The Four Chords of Pop
"Six and one of half a dozenFour chords that made a million."
Black guitars and plastic blues.
Hide behind a wall of nothing
Nothing said and nothing new.
—Porcupine Tree, "Four Chords That Made A Million"
I-V-vi-IV. There's just something about these four chords that makes for a catchy tune in western pop music, transcending the boundaries of genre, and work in a song with any mood or tempo. This particular ordering of them, the "pop-punk progression" as The Other Wiki calls it, was spawned as a variant of the Doo Wop Progression, and has been particularly popular from the 1990s to the present day.
The Roman numerals above represent a sequence of four chords. If you don't know Roman analysis, check out this video, or play these chords on a piano: C major, G major, A minor, F major. Repeat if desired. If this progression loops back to I, this effectively produces a Plagal Cadence. Very often, this progression is used as an Ostinato--a repeated pattern that occurs throughout a song (or a part of it).
In a major key, this progression is I V vi IV. If we play them in a different order, vi IV I V, (A minor, F major, C major, G major)the progression sounds to be in the relative minor key (the key whose home note starts on the sixth note of its relative major key), in which case we notate it as i VI III VII. This version is sometimes called the "sensitive-female chord progression."
All of these progressions can be and are played with fifth or "power" chords; these are not major or minor chords (they don't possess the "third" which determines whether a chord is major or minor), but people's ears will pick up on the sound they're "expecting" to hear and fill in the blanks mentally so the progression sounds right.
Note, as always, that Tropes Are Tools: while it has proven to be an irresistible progression, a band who relies on it for too many of their songs runs the risk of being regarded as unimaginative and dull.
It's become a recent theme of music oriented comedy to make fun of this trope.
Related chord progressions:
- Three Chords and the Truth, which generally uses I-IV-V.
- Humoresque Progression: vi-IV-V-I, or if considered to be in minor, i-VI-VII-III
- Doo Wop Progression: I-vi-IV-V
- Pachelbel's Canon Progression: I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V
- Adele - "Someone Like You"
- A-ha - "Take On Me" (chorus only; verse is ii-V-I-IV)
- Jason Aldean — "Big Green Tractor" (verses)
- Gary Allan — "Songs About Rain" (verses)
- Alexandra Burke - "Bad Boys"
- Axis of Awesome shows us a lot of examples (and a few non-examples).
- Alicia Keys - "No One"
- Aqua - "Doctor Jones" (the chorus and alternating lines of the verses)
- The Beatles - "Let It Be" (first half of the verse; second half is I-V-IV-I)
- Billie Myers - "Kiss the Rain"
- Blink-182 - Dammit, Feeling This, Always, Carousel, What's My Age Again?... I could go on.
- Bob Marley - "No Woman No Cry"
- Bush - "Glycerine" and "Comedown"
- Caramell - "Caramelldansen"
- The Cars - "Tonight She Comes"
- Cher Lloyd - "Swagger Jagger" (In the choruses after the first verse. It's more noticeable in the instrumental version.)
- Cinderella - "Don't Know What You Got ('Til It's Gone)"
- Green Day - "When I Come Around" (but not in the chorus)
- Ingrid Michaelson - "Everybody", refrain
- James Blunt - "You're Beautiful"
- Jamie Grace featuring tobymac - "Hold Me"
- Jason Mraz - "I'm Yours"
- Journey - "Don't Stop Believing"
- Lady Gaga - "Paparazzi"
- Le Click - "Call Me"
- Liz Phair - "Why Can't I", verse (and has the reordered minor key version in the refrain)
- Maroon 5 - "She Will Be Loved"
- Men At Work - "Down Under"
- Mika - "Happy Ending"
- One Republic - "Say (All I Need)"
- Owl City - Vanilla Twilight
- P!nk - "Fucking Perfect"
- The Police - "So Lonely"
- Relient K - "In Love with the '80s (Pink Tux to the Prom)"; this may have been an homage to the Cars (the background arrangement is very similar to "Tonight She Comes")
- Also "Pressing On".
- Richard Marx - "Right Here Waiting" (part of the chorus)
- Sarina Paris - "Look At Us Baby" (the chorus)
- Sesame Street (yes, Sesame Street) - "The Word Is No"
- Train - "Hey Soul Sister"
- U2 - "With or Without You"
- Every Bo Burnham song ever.
- Arcade Fire - "Rebellion (Lies)" (in the bridge)
- Beyoncé - "If I Were A Boy"
- Bon Jovi - "It's My Life"
- Coldplay - "The Scientist"
- Crush 40 - "Live and Learn" (verse)
- Dr. Reanimator - "Move Your Dead Bones" (intro, chorus, and instrumental bridge)
- Eagle Eye Cherry - "Save Tonight"
- Evanescence - "Bring Me To Life" (chorus; verses are basically i-i-VII-VII)
- Green Day - "Holiday"
- Groove Coverage: "God is a Girl"
- Iyaz - "Replay"
- Joan Osborne - "One of Us"
- Kelly Clarkson - "Behind These Hazel Eyes"
- Kitsune^2 - "Avast Your Ass" (and the many, many remixes)
- Lady Gaga - "Poker Face" (chorus), "Heavy Metal Lover"
- Linkin Park - "Numb", "Crawling"
- MGMT - "Kids"
- Newsboys - "Spirit Thing"
- The Offspring seem to love this. They use it in "Gotta Get Away", "Self Esteem", "Have You Ever", "The Kids Aren't Alright", "All I Want", "Dammit, I Changed Again" and "You're Gonna Go Far Kid".
- O-Zone: "Dragostea Din Tei" (also known as the "Numa Numa Song"), sometimes starting phrases on the VI rather than the i.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Otherside" and "Don't Forget Me"
- Ricardo Autobahn - "Golden Age of Video"
- Sarah McLachlan - "Building a Mystery"
- Shakira - "She Wolf"
- Tim Minchin - "Canvas Bags"
- Timbaland ft. One Republic - "Apologize"
- Toto - "Africa"
- The Double Rainbow remix
- Panic! at the Disco - "I Write Sins Not Tragedies"
- Keith Urban — "Long Hot Summer" (verses)
- Humoresque Progression
- Doo Wop Progression
- Pat Benatar - "Hit Me With Your Best Shot"
- Boston - "More Than A Feeling" (the chorus)
- Liz Phair - "Why Can't I", intro
- Tracy Chapman - "Talkin' About A Revolution"
- Wiz Khalifa - "No Sleep"
- Fine Young Cannibals - "She Drives Me Crazy"
- B.O.B. featuring Rivers Cuomo - "Magic"
- The theme song from My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic
- Katy Perry - "California Gurls"
- Taio Cruz - "Dynamite"
- The Band Perry — "If I Die Young"
- Martina McBride — "Happy Girl" (verses)
- Rihanna - "Umbrella" (chorus)
- Marvin Gaye - "Sexual Healing"
- Link goes to the slow original, not the more well known Speedycake remix.