bamba,” and “Here Comes The Sun,” are built entirely, or almost entirely, on I – IV – V. Others, such as “Time Is On My Side” (Rolling Stones), roll out I – IV – V in the chorus. Bob Dylan uses I – IV – V to punctuate dramatic points in “Like A Rolling Stone.” Variations on I – IV – V include I7 –V7 – IV7 (the blues), I – IV – V – IV (“Wild Thing”), and I – IV – v – IV (“Louie, Louie”).
The Internet has many lists of I – IV – V songs. Rather than compile them all here, it might be more profitable to ask “What makes this chord progression so appealing?”
There are three reasons:
- I – IV – V contains all seven tones of the scale, so it defines the key in a satisfying, unambiguous way. The I chord contains scale degrees 1, 3, and 5. The IV chord contains 4, 6, and 1. The V chord contains 5, 7, and 2. To put it another way, let’s look at each scale tone in C major:
CI chord (C-E-G) and IV chord (F-A-C)
D V chord (G-B-D)
E I chord
F IV chord
- The chord change IV – V combines two strong harmonic movements: movement by a 5th (IV is a 5th below the tonic chord and V is a 5th above the tonic chord), and the thrust of movement by a 2nd (IV and V are one scale step apart).
- All three chords – I, IV, and V – are major, which strongly affirms the spirit of the major mode.