Nick Jennison explores one of the most commonly used chord progressions in contemporary popular music, in this brand new column for Guitar Interactive Magazine's Quietroom.
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We’ve all heard them. We’ve all written songs with them. I have no idea how many pop songs from the last decade have made use of them, but it’s a lot. I’m talking of course about the “Four Chords of the Apocalypse”. You may know them as the chords from “Don’t Stop Believin’”. “Or With Or Without You”. Or “Someone Like You”. Or “Let It Go”. At the time of writing, the Wikipedia article on the subject lists 244 songs that use this now infamous progression, and that list grows daily.
So what are we dealing with here? The progression is written in Roman numerals as I-V-vi-IV, or one-five-six-four (the six being minor). These numbers refer to the degrees of the major scale that the chords are built from. Here it is in a few common keys.
Key of C: C G Am F
Key of D: D A Bm G
Key of E: E B C#m A
Key of G: G D Em C
Key of A: A E F#m D
You’d be excused for thinking that each set of chords is unique an different to the others, but functionally they’re exactly the same. Don’t believe me? Try playing them and singing the chorus from “No Woman No Cry” over the top.
Now let’s get one thing straight. These chords aren’t bad. In fact, they sound fantastic. One of the reasons they work so well is that they contrast stable chords (I and vi) and unstable chords (V and IV), which creates a great sense of forward motion. That’s why so many songs are written using them. But you, dear songwriter, don’t want to sound like everyone else. You want to stand out. But you also want to sound current. So how do you “spice up” these familiar old chords without rejecting them entirely?
Well, you could swap a few chords out, but we’re going to look at that next time. For now, how about keeping the same chords, in the same order, but starting in a different place? In fact, a great many songs use this idea already. The most common variation is vi-IV-I-V, or (in the key of C) Am F C G. You might think of this as the “minor variation”, and this is because the vi chord is stable like the I chord, so it can act as the root (or home) chord. Songs that use this progression include “Save Tonight”, “Love The Way You Lie” and, of course, “Africa” (more on that one in a future lesson!).
But that’s not the only variation we can use. In fact, we can create a variation starting on each chord of the progression. In C, that gives us:
C G Am F (I-V-vi-IV)
G Am F C (V-vi-IV-I)
Am F C G (vi-IV-I-V)
F C G Am (IV-I-V-vi)
The variations starting on G (V) and F (IV) are particularly interesting because they both reverse the stable-unstable-stable-unstable movement of the original progression (and the minor variant). By putting the unstable chords ahead of the stable ones, we can create a whole different sense of propulsion - and we haven’t even changed the sequence!
But that’s not all. What if we play the same chords in reverse order (also known as retrograde)? This gives us four more variations we can try (one starting on each chord), while still preserving the stable-unstable relationship that makes the original sequence so great. In C, we get:
That final variation is probably the most popular of the bunch, forming the foundation of “Mr Brightside” and “Drives Me Crazy”. So technically, those songs are Four Chord Songs, too!
So what we’ve discovered, dear songwriters is that we can actually have eight progressions that we can use to subtly vary our songwriting while still maintaining everything that makes the Four Chords Of The Apocalypse great - and we haven’t had to change a single chord! But what if we start throwing some different chords in the mix? In the next lesson, we’ll start exploring some chord substitutions that can make things even more interesting.