A website devoted to songwriting in punk rock would be totally lacking if it did not have an entry on what is the most ubiquitous and popular chord progression in modern punk music: I – V – vi – IV (or for the Roman numeral-challenged: 1-5-6-4). You’ve heard this a million times and you might not have even noticed how often people use this progression. Most big punk bands have used it and it’s often used in many bands’ biggest hits. Even though its usage is so ubiquitous, I’m still occasionally surprised by its usage.
The theory behind I-V-vi-IV is very simple.First, the chord progressions of a song are built from a key, no matter which key it is. This progression is in a major key. The numbers correlate to the chord built on the notes of the scale (V is a chord built on the fifth note of the scale). There are three unique major chords in a major key and they are, as you might have guessed: I, IV, and V. This progression has all of them, but also throws in one minor chord: the vi chord. (For clarity’s sake, it’s often standard to capitalize major keys, but keep minor chords in lower case.) If all that is a little too abstract for you, consider the key of C, where the progression would be C-G-A(minor)-F. In the key of G, it’s G-D-E(minor)-C. Even if you’ve only been playing guitar for just a few months, this should all be familiar.
Famous Songs Built on I-V-vi-IV
There are many, but let’s just look at some of the biggest hits that use this progression.
Blink-182 – “Dammit”
When I think of I-V-vi-IV, I think “Dammit.” The sound of the progression is very clear and both the verse and chorus are built on it, with the chorus just playing each chord for twice as long as on the verse.
Green Day – “When I Come Around”
Green Day adds some rhythm to this progression, making up the instrumental intro and verse.
New Found Glory – “Hit or Miss”
New Found Glory puts their own spin on it, playing a heavier rhythm.
Weezer – “My Name is Jonas”
Weezer opens the progression a bit by arpegiating open chords, but once the over-driven guitars come in, you can clearly hear the progression.
Other punk songs that also use this progression are Blink-182 again with Mark’s part on “Feelin’ This,” and also the chorus of “What’s My Age Again?” I bet if we went through their catalog there would be even more! Even some of the newer bands we’ve covered on this site use this progression. Joyce Manor uses it with some variations in “Heart Tattoo” (which I wrote about extensively here) and Cheap Girls uses it in “Pure Hate.”
Why Does This Progression Work So Well?
The biggest reason this progression works so well is listener comfort. From a theoretical perspective, there are two very comfortable things working for this progression. First, the bass moves in large jumps and only once in whole or half-step fashion (from V to vi), which lends a strong feeling of movement and clarity. It’s also very similar to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which is a hallmark of western music, especially to modern ears. In addition, these four chords are the most common ones heard in pop music. There is nothing surprising or uncomfortable about them.
Next, it is very easy to write a melody to this progression. Most songwriters writing simple pop songs use the pentatonic scale to construct melodies. The pentatonic scale in a major key is 1-2-3-5-6 – leaving out the 4th and 7th notes of the major scale. These notes all work well on each of the four chords in this progression. Therefore, the writer can pretty much just sing any of these notes at anytime over the progression and it will work. In fact, there is only one instance where a note in that scale will not “technically” work on a chord in this progression and that is the root note of the scale on the V chord. However, while this is considered against the sometimes archaic rules of classical music theory, this doesn’t seem to stop anyone and it sounds mostly fine to modern ears. All of these songs have this “rule violation” over the place.
Finally, perhaps the reason this progression is so-often used is precisely because it is so often-used. Listeners like sounds that are familiar and comfortable and this progression is just that.
Are There Variations on This Progression?
Not only do you often hear this progression in its standard form, it is also used all the time with slight variations.
Saves the Day – “Firefly”
Here, Saves the Day takes the progression and puts it in a minor key by simple starting in the middle of the progression. Instead of I-V-vi-IV, this progression for this song is vi-IV-I-V. This is the same chords in the same order, just starting on the minor vi chord instead. Other songs built on this chord progression include “Zombie” by the Cranberries and much of “Self Esteem” by the Offspring.
Fall Out Boy – “Sugar, We’re Going Down”
Fall Out Boy simplifies this chord progression even further and just removes the V chord altogether, making it I-IV-vi-IV. Instead of the V, we just got the IV chord twice.
Did I Say This Only Applies to Punk?
Not only is this progression ubiquitous in punk, it is widely used in all of pop music. Here is a Wikipedia list of songs using it, and it is not even close to being complete. Finally, if you’re still not convinced how much this progression is used, comedy musical group Axis of Awesome graces us with this: